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06/05/08 8:24 PM ET
Besides loss, Twins get tough break
Punto injured in series finale as Minnesota falls to Baltimore
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was already fretting about how Minnesota would make it through Thursday's game against the Orioles having just three players on the bench. The problem was that he really had only 8 1/2 players on the field for the Twins' 3-2 loss to the Orioles on Thursday afternoon after Nick Punto reaggravated his strained left hamstring during the game. Despite the injury, Gardenhire said that Punto had to keep playing because of the Twins' limited bench. "I couldn't do much about it. I had to leave him out there," Gardenhire said. "With only one infielder on the bench, he had to play through it. He was limping around pretty bad, but I had no choice." Playing through the injury didn't seem to be much of a problem for Punto. He doubled twice and drew a walk, going 2-for-3 with one run scored. It was one of his better performances at the plate, and he looked to be playing some of his best baseball since the 2006 season. But at a time when the Twins have gone to 13 pitchers on their roster for the first time in Gardenhire's tenure, the team can't afford to wait a few days for Punto's injury to heal. So after the game, Minnesota placed Punto back on the 15-day disabled list and recalled infielder Matt Macri from Triple-A Rochester, just one day after he was sent down. Although Macri didn't spend the mandatory 10-day waiting period between callups, Gardenhire said the Twins contacted Major League Baseball and got permission for the move. For Punto, it's another setback that comes at a time when he's finally feeling good at the plate. "It might have been something I could nurse through and try to play at an 85 percent clip, but he doesn't want me to do that. And I understand that," Punto said. "He's probably looking out for my best interest. On the other hand, it's really frustrating, because I was feeling great playing baseball right now." Punto said the only time that he feels the leg is when he's running at full speed. But it was the infielder's limited running ability on the basepaths on Thursday that seemed to be the biggest hindrance for Minnesota. After the Twins had fallen behind one run in the top of the seventh when reliever Brian Bass gave up a solo homer to Orioles center fielder Adam Jones to make it a 3-2 game, Punto drew a one-out walk in the bottom of the inning. The infielder was on first base when Carlos Gomez hit a ball to deep center field. Instead of using his normally fast speed to advance to third, Punto moved gingerly around the basepaths and stopped at second. That, Gardenhire said, was an example of why the Twins can't let Punto try to push through this injury. "We had a chance to tie the ballgame up if he gets [to third], but he doesn't because he can't run," Gardenhire said. "We can't play like that, he can't play like that and he knows it." In spite of the injury concern, the Twins still managed to be very much in the ballgame for most of Thursday afternoon. Twins starter Scott Baker labored in his return to the rotation, pitching just five innings while throwing 99 pitches. But he gave up just two runs on five hits over that span, with both runs coming on a two-run homer by Nick Markakis in the third. In a nine-pitch at-bat with the Orioles right fielder, Baker left the final pitch up which Markakis belted 391 feet to right field. "He was just a little bit rusty in the strike zone," catcher Mike Redmond said of Baker. "He'd get ahead, and then throw some balls up in the zone and guys would foul them off. That's why his pitch count got up a little higher than usual. I thought he pitched fine. It was just a little bit of rust there." Despite Baker's one mistake and the injury problems, the Twins were tied with the Orioles after five frames. Minnesota had taken an early lead off Orioles starter Garrett Olson in the first on Redmond's RBI double to right. The club then knotted the game up at 2 in the fifth on Alexi Casilla's two-out single to left that scored Punto from second base. But the lack of players caught up to the Twins later in the game and led to some creative maneuvering by Gardenhire in the eighth. After Redmond led off the inning with a single to right, putting the tying run on base, Gardenhire decided to pinch-run for the catcher. Unexpectedly, pitcher Kevin Slowey was sent out to first base. Knowing that he wanted to use Jason Kubel and Joe Mauer as pinch-hitting options and with only one infielder on the bench, Gardenhire said a pitcher was his only choice to run. And even those were limited. Baker, of course, was not an option, and Nick Blackburn was set to start Friday's game in Chicago. Gardenhire joked that he thought Slowey was faster than Livan Hernandez. And Slowey said that lefty Glen Perkins has been drilled in the left leg by a foul ball in the third inning. "I kind of felt like I was the last man standing," Slowey said with a laugh. Despite his inexperience on the basepaths, Slowey would move to second on Kubel's two-out, pinch-hit up the middle. But that was as far as the tying run would advance. Mauer grounded out to second base, and the Twins' chances of a rally were stalled. The injuries appear like they have taken their toll on the Twins -- as well as Minnesota's position of having to keep 13 pitchers on its staff currently. But the team isn't ready to use any of it as an excuse. "If we keep grinding it out like we are doing, we are going to be fine," Redmond said. "We will be in a lot of games and that's what you want to be. It was a matter today of coming up with that big hit. A lot of times we get it, and we've gotten it lately. Unfortunately today, we just didn't get them."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.