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07/05/08 12:40 AM ET
Punto, Young help Twins rout Tribe
Duo each drives in four to back Livan's latest quality start
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- Nick Punto has seen plenty of games where he's sparked the Twins with a big defensive play -- much like he did Wednesday in a victory over the Tigers.
But on Friday night, Punto's contributions were of the other variety. This time it was his bat that did most of the work. Punto delivered his first home run in over a year and tallied four RBIs in the Twins' 12-3 victory over Cleveland at the Metrodome.
Without second baseman Alexi Casilla, who was a late scratch with a sore left middle finger, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had to mix up his lineup once again. That meant moving Punto from his original shortstop position to second base and slotting him in Casilla's usual No. 2 spot in the order.
It certainly paid off.
"That was a great managing move," Gardenhire said with a laugh.
On the country's Independence Day, where fireworks reign freely, there was even a fair share of sparks flying inside the Metrodome -- mostly from the bats of the Twins.
The Twins tallied a total of 15 hits and saw a number of hitters emerge offensively -- including left fielder Delmon Young. Like Punto, Young delivered a season-high four RBIs as part of a 3-for-5 performance at the plate. He scored three runs, including one on his third home run of the season, a three-run shot in the third inning off Indians starter Paul Byrd.
While there was plenty of offense to be had on Friday night, it was Punto's solo home run in the bottom of the first that got things started.
His 405-foot blast to right-center field was his first homer since June 6, 2007 at Angel Stadium -- a span of 356 at-bats between home runs.
"It's been awhile," Punto said. "It felt good."
The Twins added one run in the second inning before Twins starter Livan Hernandez allowed the game to be knotted up at 2 in the top of the third. On an 0-1 pitch from Hernandez, Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach hit a two-run blast to left field.
But Young's homer would put the Twins on top for good in the bottom of the third.
With two outs in the inning, Justin Morneau drew a walk and Jason Kubel followed with a double to right field to put runners on second and third. Young then came to the plate, and on a 1-1 pitch from Byrd, he delivered a shot into the left-field seats to give the Twins a 5-2 lead.
"I was just looking for a good pitch to hit to drive in a run," Young said of the homer. "You never know when this Cleveland offense is going to explode, so you've got to try to put up as many runs as you can."
"Last year was a nightmare for [Punto]. He battled and he tried everything. And coming back this year, he struggled through [Spring Training]. But he's been putting a lot of good swings on [the ball]. ... It's nice to see. It's good to see a smile on his face."
-- manager Ron Gardenhire
Hernandez had found plenty of trouble in his first career start against the Indians last month, delivering his worst outing of the season. In that start, he had allowed seven runs on 12 hits over just three innings. After that game, Hernandez was upset with himself and vowed things would change the next time.
That's exactly what happened on Friday, as Hernandez held the Indians to just three runs over his six innings. In addition to Shoppach's two-run homer, Hernandez allowed one more long ball in the sixth inning on Ben Francisco's leadoff shot.
"You have to do adjustments and see what the guy is hitting and [then], when I face them again, try to change it again and try to do something different," Hernandez said. "That's baseball. You have a bad game one day and face them the next time and you get a chance to win. It happened today."
Following Francisco's homer, Hernandez (9-5) did get himself into a slight jam in that sixth inning. He gave up a Jhonny Peralta double to left field before walking Shin-Soo Choo to put the then-tying run on base without any outs. But Hernandez said he walked Choo because he wanted to face Casey Blake. The plan worked. Hernandez got Blake to strike out looking and then recorded two straight outs to finish off his outing.
From there, the Twins would burst open the doors offensively. Brendan Harris added one run in the sixth on an RBI single to center. Morneau and Young each tallied an RBI in the seventh. And with the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth, Punto delivered a three-run double to left field to complete his big night.
Coming off the most disappointing offensive season of his career in 2007, Punto has once again started to be a hitter that the Twins can count upon. Despite missing a total of 35 games so far this season due to a strained left hamstring, Punto has not seen that time off affect his bat. He's batting .289 with 13 RBIs in 29 games.
"Last year was a nightmare for him," Gardenhire said. "He battled and he tried everything. And coming back this year, he struggled through [Spring Training]. But he's been putting a lot of good swings on [the ball]. ... It's nice to see. It's good to see a smile on his face."
Smiles and laughs have been easy to come by in the Twins' clubhouse. It's no surprise for a team that's had its share of success lately, winning 16 of its last 19 games.
And following a loss by the White Sox to Oakland on Friday, the Twins are now just a game back of first-place Chicago in the American League Central.
"We're playing good baseball," Punto said. "Things are going well. We're pitching well and hitting well. That's a good combination to win."