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Twins walk off on Valencia’s single in 10th

April 13, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — Off the bat, there was no doubt that it was gone. Jason Kubel had crushed a 3-1 pitch deep into the seats in right field for the Twins walk-off victory.

“I thought Kubel’s was going to be in the upper deck,” said Twins third baseman Danny Valencia, who eventually beat the Royals, 4-3, with a walk-off single in the 10th inning on Tuesday. “Honestly, he crushed it.”

But this is Target Field, and the wind was blowing in. So a sure upper-deck home run turned into a long fly out to the warning track. That is, until Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur dropped it. Then it was a race to second and third base to avoid a forceout.

Baseball can be crazy like that sometimes.

“I thought it was going to be a home run off the bat, so I get halfway out there and I see Francoeur’s about to catch it, and he does catch it, so then we run back to the bag,” said right fielder Michael Cuddyer, who was on first with Kubel at the plate.

“Then he drops it, so then you’ve got to go, and it was just a crazy play. Fortunately, I was able to beat the throw by a half a step.”

The question is, what part of the play is craziest?

Is it that Kubel hit the ball hard enough to reach the upper deck and ended up with a single due to the wind and size of the ballpark, or is that Francoeur caught what should have been a home run, only to drop it and complicate things even further?

“I caught it. It was in my glove,” Francoeur said. “I didn’t think I had a chance and I started running it down and kept going. I caught it and it was in my glove and then I hit the wall and it just kind of popped out. I just couldn’t hang on. That was the frustrating part.”

Once everything had been sorted out with that play, the game was still tied, and Valencia was at the plate. Behind 1-2 in the count, the third baseman drove a fastball away to the opposite field, driving in the run for the victory.

Valencia nearly cost the Twins the game an inning earlier after not being aggressive enough on the basepaths. On first after drawing a walk, Valencia advanced only one base on Jim Thome’s pinch-hit single with one out.

One batter later, Denard Span flew out deep to center field, and had Valencia advanced to third, he could have scored on a sacrifice fly for the win.

“He’s got to be on third base,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “There’s no doubt. He’s not the kind of guy I’ve got to start pinch-running for, he’s got to run for himself.

“He has to be aggressive on the bases, and he needed to get to third base on that play, there’s no doubt. And he knows that, I told him.”

Of course, none of that would have mattered had it not been for the impressive performance of the Twins’ bullpen.

In the offseason, one of the Twins’ biggest question marks was whether the bullpen would be deep enough after several relievers left Minnesota through free agency. That answer, through 10 games, has been a resounding ‘yes.’

After an ugly start to the seventh inning had the Twins on the verge of letting the game get out of hand quickly, the bullpen came in and slammed the door shut long enough for the offense to pull out the win.

“Our bullpen did a great job tonight,” Valencia said. “An unbelievable job.”

Everything was going well early on for the Twins. They had a lead, they had scored runs early in the ballgame, and one of their best hitters, Cuddyer, finally broke out of his season-opening slump with a 4-for-4 night.

Then the seventh inning happened. Things went wrong in a hurry for Minnesota in the frame, but some impressive pitching from Jose Mijares and Matt Capps kept things from getting out of control.

“The bottom line is, I’ve got to get the guy at the plate out,” Capps said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

A seemingly harmless grounder to third turned into an infield single after Valencia’s throw went wide of first base. The sacrifice bunt that followed became a two-base error as left-hander Brian Duensing airmailed Justin Morneau at first base.

Then, a hard grounder up the middle, which glanced off the hand and leg of Duensing, tied the game. As he left, the starter was more worried about his poor throw to first than the pain from the hard grounder back to the mound.

“I was really upset with myself because of the airmail that I did to first base,” Duensing said. “But I put the team in a situation that could’ve cost us the ballgame, and for Mijares and Capps to come in and shut the door like they did, it does nothing but fire you up.”

With the game tied, runners on the corners and none out, Duensing was pulled in favor of Mijares, who promptly struck out left fielder Alex Gordon. That was all for Mijares, as Capps entered and got Billy Butler to pop out to short before striking out Francoeur looking.

Capps pitched 1 2/3 innings and did not allow a hit, Joe Nathan pitched a perfect ninth, and Dusty Hughes finished things off with a clean 10th for the win over his former club. Twins relievers retired the last 12 batters of the game.

“A hard-fought game,” Gardenhire said. “Our bullpen did a super job coming in and getting us out of it.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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