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Liriano scuffles as Twins drop finale

July 24, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins starter Francisco Liriano clearly did not have his best stuff on Sunday, and he could not find a way to battle through it.

Liriano was all over the place, walking four batters and throwing two wild pitches, as he lasted just 2 1/3 innings in giving up four earned runs on six hits in the Twins’ 5-2 loss to the Tigers.

“We were trying to get [Liriano] to just throw his fastball over the plate, and he really couldn’t find anything,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He was spinning off the ball. Hopefully, there will be better days ahead for him.”

The loss knocked the Twins back to seven games under .500 and seven games behind the first-place Tigers.

Coming into this 11-day homestand, the Twins had an opportunity to gain some ground on the leaders in the American League Central, with eight of their 12 games coming against the Indians and the Tigers.

“This homestand is not like earth-shattering or anything like that,” Michael Cuddyer said. “We’ve just got to go out and figure out a way to win on the road, starting tomorrow.”

For an inning, Liriano’s performance could have been labeled “effectively wild,” as he stranded two runners in the first without giving up a run. But in the second, the wildness caught up with him, as he spiked two sliders in the dirt.

The first wild pitch allowed Ryan Raburn to advance to second base, and the second bounced out of play, scoring Raburn from third.

“The day started off pretty good in the bullpen,” catcher Joe Mauer said. “Obviously, a little different once we got out there. I tried my best to try to settle him down a little bit. You know how hard he wants to give a good performance for the team, and we just weren’t able to get it done today.”

Liriano’s control continued to elude him in the third inning, and the Tigers consistly worked deep in the count before putting together four consecutive one-out singles to score three runs.

“We were fortunate Liriano didn’t have his command and got his pitches count up,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “I thought we did a really good job with him today, being patient.”

Despite notching just seven outs, Liriano threw 78 pitches, 43 for strikes, though just 29 of Liriano’s pitches were actually in the strike zone, according to PitchFX data.

“He’s just trying to do too much with it,” Mauer said. “I think when Frankie gets into trouble, he overthrows a little bit. When he’s nice and relaxed, I keep telling him, his ball moves a lot.

“I know he was frustrated with it, and we’re frustrated with the loss.”

In his previous outing, Liriano had control issues as well, but managed to get through six innings against the Indians with only one run allowed on four hits. He did walk four, hit a batter and throw a wild pitch, though, in that outing.

Liriano now has eight wild pitches on the season, tying him for fifth in the American League.

“He didn’t throw the ball over, it didn’t matter who was up there,” Gardenhire said. “The ball just was not going over the plate. I think at one point he threw a couple of strikes in a row, but I don’t think there were too many times that he did that. That’s a rough outing.”

Gardenhire was forced to call on his bullpen in the third inning, asking relievers to cover 6 2/3 innings, despite having already been overworked on the homestand. They performed as well as could have been expected, giving up just one run on one hit.

Anthony Swarzak allowed a run over 3 1/3 innings, while Chuck James tossed 1 1/3 scoreless frames. Alex Burnett and Matt Capps also tossed scoreless innings to close it out.

Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello effectively shut down the Twins’ offense for six innings, allowing just two runs on five hits with four strikeouts and a pair of walks. Both Twins runs came in the fourth inning, on an RBI groundout by Jim Thome and Delmon Young’s RBI double to left.

The Twins will not have much time to muse over the disappointing loss, as they head to Texas to begin an 10-game road trip against the American League West.

“It would’ve been nice to get a few more wins here at home, but we’ve still got a lot of games to go,” Mauer said. “We’ve got to play better.”

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

Longoria leads Rays’ power surge vs. Twins

July 6, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — All series, Evan Longoria kept hitting the ball hard, but right at someone.

When the hits finally started falling Wednesday afternoon — especially in key late-game situations — it made a big difference for Longoria and the Rays.

After scoring only two runs in the first two games of the series, the Rays put a dozen across in the finale against the Twins, including a four-run eighth inning and a three-run ninth for a 12-5 victory.

“We’ve been battling so far on this road trip,” Longoria said, “and to be able to come through with a hit like that — [which] kind of opened up the floodgates a little bit for us — it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Longoria singled to left in the eighth off Minnesota reliever Alex Burnett, driving in the go-ahead run for Tampa Bay. As if that wasn’t enough, he added a three-run home run in the ninth for good measure — his 11th of the season.

After picking up just three hits, one home run and four RBIs while batting .115 in his previous seven games, Longoria matched those hit, home run and RBI totals in the series finale against the Twins.

His reward for his performance? Sitting out the bottom of the ninth to rest his sore left foot as the Rays closed out the game.

“If he had not hit that home run, he would’ve had to go out in the ninth inning,” manager Joe Maddon said. “But he hit the home run and I got him off his feet.

“I kind of discussed it with him. I didn’t say, ‘If you hit a home run you’re coming out of the game,’ but it kind of worked out that way.”

Rays catcher Kelly Shoppach got the offense going with a two-run homer in the second, and second baseman Sean Rodriguez added another two-run blast in the eighth. Then, Longoria capped the scoring with his ninth-inning blast.

Between the first two home runs, Tampa Bay put two across in the fourth on two hits, two walks and a hit batter. It added another run in the fifth with a walk and two singles that knocked Twins starter Francisco Liriano out of the game.

Liriano went just 4 1/3 innings, giving up five runs on six hits, four walks, three hit batters and four strikeouts.

“He had no command of his fastball, none,” Maddon said of Liriano. “If we had just taken [pitches], we would’ve had a lot of walks, because we were chasing outside the zone. He was not attacking the zone at all.”

Rays leadoff hitter Johnny Damon was hit twice by Liriano — the second knocking him out of the game with a contusion on his left hand. Sam Fuld replaced Damon, going 2-for-3 with a walk.

X-rays on Damon’s hand came back negative, and he is considered day-to-day.

The 12 runs marked the fourth time this season Tampa Bay had reached double digits offensively, and the second time this year in six games at Target Field. Thanks to the breakout performance by the offense, the Rays overcame a less-than-stellar start by right-hander Wade Davis.

“I thought that it was probably some of the worst stuff that I’ve had all year,” Davis said. “But I battled through it … and it’s a good win for us.”

Davis went five innings, giving up four runs (three earned) on nine hits and three walks. He struck out just one batter.

In the crucial eighth inning, Fuld singled with one out and Ben Zobrist followed with a walk. Longoria then plated the go-ahead run with a single, and a safety squeeze scored Zobrist on a bunt by B.J. Upton.

Rodriguez made it a four-run game with his fourth home run of the season. All four runs in the eighth were allowed by reliever Alex Burnett, who took the loss.

“They have some really good hitters. They can do a lot of things,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “They can handle the bat and they have a couple guys who can pop it.”

After going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position during the first two games of the series, the Rays were 7-for-14 in those situations Wednesday.

Even with all the offense, though, Maddon was not satisfied with his team’s performance.

“You cannot let those opportunities slip,” Maddon said. “We made a lot of subtle mistakes today that we’ve got to do better with if we expect to go back [to the playoffs] — which we do. We were fortunate to get by today.”

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

Liriano can’t find groove vs. Crew

June 25, 2011 Comments off

MILWAUKEE — After an early lead, things got ugly in a hurry for the Twins on Saturday night, as they fell, 11-1, to the Brewers.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano seemed to be in control in the third, until former Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez turned on a 1-2 slider and put it into the seats in left field for a go-ahead two-run home run.

Despite entering the game batting just .210 on the season, Gomez improved his batting average to .370 (10-for-27) against his former team. He was not shy about enjoying the home run either, flipping the bat to the dirt and trotting slowly to first before speeding up the rest of the way.

“I know I hit it good,” Gomez said. “In the last four, five starts, I didn’t hit a base hit. My only base hit in the month was the pinch-hit double [on June 16 against the Cubs] so I felt really good and excited about this. They know it’s nothing personal, especially when I have my best friend on the mound.”

Gomez had a similar incident last season when the Twins and Brewers met at Target Field, as he admired a three-run blast late in a 15-3 loss, flipping his bat and hitting Joe Mauer behind the plate with it.

Even so, the Twins weren’t bothered by it.

“I had Go-Go, he’s a great kid,” Gardenhire said. “He plays at one speed and it doesn’t get under my skin at all. He’s a really cool kid and he’s just playing really hard. And he hustles all the time and he has a passion for the game. So, no, it doesn’t bother me a bit.”

Liriano admitted after the game that the pitch location may not have been the best against a hitter like Gomez.

“I don’t think it was the right pitch to throw to Gomez,” Liriano said. “He’s pulling everything, so, I think throwing that slider down and in is doing a favor to him.”

The home run by Gomez, his fifth of the season, sparked a big inning for the Brewers, who plated three more runs in the inning on three singles, two errors and a walk. Liriano would leave the game in the fourth, having allowed six runs (five earned) on eight hits in 3 2/3 innings of work.

Things only got worse for the Twins after Liriano left the game.

With two out in the fifth, Brewers shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt drove a 1-0 curveball from Anthony Swarzak to left, which was misjudged by Delmon Young, resulting in an inside-the-park home run. Young initially ran in on the ball before racing back to try and make the catch.

As Young stretched for the ball, he crashed into the left-field fence, with his right leg landing awkwardly at the bottom of the wall. Young was unable to get up, allowing Betancourt to score, and was helped onto a stretcher before being carted off the field with a right ankle sprain. X-rays taken at the ballpark on Young came back negative.

“I got my spike caught on the bottom of the scoreboard, the black ledge just sticks out,” Young said. “Instead of my foot missing it and just hitting the ground, it got caught in there, and the rest of my weight went into it.”

In the seventh and eight innings, the Brewers added four more runs for good measure, including a two-run home run by Prince Fielder off lefty reliever Phil Dumatrait and a solo shot by Corey Hart off Joe Nathan.

As the Twins struggled to keep the Brewers off the board, Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo kept the Twins offense off balance all night, allowing just one run on six hits over seven innings.

The Twins dropped their fourth straight game after winning eight in a row. They scored just one run for the third time in their last four, and they’ve averaged just 1 1/2 runs per game over that stretch.

“Not a good night for us,” Gardenhire said. “We had one bad inning early, we missed a couple of plays, and they banged it all over the place.”

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

Twins notebook, 6/18

June 18, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — When two runs allowed over six innings marks your team’s worst start in nearly a week, you know you must be doing something right.

One of the biggest keys to the Twins winning 12 of 14 games has been starting pitching. Since June 2, Twins starters entered Saturday having posted a 1.87 ERA, while allowing 20 earned runs in 96 1/3 innings with 61 strikeouts against 16 walks.

In the last time through the rotation, Twins starters averaged eight innings per start, including a pair of complete games by Scott Baker and Carl Pavano.

“Any time you have that working for you, it means you’re still in the games if your starter’s still in there late,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “You want to see your starters going deep into games, and that means you’re having those opportunities to win things. Normally when they’re out there the game’s a pretty good one.”

In the month of June, the Twins had a Major League-best 2.01 ERA through Friday night. Not only is their ERA the best, it’s a half-run better than the Phillies’ second-best mark of 2.52 and nearly 1 1/2 runs better than the Mariners (3.45), who rank second in the American League.

On their current homestand, Twins starters have gone 5-1 in the first seven games, with a 1.82 ERA over 63 innings pitched. The only disappointing start came against the Rangers last Saturday when lefty Brian Duensing gave up seven runs (three earned) on seven hits in two innings.

Duensing made up for it by holding the Padres to two runs over six innings Friday night.

“Our starters have all kind of adjusted to what they need to do,” Gardenhire said. “They’re throwing the ball very well. Hopefully it’ll continue.”

Not surprisingly, the starters’ success has coincided with much better performances out of the Twins’ bullpen this month as well. Before right-hander Alex Burnett gave up a three-run homer Friday night, the bullpen had allowed just three runs in 28 2/3 innings in June.

Even with those three runs added, the Twins bullpen has posted a 1.71 ERA in June. A common theme with both the rotation and bullpen has been a significant reduction in the number of walks issued lately compared with early in the season.

“More so than anything else, I think it’s just a concerted effort to throw the ball over the plate,” Gardenhire said. “They all know that working ahead in the count, and not walking people, it’s been proven that it’s been successful here, and pretty much everywhere else in baseball.”

Waiting game may have affected Liriano

June 12, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — On average, each half-inning on Sunday at Target Field lasted just under eight minutes. The bottom of the seventh took 29 minutes, 48 seconds.

Whether it played a part in breaking up Francisco Liriano’s no-hitter is up for debate, but it certainly didn’t seem to help.

“It didn’t bother me physically, but I started thinking too much about that no-hitter,” Liriano said after the Twins’ 6-1 win over the Rangers. “I tried to overthrow that inning and was trying to be too perfect. And I then [gave up] a hit when I got behind in the count.”

After an error by third baseman Luke Hughes broke up Liriano’s perfect game in the top of the seventh, the Twins lefty headed to the dugout needing six outs to complete his second no-hitter in 40 days.

Then the Twins’ offense came alive.

Leading off the seventh, Danny Valencia lined a single off the arm of Rangers starter Matt Harrison, knocking him out of the game. After the pitching change delayed the inning, reliever Mark Lowe was not quite as effective or efficient as Harrison had been.

As a result, Liriano sat in the dugout for nearly 30 minutes between pitches.

“It’s tough when you have one big long inning,” Valencia said. “It keeps him in, and it keeps him cooled off for a while. So I’m sure it’s frustrating, but no pitcher is obviously going to get mad about getting run support. At the same time, with what’s on the line for him from a personal standpoint, it’s probably something that’s not ideal in that situation.”

Lowe got Jason Repko to ground out, but an error on shortstop Elvis Andrus put Rene Rivera on first and brought Valencia home from second. Two batters later, Ben Revere struck out, but reached first on a wild pitch.

Alexi Casilla followed with a single to drive in Rivera, and Michael Cuddyer drove a three-run blast into the seats in right, putting the Twins up, 6-1, over the Rangers.

As the rally kept building, did the thought of getting Liriano back on the mound cross Cuddyer’s mind?

“[Heck] no. No, you score as many runs as you can, especially against a team like that,” Cuddyer said. “First and foremost you want to win. Obviously everyone wanted to see a no-hitter, everybody wanted to have that happen, but bottom line is, you want to win the game.”

After Cuddyer’s home run, the Twins kept hitting, though they did not plate anymore runs. Delmon Young and Hughes followed with singles before Valencia finally flied out to center field to get Liriano back on the mound.

When he got back out there, Liriano got to 3-0 on Adrian Beltre before giving up a single. A wild pitch and another single two batters later plated the Rangers’ only run.

“It’s almost like a rain delay there when you’re at 70-something pitches and you have to sit out for 30 minutes,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “We kept telling him he had to get up and move around. And not only did he have 70 pitches, he had a no-hitter, too.

“So we told him to move around, because it was a long inning. So we were worried when he went out there. His first few warmup pitches weren’t pretty. And his first few pitches were rushed out there.”

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

Twins notebook, 5/29

May 30, 2011 Comments off

Nathan’s soreness not unusual after surgery

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins reliever Joe Nathan got encouraging news on Sunday from Dr. David Altchek, who performed his Tommy John surgery last March.

After taking a look at the MRI of Nathan’s elbow, Altchek said what he saw was not unusual in the process of returning from the surgery.

“We talked to Dr. Altchek, who performed the surgery, and he said that’s a very common area for guys that have problems to get some inflammation and some soreness in that area,” Twins head trainer Rick McWane said. “That’s where they split the muscle to go in and perform the surgery, so [Nathan’s] got some scar tissue in there.”

McWane noted the MRI showed some inflammation in Nathan’s forearm, his flexor pronator and his flexor pronator tendon.

Unfortunately for Nathan, his aggressive rehab may have played a role in the setback. But it’s still not something the Twins are particularly concerned about.

“[Altchek] said particularly, guys that really work hard in their rehab, the ones that really get after it, which Joe did, are more susceptible to having this problem for some reason or another than guys that don’t,” McWane said. “He wasn’t overly concerned about it, and we’ll just have to take a few steps back and let it calm down.”

If Liriano is to start, must pitch ‘pen session next

MINNEAPOLIS — If lefty Francisco Liriano is to make his next start, the key date is Tuesday, when he’ll need to throw a bullpen session.

Liriano was scratched from his scheduled Saturday start with soreness in his left shoulder, and an MRI revealed inflammation but no structural damage, Twins head trainer Rick McWane said Saturday.

“Liriano is feeling a lot better today, he’s in there working out,” McWane said. “He understands and knows that he has to throw a bullpen on Tuesday if he’s going to make his next start.”

If Liriano cannot make his next start, Swarzak will get the nod once again, after tossing eight innings of one-hit shutout baseball Saturday night.

The Twins remain unsure of whether Liriano would go on the disabled list if he could not throw his bullpen Tuesday or make his next scheduled start.

“That’s up in the air, too,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “If he ends up missing it and he’s still sore and everything … it sounds like he’ll probably be able to go out there and throw. But if it comes up that he’s having issues out there, [the DL] would be something we would definitely think about. Back him off and just give him a couple weeks here to regroup.”

Designated hitter Jim Thome got a cortisone shot in his left shoulder after Saturday night’s 1-0 victory over the Angels, and was a game-time decision Sunday. McWane said Thome was pretty sore, but moving around before the game Sunday morning.

Lefty reliever Glen Perkins is still progressing, getting closer to taking the next step in his rehab.

“He played catch at 60 feet today without pain,” McWane said. “We’ll start him on a graduated throwing program during the next couple days.”

Zobrist’s eight RBIs propel Rays’ blowout

April 28, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — Ben Zobrist’s good week only got better on Thursday afternoon.

Entering Thursday’s Game 1, Zobrist had 15 RBIs for the season, eight of which had come in the Rays’ previous three games. With four hits, including a three-run home run, Zobrist put up a club-record eight RBIs in the first game of a day-night twin bill as the Rays rolled to a 15-3 victory over the Twins.

Zobrist’s eight RBIs broke the previous club record of seven, set by Carlos Pena in 2007.

“I did not know that,” Zobrist said of the record. “Any time you have that many RBIs, it’s because your teammates are getting on base for you.

“That’s a team thing, RBIs are.”

In the first inning, Zobrist helped the Rays get out to an early lead with an RBI single. In the sixth, he followed a pair of one-out singles with a three-run blast to right field for his sixth home run of the season.

Zobrist later added a pair of two-run doubles, in the seventh and in the ninth. With his performance, Zobrist was the first player in the Majors with eight or more RBIs in a game since Adam Lind did it for the Blue Jays on Aug. 31, 2009.

In his last four games, Zobrist has three home runs, and five homers in his last 11 games.

“He just came up at the right spots and didn’t miss,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon.

“Ben’s just not missing. He’s getting his opportunities, the at-bats have been working, and he’s done a great job with it.”

Of course, Zobrist was far from the only Rays player swinging the bat well. While the temperatures remained chilly at Target Field, the Rays’ bats stayed hot in a second straight easy win over Minnesota.

The first five batters did not get hits like they did Wednesday night, but the Rays got on the board early with a two-run first inning, and they didn’t stop there.

“Everybody kept having good quality at-bats,” Zobrist said. “We can be a very dangerous team up and down the lineup.”

Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn fared even worse than lefty Francisco Liriano did in the series opener, which was the opposite of what the Twins needed to open Thursday’s day-night doubleheader.

Blackburn lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs — five earned — on eight hits and four walks.

“I just couldn’t throw strikes,” Blackburn said. “Everything I was throwing was going in the dirt. It was just one of those days. It’s not very often I have to tell myself to the get the ball up.”

After the two-run first, Casey Kotchman belted a solo homer in the second. In the third, a walk, single and two Twins errors brought in two more runs for the Rays, and in the fourth, Blackburn surrendered two more runs on a walk, triple and two singles.

Just as they did in Wednesday’s 8-2 victory, the Rays kept hitting even after knocking the starter out of the game, scoring in six of the first seven innings.

“It was a pretty good day for us,” designated hitter Johnny Damon said. “Hopefully we can continue this.”

Damon extended his hit streak to 15 games with a second-inning single, also notching a triple, two walks, a stolen base and three runs scored. Matt Joyce went 3-for-4, with two walks, two runs scored and one RBI. B.J. Upton also went 3-for-4, walking twice, driving in a pair and scoring three runs.

Overshadowed a bit by the Rays’ 15-run outburst, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson delivered yet another quality performance by a Rays starter on the mound. Tossing 6 1/3 innings, Hellickson gave up three runs on seven hits with three strikeouts and one walk.

Hellickson, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, which is about a 3 1/2-hour drive from Target Field, picked up his second straight win in front of about 100 friends and family members, improving his record to 2-2 with a 4.31 ERA.

As much as he was impressed by Zobrist, Maddon really liked what he saw from his rookie right-hander.

“It starts with Hellickson for me,” Maddon said. “Jeremy came out, we got some runs, and he held them in check and permitted us to keep batting on.”

Hellickson appeared to run out of gas in the seventh inning, which his manager attributed to all the sitting the right-hander had to do during the top halves of innings.

When asked about it, Hellickson didn’t have a problem with the long innings in the dugout.

“I’ll take those all day, every day,” Hellickson said. “I’ll sit in there as long as they want to stay out and hit.”

It was a true team effort for the Rays, as seven different players scored at least one run and every starter except for Sam Fuld and Kelly Shoppach hit safely at least once.

With the win, the Rays improved to 12-3 since April 10, the best record in baseball over that stretch. Maddon also improved to 417-417 for his career, the first time he’s been at the .500 mark since 16 games into his first season with the club in 2006.

Right now, Maddon is very happy with the way his team is playing.

“The energy’s there, the want to is there, and that’s all you can ever ask for as a manager,” he said. “I really like the way we’re going about our games right now. And I really believe it’s going to stay.”

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