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Twins beat 4/12

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Hughes picks up win against former team

MINNEAPOLIS — Even after picking up his second career win Tuesday against his former team, Twins left-handed reliever Dusty Hughes insisted it was just another game.

“It’s great” Hughes said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any extra because it’s against the old team or anything like that. [But] it really is kind of neat to get to pitch against them.”

After spending seven years in the Kansas City Royals organization, Hughes was happy to see some familiar faces in town.

Some of his best friends remaining in the Royals’ clubhouse, whom he still spends time with when he can, include Mitch Maier, Mike Aviles, Billy Butler, Kanekoa Texeira and Joakim Soria. When he came in to pitch the 10th of the Twins’ 4-3 victory, Hughes retired the heart of the Royals’ lineup in order, including Butler, who batted second in the inning.

“You have to kind of put things behind you as far as that goes,” Hughes said. “It was kind of neat to get to face Billy Butler and [Alex] Gordon. But it’s just [like] any other game, you go out there to win a ballgame.

“I was going to try to keep us in it at that point. You just try and do anything you can to not give up any runs and give our team a chance. I was fortunate enough to do that tonight.”

Hughes needed just 12 pitches, and a spectacular diving grab of his own, to get out of the inning and send it to the bottom of the 10th.

Before the Twins decided to claim Hughes off waivers from the Royals this offseason, they consulted with the left-handed hitters in their lineup.

The consensus among them was that Hughes was a tough-to-hit, deceptive southpaw. To Hughes, hearing the respect his new teammates had for him meant a lot.

“I heard that a couple weeks ago,” Hughes said. “I didn’t know that in Spring Training at all, but yeah, that’s unbelievable to me because of just the whole repertoire of left-handed hitters they have here, starting with [Denard] Span and all the way down to [Jason] Kubel.

“It’s pretty flattering to know that if they asked any of those guys, for them to say, ‘He can pitch for us,’ it’s a confidence builder for me.”

Since struggling in his season debut April 1 at Toronto, Hughes has been exactly as advertised. In two innings of work against the Yankees, he allowed just two hits while striking out three batters. Against the A’s on Saturday at Target Field, Hughes retired each of the two batters he faced in the seventh with a strikeout.

Hughes has been an integral part of a surprisingly good Twins bullpen that many thought was the team’s biggest question mark heading into the 2011 season. Entering Tuesday, Minnesota was tied with Toronto for the third-lowest bullpen ERA in the American League at 3.00 over 27 innings. Twins relievers had allowed just 22 hits and held opponents to a .239 batting average.

“Somebody pointed out to me that we hadn’t given up a run for a while, and we obviously did the other day,” Hughes said. “So, I’ve got to get on that guy.

“But I think as a whole, we’ve got a really good group out there. We’re starting to really mesh well already and it’s getting good, it’s getting fun.”

Twins’ offense struggling out of the gate

MINNEAPOLIS — Last season, the Minnesota Twins ranked at or near the top of the Majors of most offensive statistical categories. Through nine games this season, they were at or near the bottom.

The 2010 Twins were second in the Majors in on-base percentage, seventh in slugging and third in batting average. Entering Tuesday, the Twins were 29th, 30th and 29th in the same categories. Thanks to those struggles, and surprise hot starts by the Indians and Royals, the Twins entered Tuesday night last in the American League Central standings.

As the Twins continued to struggle at the plate through their first home series, some boos could be heard from the crowd following disappointing groundouts or strikeouts.

“They just want us to get hits, that’s all,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We expect that. We want to get hits, and guys are trying really hard. And they’re good hitters, they’ve got the track record.”

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Minnesota entered Tuesday last in RBIs, driving in just 24 runs compared to the Reds, who lead the Majors with 62. The Twins also ranked last in total bases with 85, walks with 19, and home runs with three.

With an OPS of .554, the Twins are more than 300 points behind the Phillies, who lead at .865. One problem may be the Twins aren’t taking enough pitches, as they’ve seen only 1,209, which ranks last in the league and is 450 fewer than the Tigers have faced.

Whatever the issue may be, the Twins continue to say they’re not worried about it, and they expect the offense will come at some point.

“It’s way too early,” Gardenhire said. “Everybody wants to get off to a good start, obviously we haven’t. We’ve faced some really good pitching staffs early in the season.

“I feel pretty good about this group.”

Twins handing out too many free passes

MINNEAPOLIS — When the Twins mounted a three-run rally in the eighth inning Sunday, it was not enough because they had dug themselves into too deep of a hole.

It can be tough to win when your starter pitches just five innings and gives up four runs on seven hits, including two no-doubt home runs. That was the case Sunday, but the bigger issue so far this season has been the surprisingly high number of walks allowed.

After leading the Majors with the fewest walks allowed at 383 last season, the Twins have put 36 opposing hitters on base via the walk, the eighth-highest total in the league entering Tuesday.

Left-handed starter Francisco Liriano has especially struggled with walks, giving up eight through his first two starts of the season, both losses.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Liriano said. “We’re not the type of guys to go out there and walk a lot of people. I think we’re trying to do too much, trying to be too perfect.”

The A’s walked five times in their 5-3 victory over the Twins, including a crucial free pass in the sixth inning issued by reliver Jeff Manship. After relieving Scott Baker, Manship walked the first batter he faced, loading the bases.

Each of the next three batters drove in one run apiece. In his postgame press conference, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire acknowledged that walks were an issue, but did not think they were the reason for his team’s loss.

“Too many [walks]. I think that’s the one frustrating thing,” Gardenhire said. “We’re accustomed to throwing the ball over the plate and making them swing, and we’ve given way too many gifts out there.

“We’re just misfiring a little bit, but this shouldn’t be about our pitching. What did we give up, seven runs in this series? I think that was about it. So it’s really not about our pitching.”

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

Baker, Twins unable to solve A’s in finale

April 10, 2011 Comments off

MINNEAPOLIS — After a couple of pitchers’ duels in the first two games between the Twins and A’s, the bats finally came alive in Sunday’s series finale. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the Twins’ outburst came too late in a 5-3 loss.

The Twins hit the ball as well as they have all season, collecting 10 hits in the game, but aside from a big eighth inning, they were never able to string any hits together.

“They were spread out pretty thin,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve just got to get swinging better. It’s frustrating for the guys, but we kept battling, and at least we had a look in the last inning there.”

Jim Thome provided the highlight of the game for the Twins in the eighth, driving a 1-0 pitch from reliever Jerry Blevins out deep to center field for a two-run homer that cut the lead to 5-3. Estimated at 444 feet, the blast was the 590th of Thome’s career, and certainly one of the longest.

With the two RBI, Thome passed Harold Baines for 29th on baseball’s all-time list with 1,629 for his career. But it didn’t mean a whole lot to the left-handed slugger without the win.

“I wish it had tied the game,” Thome said. “You want to win the ballgame, that’s the most important thing.”

Even so, Thome’s teammates were impressed by the blast.

“It was a bomb,” said Michael Cuddyer, who played second base Sunday for the Twins. “I think I’ve seen two balls in BP go over the batter’s eye, and obviously that was the first one to go over in a game. The guy never ceases to amaze you, that’s for sure.”

While the Twins struggled to score runs in the first two games of the series, their pitching kept them in it, as Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn delivered strong performances against the A’s. On Sunday, right-hander Scott Baker didn’t quite get the job done, making the offensive struggles even more troublesome.

Baker (0-2) struggled to keep the ball in the park for the second straight outing, giving up four runs on seven hits over five-plus innings, including a pair of towering home runs.

Those struggles began in the fourth, when Baker surrendered a leadoff home run to A’s designated hitter Hideki Matsui. Baker looked to be back in control until Josh Willingham crushed a 2-2 pitch into the second deck in left field to lead off the sixth inning.

Ryan Sweeney and Mark Ellis followed with a single and double, respectively, prompting Gardenhire to go to his bullpen. Reliever Jeff Manship was not much better, however, as he walked the first batter he faced and gave up a sacrifice fly to center field before a Landon Powell double chased him from the game.

“It happens pretty quick,” Baker said of the game slipping away from him. “I was a couple pitches away from having a decent outing. Obviously, the line doesn’t look great, but I made some pitches when I needed to. I just fell a little short.”

The two teams had combined for just four runs through the first two games of the series at Target Field, with neither team collecting an RBI in Saturday’s game. On Sunday, the A’s put up four runs in the sixth inning alone on their way to taking the series from the Twins.

Baker was outdueled by A’s starter Brandon McCarthy, who was impressive over 7 1/3 innings of work. For the third straight game, the Twins simply could not manage much offense against the A’s starting pitching, as McCarthy struck out five batters while scattering nine hits and allowing two runs.

Oakland’s starters entered Sunday with the second-lowest ERA in baseball and the lowest in the American League at 2.47, having allowed just 15 earned runs over 54 2/3 innings. In the series, Twins hitter were kept off balance, as all three A’s starters used great breaking balls to get outs.

“All three of these guys dove the ball hard with their snapper and made it really tough on us,” Gardenhire said. “They showed some good control with their breaking balls and then located the fastball pretty decently. We saw that with all three pitchers we faced this series. It kind of made it tough on us. That’s a good staff over there, one of the better ones you’ll see.”

Aside from Thome’s eighth-inning homer, one of the few bright spots in the game for the Twins was the 3-for-4 performance by first baseman Justin Morneau. With a pair of bloop singles and a double, Morneau posted his first three-hit game since June 23, 2010, boosting his batting average from .185 to .258.

Even with 10 hits in the game, the Twins are hitting just .214 (63-for-295) for the season. Thome’s home run was the first for the Twins since April 3 at Toronto, breaking a 210-at-bat homerless streak.

After an off-day Monday, the Twins hope to use the late success they had in this game and build upon it to get the offense back on track.

“Sometimes you come one day and it all clicks in,” Thome said. “Next thing you know, you’re scoring runs earlier in the ballgame and winning some games. And that’s where we need to get back to. We’ve got a lot of good hitters. Our hitters, everybody’s very talented, we just need to get rockin’ and rollin’ here.”

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