The Twins had to face some exceedingly tough pitching in this series, beginning with Jeff Niemann. With runs tough to come by, it was crucial to cash in on scoring opportunities. The Twins did enough of that, it seemed. They managed just 6 H off Niemann in 6.2 IP, but bunched 4 of them in the 2nd for 2 R, including another 2-out RBI H from Delmon Young. He connected in the 7th for his 9th HR, giving the Twins 5 of their 8 baserunners off the starter in the 2 innings in which they scored. In the 8th, they used a leadoff 2B and 2 deep fly balls to plate a 4th R, and took a lead into the 9th inning.
Against such tough competition, run prevention was just as critical, and that's where the Twins faltered a bit. Carl Pavano pitched well, but he wasn't able to complete the 7th, thanks to back-to-back grueling innings in the 4th and 5th. Young nailed a runner at the plate to limit the damage in the 4th to 1 R. In the 5th, all the trouble came with 2 outs. The inning was prolonged when the IF failed to get the final out on consecutive grounders. The first was fielded by Justin Morneau, but Pavano was beaten to 1B by the super speedy Carl Crawford. The 2nd was a grounder almost right to Nick Punto at SS. He bobbled it just long enough to allow Evan Longoria to beat his throw, and a run scored.
That was key play of the game. The extra out the Twins gave the Rays enabled them to send All-Stars Crawford and Longoria to the plate with 2 outs in the 9th. The extra run the Twins gave them enabled them to tie the game, rather than merely cutting the lead in half. The 10th inning wasn't very important to me, other than that it provided further evidence that Matt Guerrier is in one of his slumps. And that 3B umpire Alfonso Marquez is on drugs.
Twins 2, Rays 1
On Friday night the Twins faced David Price, who came into the series leading the league in wins and ERA. They needed good Scott Baker to show up. Crawford and Longoria once again combined for a run in the 1st. But after that Baker was wonderfully stingy, allowing just 4 more H, 0 BB, and 8 K through 7 IP.
Though he walked 3, Price had allowed just 1 H through his first 6.2 IP. A lot of that is a credit to the Rays' athletic defenders, who made a handful of fine plays to take hits away from the Twins. Then, suddenly, in a span of 4 pitches, Jason Kubel, Young and Danny Valencia ripped base hits, and the Twins were on top 2-1. The Rays responded with threats in the 8th and 9th, but Brian Duensing, Jesse Crain and Jon Rauch held them scoreless.
Twins 6, Rays 8
This was the matchup that seemed to favor the Twins, with Francisco Liriano starting against Wade Davis, a highly touted rookie who was having his struggles. Liriano delivered on his end, shutting the Rays down for 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB and 10 K. The only run against him scored when, with a runner a 3rd, Crawford once again blazed his way aboard with a little swinging bunt single. One of the other hits Liriano gave up didn't reach the OF, either. One of these days, all of the grounders he induces will be converted into outs, and that will be a quick game.
On the offensive side, the Twins were all over Davis. He was rocked for 8 H (6 for extra bases), 4 ER, 3 HR and only 1 K in 4.1 IP. 2 of the HR came from Jim Thome, moving him ahead of Harmon Killebrew in career HR. There was a video message from the Killer, a couple of curtain calls for Thome. The game was under control, and it was the Twins' day.
Liriano came out after throwing 103 pitches, a slightly conservative move, but it was a hot, muggy day. Alex Burnett came in and got Jason Bartlett to hit a fly ball to RF that Cuddyer, who had just that minute been moved from 3B, let hit off his glove for a 2B. That should have been one out. Then Sean Rodriguez legged out an IF H on a slow chopper to SS. Jose Mijares came in and allowed a ground-rule double to Crawford, a ball that just landed fair down the LF line. Gardy went to Guerrier, whose first 2 pitches were raked for RBI H. In a span of 6 pitches, 3 relievers had undone Liriano's good work. Eventually, with the bases loaded and 2 out, PH Matt Joyce's deep fly to CF carried just over the fence. Span wasn't able to jump for it, because he collided with the wall. Catchable? Perhaps. But the ball that Cuddyer dropped certainly was. That extra out turned a 2 run rally into 7, and turned a comfortable win into shocking defeat.
Twins 4, Rays 7
The matchup, James Shields vs. Nick Blackburn, clearly favored the Rays. The teams traded runs in the 1st inning, but then both pitchers settled down. The only other run through 6 IP came on a solo HR from Rodriguez in the 3rd. For Blackburn, it was as fine a performance as he ever makes: 6 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, HR, 1 BB, 3 K, with more grounders than flies. He broke down in the 7th, though. The first 2 batters singled, prompting a sac bunt from #9 hitter Jason Bartlett. Blackburn threw wildly to first, bringing in a run and putting 2 in scoring position with nobody out. He held the runners when he got Rodriguez to ground out, intentionally walked Crawford, then was knocked out when Longoria delivered a 2-run single. Duensing got the 1st guy he faced, but yielded a 2-out, PH 2B from Gabe Kabler. The extra out Blackburn gave away cost him 3 unearned runs.
The Twins responded immediately, putting the 1st 4 hitters in the bottom half on base to knock Shields from the game, then greeting reliever Grant Balfour with an RBI single from Young to make it 7-4 and bring the tying run to the plate. But the Rays bullpen retired the next 8 Twins rather easily, and there was no more scoring. The margin of defeat came from the 3 unearned runs.
This will go down as another failure by the Twins to compete with one of the elite AL East clubs. The athleticism of the Rays was on display, as their speed throughout the lineup not only produced multiple IF H, it took a bunch of would-be hits away from the Twins, especially in the OF. The Twins used to be a team that could out-run and out-hustle just about anybody. That's not the case this year.
But did the Twins compete? Absolutely. They were in every game for at least 7 innings, and every game had to be saved. Compare the starters:
Twins: 26.2 IP, 26 H, 8 ER, HR, 5 BB and 25 K, 2.70 ERA and 1.16 WHIP.
Rays: 24.2 IP, 26 H, 13 ER, 4 HR, 7 BB and 14 K, 4.74 ERA and 1.34 WHIP.
Clearly, the Twins had the edge there. The bullpen had a bad series, but they've been, on the whole, one of the best units in the league. Sure, the Twins can play with the Rays.
The series hinged on the ability of the Rays to get from the plate to 1B in a hurry, and on the inability of the Twins to make all the plays they're supposed to make. The Twins we saw in April, the team that made only a couple of mistakes in the field over an entire month, would have won the first 3 games of this series and had an opportunity to sweep it in extras on Sunday. I want to see that team again.