As they have so often in recent weeks, the Twins set a terrific tone for this game in the 1st inning. Scott Baker retired the side in order on 3 grounders in the top half. Then the offense jumped all over John Danks in the bottom half. 5 of the first 7 batters got H, including a solo HR from Orlando Hudson and a 2-run 3B from Jason Kubel. Jim Thome knocked in Kubel with a 2-out single. For a White Sox team that came into the series struggling, a quick, 4-0 deficit had to be pretty dispiriting.
But as surely as the full moon summons the wolfman, an early crooked number brings out evil Scott Baker. It's always a good idea to get ahead of the hitters, but especially when you're pitching with a big lead, and double especially after your offense just put up a crooked number for you last inning. Evil Baker had no command at all. He started 8 of the next 10 PA with ball 1, and the Sox could wait for their pitch and tee off. The first 3 batters of the 2nd went HR, 2B, HR, and just like that, the Sox were back in the game. They would tie it in the 4th, then chase Baker in the 5th after a 4-pitch BB to Carlos Quentin, at which time I was actually happy to see Gardy hand the ball to Glen Perkins.
He, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain quickly restored order, allowing just 1 H over the next 3.1 IP. Delmon Young connected for a solo HR in the 5th, and the Twins had a 5-4 lead heading to the 9th. Matt Capps quickly proved that he really isn't any better than Jon Rauch, blowing his 2nd save of the month on a leadoff HR. That was followed by a couple of H and a sac bunt, forcing Gardy to IBB Alex Rios to set up a potential inning-ending DP from the Sox' best hitter, Paul Konerko. They got it, thanks to a wonderful short-hop scoop by Michael Cuddyer at 1B.
Rauch still isn't quite himself, either. He allowed 3 straight H with 1 out in the 10th, putting the Sox in front. They're unsettled at closer for the moment, with both Bobby Jenks and JJ Putz struggling of late. So they left in LHP Matt Thornton - at least to see if he could get the 2nd batter of the inning, Thome. Young led off with a single up the middle. Then Thome pounced on Thornton's 2nd pitch - a belt high fastball - and launched it 445 feet over the bleachers and onto Target Plaza. Ballgame.
3 straight games in which the Sox held a lead in the 8th inning or later. 3 straight losses. This one after they'd fought so hard to stay in the game, tie it, take the lead. And at the hands of the guy they chose not bring back, even for the tiny contract and modest bench role that the Twins promised him. That's got to be absolutely soul-crushing. Dontcha love it?
On the heels of that wrenching loss, the Twins once again put the Sox in a quick hole with a 2-run 1st. But, just as Baker did the night before, Francisco Liriano's poor control gave 3 R back to the Sox before an out had been recorded. He walked the 1st 2 batters on 12 pitches, fell behind Andruw Jones 2-0, then grooved a fastball that was deposited in the Twins' bullpen for a 3-R HR, the 1st Liriano has allowed since May, a span of about 96 IP. I suppose if one could remove that 3-batter lapse from the game, the balance of Liriano's night wouldn't have been too bad: 91 pitches to complete 5 IP with 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB and 5 K would have certainly gotten him out there to start the 6th. And, as is usually the case when he pitches, there was the IF hit on a play that only Juan Pierre could have beaten out, the consecutive grounders in the 5th that resulted in a run because they were too weakly hit to be turned into DPs. But the 4 BB continue a disturbing trend over his last few games: 12 BB in 15.1 IP over his 3 previous GS. It's tough to last longer than 5 IP when you're throwing that many balls. Hopefully, it's just a hiccup - this team can't afford to have Liriano revert to the erratic control he had last season.
The offense kept it up on Gavin Floyd, led by Joe Mauer's 4-H game. Since the All-Star break, he looks every bit as good as he was in 2009. He was in the middle of the rallies in the 1st and 3rd, and hit his 1st Target Field HR in the 5th to bring the Twins within 1 at 5-4. They knocked Floyd out in the 6th with a sequence of ground-rule 2B, BB, 2B, IF hit, SF, BB. The IF hit showed the desperation of the Sox, as SS Alexei Ramirez fielded the ball behind the pitcher's mound, then contorted wildly in an attempt to nail the go-ahead run at the plate. His throw was nowhere close.
The Sox kept fighting, touching Capps for a run in the 9th, but this time he had a 2-run cushion, and the Twins were able to hold on. Whatever the outcome on Thursday, the Twins were assured of another series win over the Sox, and an extended lead in the AL Central standings.
I love it when they win the 1st two games of a series, because it lets me divest myself emotionally of the 3rd game. Yeah, a sweep would be awesome, but just winning series is all you really have to do. So let's not dwell on this one too much. I don't think Pavano was awful so much as it was one of those nights that every baseball team endures a couple of times a season: the night when everything they put in play falls in.
Let me distill it to this: in the 7th, Drew Butera had a marvelous AB, fouling off several 2-strike pitches. One of those was a liner down the LF that landed just foul, an inch or two away from being a 2-run 2B. He ultimately popped out to end the inning. In the next half inning, Konerko, charmed with a 5-H game, ripped a ball down the LF line just fair for a 2-run 2B. Why was his fair but Butera's foul? Just one of those nights. Shrug.
In some ways, the Sox' emphatic win in the series finale could add to their frustration. Remember last spring, when the Twins dropped the first 6 games of their road trip in agonizing fashion, then concluded the trip with a 20-1 drubbing of the Sox? That was certainly cathartic. It was nice to be able to say they had actually outscored their opponents on the trip. But it was small consolation for going 1-6, and especially for proving once again that they weren't quite good enough to beat the Yankees. The Twins' recent dominance over the Sox isn't on that level, but it should be significant in the eyes of that team and its fans. The Twins lost a lot of close games to the Yankees and Rays this season, evidence that they can play with those teams, but, in the end, aren't quite good enough to win more than they lose. That is the same as the Sox-Twins relationship. The Twins have a 10-5 edge in the season series. 7 of those Twins wins have come by 1 run. Should that make the Sox faithful hopeful or glum? For me, it confirms what I've suspected since the teams' rosters were constructed in the offseason: the Sox are the 2nd-best team in the division.