Francisco Liriano threw seven stolid innings and the Minnesota Twins strung together key hits from weak-hitting players to defeat the San Diego Padres 5-4 on Sunday. It was an exciting ending to a three game sweep over the Friars, and the seventh Minnesota victory in a row.
More importantly, that victory combined with a 5-4 Kansas City loss against in-state rival St. Louis to boost the Twins out of the American League Central Division’s basement. To be sure, they still have a foot on the steps, with only a single game keeping them ahead of the Royals for the worst record in the division (and the American League). But the climb up to the top floor looks a lot shorter than it did a few weeks ago.
The Twins’ stint at the bottom of the pack started with a 2-1 extra inning loss at Boston on May 9th. That loss was the third of a nine game losing streak that caused many baseball followers to wonder if the Twins’ season was already over. But the true low point did not come until June 1st. A 4-2 loss against Detroit left the Twins 16.5 games behind the division leading Indians – and a stunning 7.5 games away from Kansas City for fourth place. That the Twins’ current 14-2 run has allowed them to make up 8.5 games on the Royals is barely short of miraculous.
Starting pitching has been the biggest key to Minnesota’s success, and on SundayLiriano delivered yet another strong start. He gave up three runs and struck out eight for the Twins’ sixth quality start in a row. After whiffing six batters and holding the Padres hitless for the first three innings, Liriano ran into a little trouble in the fourth and fifth. He gave up a run on three hits in the fourth and two runs on four hits in the fifth. All of the hits were singles, though, and most of them were not hard hit. With a little more luck, Liriano could have avoided the big fifth inning.
While Liriano was a bit unlucky, the team’s hitters seemed to have horseshoes strategically hidden in some part of their anatomies. At least on Sunday, the team benefitted from four key hits from strange sources. The first came when Alexi Casilla smashed a long home run to right field in the first inning. Casilla has been on a roll lately, hitting .333/.400/.397 over the first 18 days of June, but the power display was truly out of character for the diminuitive middle infielder.
In the seventh inning, trailing 3-2, manager Ron Gardenhire sent Rene Tosoni, owner of a .171 batting average, to pinch hit for Rene Rivera. Tosoni battled through a long at bat and then lined a double to right, scoring Luke Hughes to tie the game. The next batter, Matt Tolbert, entered the game with a .193 average. He also doubled to give the Twins the lead. What made these clutch hits even more remarkable is the fact that they came off Padre reliever Mike Adams, who had been all but unhittable this year. Adams entered the game with a 1.17 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 30 innings against only 15 hits allowed.
In the 9th inning, after the Padres tied the score, the Twins got another unlikely hit to win the game. Catcher Drew Butera, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement, singled off the glove of third baseman Chase Headley to score Delmon Young for the walk-off win. Since May 24th, when a certain online writer sarcastically challenged Butera to break the all-time record for lowest batting average, Butera has improved his average from .115 to .176. In that time, he is hitting .303 (10 for 33) with four doubles, a home run, and six RBI (that writer would like to personally take credit for inspiring Butera’s turnaround, but fears that most people would not believe him).
If hitters like Casilla, Tosoni, Tolbert, and Butera can keep collecting key hits until the imminent return of the Twins’ big bats – Jim Thome, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span – it might be a long time before the team returns to the basement. Let’s hope that they close and lock the cellar door on the way up.