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Updated: July 16th, 2010 10:21pm
Francisco Liriano bounces back, Jesse Crain bails out Jon Rauch in 7-4 win

Francisco Liriano bounces back, Jesse Crain bails out Jon Rauch in 7-4 win

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Francisco Liriano found himself in another first-inning jam on Friday night.

Alexei Ramirez on second. Paul Konerko on first after a two-out walk. Andruw Jones at the plate, with a chance to provide Liriano's latest letdown in the opening frame.

But this time, Liriano didn't get overly excited or try to overpower anyone. He threw four straight off-speed pitches, got Jones to wave at an 0-2 slider and then cruised for most of 7 2/3 innings in a 7-4 triumph over the surprisingly sloppy Chicago White Sox at Target Field.

"His last couple starts, he had sped up and was overthrowing the ball," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He stayed within himself (against Jones) and made the pitches when he had to."

It was Liriano's longest outing and first victorious decision since June 11 against Atlanta -- not to mention a welcome (and overdue) performance for the Twins' slumping rotation.

The left-hander allowed two runs on six hits and struck out eight with two walks before departing with a 4-2 lead and the sellout crowd of 40,427 on its feet.

"I got through the first and the second inning -- that's when I've gotten in trouble," Liriano said. "Just trying to hit my spots, get ahead in the count, throw my first-pitch strikes and then we go from there."

The Twins' ace for the season's first two months, Liriano entered with a 6.88 earned-run average in the first inning and had allowed multiple first-inning runs in three of his previous five starts, in which he was 0-4 with a 6.75 ERA.

His only blemishes on Friday came in the fifth inning, when Gordon Beckham ripped a two-out double and scored on Juan Pierre's RBI single; and in the eighth, when Alex Rios reached on a wild-pitch strikeout and Konerko doubled him home, ending Liriano's night. Matt Guerrier came on and got Jones to ground into the third out, keeping the Twins (47-43) ahead by two.

An errant throw by Chicago reliever Tony Pena -- the White Sox's fourth error -- on Nick Punto's sacrifice bunt opened the door for the Twins to score three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth on a two-run single by Joe Mauer and single by Michael Cuddyer.

And the Twins needed them, thanks to a shaky outing by closer Jon Rauch, who walked three, allowed two runs and the left bases full with one out in the ninth before Jesse Crain got Rios to fly out to center and Konerko to strike out swinging.

"Let's call it post-All-Star break syndrome, and that's what (Rauch) had tonight," Gardenhire said. "You can print that -- that he just had the syndrome and he's just couldn't throw it over, and he said he couldn't figure it out on the mound. So, we'll give him a rain check and let him come back out there (Saturday) and get the save."

Crain, on the other hand, needed only four pitches -- all strikes -- to get two outs and his first save since Sept. 2, 2006, when he got one out in a weather-shortened game at Yankee Stadium.

Since struggling to the verge of demotion in mid-May, Crain has allowed no earned runs in 21 of his past 22 appearances, posting a 0.86 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 21 innings.

"I knew they were going to be aggressive and swinging early, so I just tried to make the best pitches I could at that time," Crain said. "I've been focusing on not who's coming up to bat, but just focusing on what I need to do and what I can control, and I can control trying to make a good pitch.

The win pulled the Twins back within 3½ games of Chicago (50-39), which had won nine in a row and 26 of 31 and two games behind Detroit, which lost to Cleveland 8-2.

The game was scoreless until the Twins broke things open in a wild bottom of the fourth inning. Jason Kubel led off with a single, Jim Thome drew a one-out walk and Delmon Young ripped a hard grounder third baseman Dayan Viciedo couldn't handle to load the bases.

J.J. Hardy ripped a single through the box to score Kubel. Then, after Punto struck out, Denard Span hit a bouncer second baseman Gordon Beckham tried to barehand on five hops -- but instead batted it past Konerko, allowing Thome and Young to score. Orlando Hudson's RBI single made it 4-0, and the Twins never relinquished control.

Now, they'll Twins send Pavano (10-6, 3.58 ERA) to the mound on Saturday against Chicago left-hander Mark Buehrle (8-7, 4.27) with a chance to secure at least a split in this key division series.

"We need to get going," Gardenhire said. "We need to get on the right track. We've kind of floundered here for about a month, just not playing our kind of baseball, not doing really anything, and we need to get going."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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