Josh Willingham's eighth-inning homer lifts Twins over Pirates
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PITTSBURGH - Josh Willingham hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning and the Minnesota Twins scratched past the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 on Wednesday night.
Willingham took a fastball from Jason Grilli (1-2) over the wall in left field for his 14th homer of the season to break a tie as the Twins won for just the second time in their last seven games.
Glen Perkins pitched the ninth for his first save in place of Jared Burton (1-0) picked up the win in relief of starter Francisco Liriano, who pitched arguably his best game of the season, giving up one run and four hits in 6 2-3 innings. The left-hander struck out six and walked two.
Pittsburgh's Erik Bedard overcame a shaky start to surrender one run over six innings but was long gone by the time Willingham notched the first homer given up by Grilli since April 17.
The Pirates, who lost for just the second time in their last 11 games at PNC Park, have surged into contention in the NL Central behind a resurgent offense that began the night third in the National League in runs this month. They looked like the team that slumped through April and May against Liriano, who looked for a night like the pitcher who baffled the Pirates during his only other start at PNC Park six years ago.
Liriano scattered five hits and struck out 11 against no walks on June 16, 2006, a performance that came in the midst of a season in which he went 12-3 and made the All-Star team before blowing out his left elbow at the end of the year.
He has showed only flashes of brilliance in the interim and pitched so badly at the beginning of the season he spent some time in the bullpen in May before returning to the starting rotation on May 30.
Though Liriano's stuff wasn't electric against the Pirates, it was efficient. He breezed through the first five innings and didn't get a three-ball count on any batter until he intentionally walked Andrew McCutchen with two outs in the sixth. Not bad for a pitcher who was averaging 5.4 walks per nine innings coming in.
Liriano finally tired in the seventh, drilling Pedro Alvarez with one out then giving up a single to Clint Barmes and walking Mike McKenry to load the bases. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire stayed with him and Liriano escaped major damage - barely - when Denard Span tracked down pinch-hitter Rod Barajas' sinking liner to center field. Span made a spectacular diving catch, turning extra bases into a sacrifice fly.
Burton induced Jose Tabata to ground meekly to first and the Twins went back in front thanks to a rare mistake by Grilli.
The journeyman reliever has been tremendous at the back end of Pittsburgh's bullpen as the setup man for closer Joel Hanrahan. Willingham, however, turned on a 93 mph fastball and put it in the seats in left-center.
Perkins, closing while Capps deals with right shoulder inflammation, walked Alvarez to start the ninth but settled down from there.
Bedard did his best to keep pace with Liriano. The left-hander has struggled in June, failing to get out of the fourth inning in two of his three starts this month, including a miserable outing in a 12-6 loss to Baltimore last week in which he gave up seven runs in just 3 1-3 innings.
It looked like more of the same early. Willingham doubled with two outs, Justin Mourneau walked and Willingham came home on a single by Trevor Plouffe. A walk to Brian Dozier followed to load the bases before Bedard got Jamey Carroll to line back to the mound.
Bedard had little trouble over his final five innings but Pittsburgh's offense couldn't pick him up.
3: Career saves for Perkins.
14: Home runs for Willingham.
5:74: Liriano's ERA.
Joe Mauer (quad, hamstring) did not start once again. He was available to pinch hit.
Matt Capps (shoulder) was unavailable for the third consecutive game. Perkins handled ninth-inning duties.
On deck© The Associated Press