Twins Daily: Late rally, Jim Thome's blast not enough in series finale
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Jim Thome's tape-measure home run capped a three-run rally in the eighth inning, but that was all the offense the Minnesota Twins could muster in Sunday's 5-3 loss to Oakland at Target Field, sealing their third series loss to start the season.
For the third consecutive game, the Twins were scoreless for seven innings -- this time against Athletics right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who finally cracked in the eighth.
Joe Mauer followed Denard Span's one-out single with a double off the right-center field wall. That brought on reliever Jerry Blevins, who got Justin Morneau to roll into an RBI groundout before Thome launched a 444-foot shot over the batter's eye in center field.
But Grant Balfour replaced Blevins and got Delmon Young to fly out to center field and end the frame. Then, another former Twins reliever, Brian Fuentes, worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his second save in as many days.
"Sometimes, that's kind of the way it goes, and then as the season progresses, you gradually see improvement and that's what we're hoping for," Thome said. "You look at our lineup -- we've got a lot of outstanding, great hitters, and hopefully, again, everybody here works hard, comes every day prepared and is ready to go."
The Twins scored five runs in the three-game series and remain among the lowest-scoring teams in baseball through the season's first week-and-a-half.
"It's frustrating. There's no doubt about that," said Michael Cuddyer, who made his first start of the season at second base. "By no means do we chalk this up to a week of just struggling. It's frustrating. But at the same time, we know we've got good hitters in here that aren't going to hit .100 or even .200."
Third-base coach Steve Liddle held Kubel at third base, but Valencia inexplicably headed for second, got caught in a rundown and was tagged by first baseman Daric Barton for the second out.
Alexi Casilla struck out looking to end the frame. Then, Josh Willingham led off the top of the sixth with a 427-foot blast onto the upper concourse in left field, starting a four-run inning that chased Twins starter Scott Baker and brought a shower of boos from the sellout crowd.
"I'm not necessarily trusting my ability to pound the corners," said Baker, who threw 99 pitches (64 strikes). "I'm kind of leaving some balls out over the plate and I'm falling behind guys. So, that's just a matter of executing pitches, and the more you do that, the more confidence you have."
Baker allowed four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings, striking out five and walking two as his ERA climbed to 6.55 through two starts. Jeff Manship replaced Baker with two on and no out in the sixth, walked Mark Ellis to fill the bases and then allowed a sacrifice fly to Kevin Kouzmanoff and a double to Landon Powell that brought home both inherited runners.
10: Walks issued the past two games by the Twins, who entered the day with the sixth-most in baseball.
383: Walks issued last season by the Twins, the lowest total in the big leagues. "That's the one frustrating thing for (pitching coach Rick Anderson) and I -- we're accustomed to throwing the ball over the plate and making them swing, but we give them way too many gifts out there," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Even in the one inning, when you go out there and now we bring in Manship, who's a sinkerballer and then he threw every pitch about neck-high. That's one of the situations you've just got to do better. You've got to get the ball down."
0: The number of first-inning runs scored by the Twins so far this season -- quite the contrast from 2010 when the Twins scored 132 first-inning runs, which was 33 more than they scored in any other inning, and 19 more than the next closest team.
590: Career home runs for Thome, who hit his first this season on Sunday.
3: Home runs hit by the Twins this season. Entering Sunday, the Twins' two home runs as a team were tied with Seattle and Oakland for fewest in baseball.
• RHP Nick Blackburn: Blackburn has been the Twins' best starting pitcher through the first nine games, allowing just one earned run in 11 2/3 innings. Blackburn has struck out four, walked four and allowed 11 hits. He also has induced 55% groundballs, which is significantly higher than his 47% career average. It's a small sample size, but Blackburn's health, mechanics and results have all been positive since the beginning of spring training. "I've been able to stay on top of the ball a lot more, even coming in this spring," Blackburn said. "I think that's creating more sink, more movement for me, and it's just a lot easier for me to control the strike zone and move the ball around a little bit."
• The entire bullpen: Entering Sunday, the Twins bullpen ranked eighth in baseball with a 3.13 ERA. Jeff Manship gave up an earned run in the sixth inning on Sunday, but Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett and Jose Mijares combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings after Manship's departure. Overall the bullpen has been solid, despite having several question marks throughout spring training.
It's impossible to single out just one or two players when the entire Twins offense as a whole is hitting .203/.262/.264. In fact, heading into Sunday only one team had scored fewer runs than the Twins (21) -- the Manny Ramirez-less Tampa Bay Rays (19). Thome's home run brought some life back to the ballpark, but the Twins have yet to score more than five runs in a game through the first nine contests.
• RHP Kevin Slowey (shoulder bursitis) was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday.
• 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka (broken fibula) was placed on the 15-day DL on Thursday and will miss at least 4 to 6 weeks.
"You obviously didn't see me play. I was versatile all right. One end of the bench to the other."
-- Gardenhire, when asked if Cuddyer is one of the most versatile athletes he's been around, considering how many defensive positions the 32-year-old can play
-- Guy staring into the Target Field marriage proposal cam, which focused on the wrong couple. In the following seconds, the camera frantically and awkwardly panned around looking for the correct couple to no avail
The Twins have their first scheduled off day of the season on Monday.
• Tuesday: vs. Kansas City, 7:10 p.m. LHP Brian Duensing (0-0, 5.14) vs. LHP Jeff Francis (0-0, 1.98).
• Wednesday: vs. Kansas City, 1:10 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano (0-2, 7.71) vs. RHP Kyle Davies (1-0, 6.75).
• Thursday: @ Tampa Bay, 5:40 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano (1-1, 6.00) vs. RHP Wade Davis (0-2, 4.38).
-- Phil Mackey contributed