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Updated: May 24th, 2011 9:32pm
Twins Daily: Nick Blackburn saves beat-up bullpen with nine-inning gem

Twins Daily: Nick Blackburn saves beat-up bullpen with nine-inning gem

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Limited on bullpen options, the Minnesota Twins desperately needed Nick Blackburn to pitch deep into Tuesday night's game, and he did just that -- a complete-game gem in a 4-2 win over the Seattle Mariners.

The skinny

With Matt Capps, Joe Nathan and Kevin Slowey all unavailable out of the bullpen on Tuesday night, Blackburn turned in one of the more clutch performances of the Twins' dismal season.

The right-hander finished all nine innings, allowing only two runs on seven hits while striking out six and walking nobody.

"Before the game we talked about Blacky giving us a big effort, and going as deep as he could in the game," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We knew our situation with our bullpen, and I think that's as deep as you can go into a game."

Blackburn said he was aware of the bullpen situation, but said the "it wouldn't have changed anything in my game plan."

The plan was to keep hitters off-balance by pitching hard inside, which is something Blackburn has done successfully most of the season.

"I think that's a key to my game," Blackburn said. "My pitches aren't overpowering enough to where I can just live on the outside edge and let guys start diving out there. I think a big key for me lately has been pitching in, just trying to crowd guys as much as possible and keeping them from getting out over the plate. I think that's what's buying me the mistakes I'm making."

"I'll leave something over the plate. It's not like I'm spotting every pitch up, but whenever you do crowd guys as much as I have lately, it allows mistakes to be made and you can get away with them."

Offensively, the Twins (16-31) took advantage of a balk by Mariners starter Doug Fister in the bottom of the seventh inning that plated the go-ahead run, Rene Rivera, from third base. Denard Span followed with a double to drive home Alexi Casilla, putting the Twins up 4-2.

Turning point

Tied 2-2 in the top of the seventh inning, Miguel Olivo drove a double off the scoreboard in right field, and he advanced to third base shortly after on a deep flyout by Adam Kennedy.

With a runner on third base and one out, Blackburn was clearly in danger of surrendering the lead.

But second baseman Casilla temporarily preserved the tie when he charged aggressively on Carlos Peguero's weak groundball and fired home on the run to nail Olivo at the plate.

"We weren't for sure if they were going on contact or not with a catcher over there, but he runs pretty decent," Gardenhire said. "We were playing in, and Alexi came in and got the ball. It's a situation where you can't wait back. You wait back on that ball and he's probably going to (score). He made a hell of a play."

Numbers game

127: Pitches thrown by Blackburn, surpassing his previous career-high of 110. With his performance, Blackburn lowered his season ERA to 3.20. "We were concerned, we're always concerned with a pitch count, but his ball was still sinking," Gardenhire said. "He still had a great breaking ball, and we needed that, and he gave us what we needed -- a big performance, and a complete ballgame and put us in a good situation."

5: Career complete games for Blackburn.

3: Hits for Span in four trips, raising his batting line to .301/.375/.387 on the season.

9: Consecutive home losses for the Twins prior to Tuesday's victory.

4: Left-handed hitters in baseball history who have hit more home runs off left-handed pitchers than Jim Thome (113) -- Barry Bonds (227), Ken Griffey, Jr. (186), Rafael Palmeiro (160) and Fred McGriff (126). Thome went 0-for-3 with a walk on Tuesday after hitting two home runs on Monday night.

Overheard

"For you guys, it may look like I'm shaking (off) a lot, but a lot of times he's back there telling me to shake to throw the hitter off. I very rarely have to shake him off, and it's great. It just kind of gives you a little bit more confidence up on that mound, not having to second guess anything."
-- Blackburn on working with Rivera.

"Honestly, I tried to put it on again later, but I got blocked out. I got blocked out at home plate ... I would have put it on again with Span at third, but I got blocked out trying to give a sign, and people got in between us or we would have done it again."
-- Gardenhire, talking about the successful suicide squeeze executed by Matt Tolbert that scored Casilla in the third inning.

"We had a talk, and yes, we talked about -- he says the game is pretty quick up here, and people who haven't played a lot up here, you get teams like (Seattle) that are flying out of the box and you have to play the game at a different speed. And (Monday) night he didn't play at the right speed. He didn't make the plays. He knew he should have busted his ass and got that ball (in the eighth inning). I talked to him a few times about that. Same play. Going and getting the ball and being aggressive and he just kind of laid back on it, thought he had time. He understands. He thought about it a lot."
-- Gardenhire on his conversation with shortstop Trevor Plouffe, who sat on the bench Tuesday night after a difficult night on Monday.

Health report

• An MRI Monday showed no strain, but right-hander Kevin Slowey will seek a second opinion on his abdomen Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. when he visits a hernia specialist.

• OF Michael Cuddyer (hip tightness) said he felt better on Tuesday after leaving Monday night's game early, and he's hopeful to play on Wednesday. Cuddyer moved around and took swings prior to Tuesday's game.

• C Joe Mauer (weakness/soreness) is scheduled to DH in an extended spring game in Fort Myers on Wednesday. Trainers have set a schedule and a target return date for the former MVP, but Gardenhire would not reveal the specifics. Due to lingering shoulder soreness, Mauer will not catch or throw in a game for at least seven days.

• INF Tsuyoshi Nishioka (broken fibula) will play shortstop in an extended spring game on Friday.

On deck

It's been a while since left-hander Brian Duensing (2-4, 4.98) has notched a solid start.

Since April 30, in fact, when he allowed three runs (two earned) on eight hits and two walks while striking out six in seven innings against the Kansas City Royals. Since then, Duensing has appeared in four games -- once in relief, once in a rain-shortened start, and twice on regular rest. In those four outings, Duensing has posted a 10.38 ERA with 21 hits allowed, eight walks issued out and eight strikeouts in only 13 innings.

His opponent in Wednesday's series finale (12:10 p.m., 1500 ESPN) will be Seattle left-hander Erik Bedard (2-4, 3.94).

Plagued with injury issues since 2007, Bedard missed all of 2010 because of a torn labrum, but he has bounced back by posting a 3.94 ERA with 41 strikeouts to just 17 walks in 45 2/3 innings so far this season. Bedard's average fastball clocks in at just under 91 mph, as opposed to the 92 mph he threw prior to surgery. Not much of a difference.

Coming up

• Thursday: Off.
• Friday: vs. Angels, 7:10 p.m. RHP Scott Baker (2-3, 4.12) vs. RHP Tyler Chatwood (3-2, 4.06).
• Saturday: vs. Angels, 6:10 p.m. LHP Francisco Liriano (3-5, 5.73) vs. RHP Jered Weaver (6-4, 2.35).

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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