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Updated: July 14th, 2011 10:19pm
Twins Daily: Plouffe's big blast punctuates middle-inning rally in win

Twins Daily: Plouffe's big blast punctuates middle-inning rally in win

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- One down, 11 to go. Trevor Plouffe's mammoth two-run homer capped a four-run fifth inning on Thursday night and the Minnesota Twins pulled away for an 8-4 win against the Kansas City Royals in the opener of the season's most important homestand at Target Field.

The skinny

The Twins (42-48) hadn't been within six games of .500 since May 6. They now are 25-11 since June 2, have won 12 of their past 14 games against American League Central Division opponents and continue to lurk six games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, who both come here for four games next week.

"We've been playing a lot better baseball, and we're finding a way to win right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Look at numbers, look at stats, look at whatever you want to -- it's all in the left-hand column now. It's all about the wins and what we have to do from here on out. Find a way to put them in the left-hand column."

It wasn't easy on Thursday. Errors by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Joe Mauer gave the Royals (37-55) two unearned runs in the first inning against Francisco Liriano, who allowed another in the fourth on Brayan Pena's RBI single to make it 3-0.

But the Twins scored four runs in the fifth to chase left-hander Bruce Chen, then took advantage of reliever Blake Wood's control issues (20 pitches, five strikes, three walks, one hit batter) to bat around and score four more in the seventh.

Jose Mijares worked around two walks to pitch a scoreless eighth, and Phil Dumatrait allowed one run before freezing Alex Gordon with a breaking ball to end it -- bringing back the Twins from the All-Star break in style with their 13th comeback win this season.

"It's just good that we have a chance to be in a pennant race," said left fielder Delmon Young, who finished 3-for-4 with an RBI. "We came out and took care of business in game one, and we'll come out (Friday) and try to do the same thing."

Turning points

It all started with two outs in the fifth inning, when Chen walked Michael Cuddyer.

Danny Valencia ripped an RBI double. Delmon Young followed with another. That pulled the Twins within 3-2 and brought up Plouffe, who hadn't made a big-league plate appearance since June 2.

Plouffe fell behind 0-2, took a fastball outside the zone and then turned on a hanging cutter, ripping it onto the catwalk behind the second deck down the left-field line to give the Twins a lead they didn't relinquish.

"He'd kind of done that to me in the previous two at-bats -- he got that cutter in on me," said Plouffe, who grounded out and singled before the homer. "So, I kind of knew it was coming, or had an idea it was coming, and I got the barrel out a little more."

The home run was Plouffe's 19th this season, including the 15 he's hit in two stints at Triple-A Rochester. The crowd of 39,584 roared as he walked the first few steps toward base, making sure the ball stayed fair before breaking into his home-run trot.

"I was screaming a lot louder inside than I was outside for it to stay fair," Plouffe said.

Numbers game

1: Wild pitch thrown by Liriano, allowing Melky Cabrera to race home with the game's first run.

96: Consecutive games in which Mauer hadn't committed an error before his flip after the wild pitch bounced past Liriano, allowing Gordon to race home and make it 2-0.

22: Errors for Mauer in 6,396 big-league innings behind the plate, the last before Thursday coming on June 1, 2010.

106: Pitches thrown (64 strikes) by Liriano, who allowed seven hits, walked two and struck out four in seven innings. "I was a little too excited in the first inning," Liriano said. "I was overthrowing, trying to be too perfect. ... Just rushing."

3: Hits for LF Delmon Young in four at-bats in his first game since returning from the disabled list.

6: Games Young needed to get three hits after returning from his last stint on the disabled list on May 13. 

4: Runs charged to Wood, who allowed a single to Young, walked three and hit Alexi Casilla before getting pulled. Mauer followed with a single off of Everett Teaford to push the Twins' lead to five.

.450: Nishioka's batting average (9-for-20) over his past six games. He also has walked four times and struck out only twice.

Health watch

• RHP Kevin Slowey (abdominal strain) will make one more rehab start for Triple-A Rochester on Friday before the Twins likely option him there officially.

• OF Denard Span (concussion) is still waiting to be cleared by Major League Baseball to begin a rehab assignment, but a visit with the doctor on Wednesday provided optimism.

• OF Jason Kubel (sprained left foot) "came out (Wednesday), ran around and felt great -- a lot better than last week," said head athletic trainer Rick McWane. Kubel had a follow-up appointment with doctors on Thursday, but it remains unknown when he will resume his rehab assignment.

• 1B Justin Morneau (neck surgery, wrist) has been cleared to start non-baseball activities. The first baseman is doing cardio and "pretty much what he wants to" in the weight room, per McWane, but he won't throw or swing a bat for another week or so.

• RHP Scott Baker (strained right flexor muscle) is on track to make his start on Monday.

• DH Jim Thome was scratched from Thursday's lineup to give his sprained left toe one more day of rest.

Overheard

"We hope so. We're going to see. We're going to find out real soon. He's scuffling along and walking people. His ERA's not bad, but that doesn't tell the whole story. We're sure going to find out here real soon."
-- Gardenhire on whether Mijares can turn his season around. The left-hander was 0-1 with a 15.43 ERA and three walks in 2 1/3 innings over his past four appearances entering Thursday, when he walked two in the eighth but escaped unscathed. He hasn't thrown a 1-2-3 inning since June 21.

On deck

Nick Blackburn (7-6, 4.24) has hit another rough stretch. He hasn't lasted longer than five innings in any of his past three starts, allowing 19 runs (18 earned) on 29 hits in 13 1/3 innings (12.15 ERA). Opponents are hitting .433/.472/.672 against him after hitting .246/.301/.375 over Blackburn's previous 10 outings. He won his first start against the Royals this season but lasted only five innings in a 7-2 victory on June 4 at Kansas City.

The Royals will counter with Luke Hochevar (5-8, 5.46), who was roughed up for six runs on 11 hits in six innings of that June 4 game against the Twins. They also beat him on May 1, when the 27-year-old right-hander allowed three runs and walked four in 6 1/3 innings of a 10-3 defeat. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, Hochevar hasn't lasted long in his past two starts either, giving up 11 earned runs in eight innings combined against Colorado and Detroit.

Coming up

• Saturday: vs. Kansas City, 6:10 p.m. RHP Carl Pavano (6-6, 4.10 ERA) vs. LHP Jeff Francis (3-10, 4.60).
• Sunday: vs. Kansas City, 1:10 p.m. LHP Brian Duensing (6-7, 4.13 ERA) vs. RHP Felipe Paulino (1-2, 3.38).
• Monday: vs. Cleveland, 12:10 p.m./7:10 p.m. (dh). Starters TBD.

Phil Mackey contributed.

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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