Zulgad: Josh Willingham makes Twins forget problems for one night
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MINNEAPOLIS - Josh Willingham's three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning late Tuesday night had given the Minnesota Twins' their first walk-off victory of an otherwise miserable season, but the left fielder swore he did not approach his final at-bat against Oakland A's closer Brian Fuentes with the intention of putting an end to the 3-hour, 25-minute game.
"Absolutely not," Willingham said following a 3-2 victory. "I go up there to have a good at-bat and to hit the ball hard somewhere. I've tried to hit home runs before and it hasn't worked out very well. I was trying to keep it simple, get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it and that's what happened."
What happened was that with one swing of the bat Willingham erased an evening of ineptitude at Target Field. Twins pitchers walked a season-high nine batters, including five walks by starter Cole De Vries, and the hitters left 11 men on base. Ben Revere again failed to execute a sacrifice bunt in the ninth inning and instead popped up to Fuentes.
Afterward Twins manager Ron Gardenhire could only laugh at what he had seen.
The reason he was laughing was because Willingham had bailed out the Twins by belting a 1-0 pitch into the left field seats as the few who remained from an announced crowd of 31,781 celebrated in a season where there has been little reason to do so.
For Willingham it was his fifth career walk-off homer and his first since May 23, 2010. It also was his ninth home run of the season, tying Justin Morneau for the team lead.
"That's where you want to be," Willingham said of standing at the plate as the Twins' final hope. "You want to be in that situation, whether you get a hit or not. Fortunately I was able to get a hit tonight. I've been on the other end several times as well."
Willingham entered Tuesday's game with a .271 batting average and a team-leading 29 RBI. There had been some streaky moments for Willingham during a six-game home stand that will wrap-up Wednesday afternoon and the veteran had flown out to right and struck out twice before walking in the eighth inning.
He was stranded at third in that instance and it appeared as if after rallying for two runs in the eighth inning on Monday to get a 5-4 victory over the A's, the Twins would lose their 18th game of the season at Target Field and fall to 16-33.
But after Jamey Carroll singled to right to open the ninth, Denard Span walked. Revere failed to advance the runners with his bunt attempt and Joe Mauer then hit into a first to short force play that left Mauer on first and Carroll on third.
Fuentes, who pitched for the Twins in 2010 and entered Tuesday with four saves, used his unique delivery to throw ball one to Willingham.
"You don't face many lefties that throw from that arm slot, so you kind of want to see a pitch," Willingham said. "I was glad that he threw the first one, a ball, I was able to see it and see the arm slot and the release point and kind of get my bearings a little bit. I was just hoping he'd give me a good pitch to hit."
Fuentes did just that, putting the Twins in a position to sweep this series.
"It's my job to come in and not do that," Fuentes said. "I wasn't able to do that today so it stinks, but what are you going to do?"
Said Willingham when asked about the fact Fuentes said he located a fastball where he didn't want it: "Most of the time home runs come on pitches over the middle of the plate and pitchers aren't trying to throw it there. I had a feeling he was probably trying to go away right there and he just missed over the middle of the plate."
Willingham had spent last season playing for the A's after a two-year stint in Washington. He hit 29 home runs in 2011 and then signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Twins during the offseason.
So did Tuesday's homer have any extra meaning?
"I wouldn't say that it's any more special," he said. "No. I've got a lot of good friends on that team over there, but when we get on the baseball field obviously we're trying to beat each other. I have a lot of respect for those guys over there. They play the game the right way, always have, the Oakland A's, so I don't think it's any more special hitting one off of them than anyone else."
Gardenhire didn't care who the homer came against, he was just happy to see one of his team's power hitters deliver in the clutch.
"He can put it in the seats," the manager said of Willingham. "We have a few guys that can do that, he's one of them. You're going against a great closer out there, a guy that we had. He has filthy stuff and has good numbers this year, too. Just goes to show you one bad pitch can end up in the seats and turn a ballgame around and it did tonight."