video thumbnail

MIN@TB: Baker hurls seven frames of one-run ball

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has said it more than once lately: When the offense is absent, the pitchers have to be even moreso on their game.

That lesson was painfully learned when Ben Zobrist hit a game-tying homer off Minnesota closer Joe Nathan in the ninth, and Johnny Damon hit a two-out, walk-off single to right off of Jose Mijares to give the Rays a 4-3 win on Saturday.

"We did some good things out there, but we still missed some opportunities to score runs," Gardenhire said. "We still have guys that aren't hitting right now. When you only score three runs, that's a lot of pressure [on a pitcher] to hold people, and there are things we need to continue to get better at."

Saturday was Tampa Bay's second come-from-behind, walk-off win in three days against the Twins, and was Minnesota's third straight defeat at the hands of the Rays. The loss, which marked Minnesota's fourth straight, marred a standout performance from starter Scott Baker.

"I still trust these guys," Baker said. "We'd have liked to win the last ... we've been close to winning all three games, we just haven't gotten it done at the end of the day.

"You play as a team, you win as a team, you lose as a team. Just like I said, 'We're just not getting it done.'"

While a narrow escape may have alleviated some frustration in the clubhouse, a last-minute defeat only exacerbated it. One day prior, Gardenhire made it clear that the Twins did not like, nor would they tolerate, consistent losing. The implications of the team's early-season slump seemed to weigh on some players' minds, and was compounded by losing starting second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka (broken fibula) and catcher Joe Mauer (viral infection) within a week of each other.

Winning one game wouldn't solve it all, but may have gone a fair distance toward improving morale, though Baker said no one's too down just yet.

"As of right now, there's no panic button being pushed," he said. "We're still having a good time, we're just coming up short. As long as we're playing loose and doing what we know we're capable of, things will turn around."

Baker used a variety of tricks in his seven innings, most of them stemming from good movement and a variety of offspeed pitches that kept Tampa Bay hitters coming up empty. Baker fanned six and walked one, and allowed just one extra-base hit -- a leadoff double to Matt Joyce in the fourth inning.

Baker also worked himself out of jams, and didn't bat an eye after allowing consecutive singles to open the third. Instead, the 28-year-old struck out Reid Brignac, then coaxed Sam Fuld and Damon into popups to escape the frame. Fuld's fly to right scored a run to halve the Twins' lead, but it didn't slow down the Minnesota righty, who went on to permit just four hits during his outing.

"Scott threw the ball very well," Gardenhire said. "We got a good seven innings out of him, then we got to our two closers and it just didn't work out. He threw the ball well. He had a few troubles at times, but really worked his way through it and made some good pitches."

Perhaps Baker's biggest stand came during the fifth inning, which he started with a walk and a single to put runners at the corners with no outs. He took care of the next two outs himself with a strikeout and pop fly behind the plate, and relied on second baseman Luke Hughes' diving backhand to wrap up the inning unharmed.

The Twins' offense, meanwhile, got on the board early. Right fielder Jason Kubel got things going in the second with a leadoff home run. The full-count blast hit the wall of a restaurant in straightaway center field and marked Kubel's first homer of the season.

Alexi Casilla and Denard Span singled consecutively to open the third inning, and the speedy Casilla motored home from third on a groundout to make it 2-0 Twins.

Span, a Tampa, Fla., native who had the majority of one section in Tropicana Field filled with friends and family, tripled to the left-center gap in the fifth to score Casilla from first and push the Twins' lead to 3-1.

Span finished the day 3-for-5 with a stolen base and an RBI to bolster a Minnesota lineup that tagged Rays starter Jeff Niemann for eight hits in his seven innings.

"We have played some really good games," Gardenhire said. "It has been two games this series with our closers in the game, and that means we are playing tough. You have to be strong in this game, you have to battle, and we will come back tomorrow and hopefully win a ball game."

Trouble began for Minnesota soon after Baker hit the showers. Twins closer Matt Capps surrendered a pair of singles in the eighth, the second of which was a two-out, RBI single from Joyce that shrunk Minnesota's lead to one. While Capps righted himself to induce an inning-ending groundout, Zobrist caught Nathan for a game-tying homer to open the ninth.

"Physically, how I feel, it's fine. I'm still going through that process of trying to get this thing back to where I'd like it," said Nathan, who's just more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. "It has taken it's course, but there are inconsistencies. There's outings I go out and [the ball] comes out of my hand pretty good. Then there's outings I go out and it's not quite as good.

"I'd love to be at full strength for these guys, and go out and finish what they started ... unfortunately, that didn't happen for us."

Nathan responded by walking the next two hitters in a row after the Zobrist homer, then got John Jaso to fly out before turning the ball over to Mijares. The left-hander fanned pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson before walking the bases loaded to set the stage for Damon's walk-off.

"We just do not quit," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We seem to pick up offensively as the game is in progress. I much prefer five, six or seven runs in the first couple of innings, but I'll take the win any way we can get." Comments