video thumbnail

MIN@TB: Willingham clears the bases with a double

ST. PETERSBURG -- There was a brief quiet moment in the visitors' dugout at Tropicana Field, right after Evan Longoria's homer off Liam Hendriks put the Rays ahead by two in the sixth inning. It didn't last long, and Josh Willingham gave Minnesota even more reason to cheer.

Trailing by two, with two outs and the bases loaded, Willingham extended his season-opening hitting streak to 14 games on Friday night -- the longest run to start a player's Twins career -- and lifted Minnesota to a 5-4 win over Tampa Bay with a line-drive, three-run double in the seventh inning.

"We're not out of it until that 27th out is recorded. It's a big difference between this year and last year," catcher Joe Mauer said, praising the Twins' confidence and attitude in the dugout. "Guys keep fighting and keep swinging the bats, and that's what you've got to do."

Willingham, who is batting .333 (18-for-54), is now one game shy of tying Kirby Puckett for the Twins' longest hitting streak to start a season (15 games in 1994). He has nine extra-base hits and 12 RBIs so far.

"He's fun to watch. He's a very strong young man. He's been on the baseball, that's for sure," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Willingham, signed to a three-year, $21 million deal in December. "The reason we went after him is to drive in some runs and hit the ball in the seats. And up to this point, he's done pretty much exactly what we were hoping he could do for this offense."

Alexi Casilla helped set up Willingham's hit by reaching on a one-out single off Rays lefty Matt Moore, who then gave way to reliever Brandon Gomes. Denard Span notched another single to center off Gomes, and Jamey Carroll drew a walk to load the bases. Mauer, who had already added to his impressive Tropicana Field numbers with two RBI singles earlier in the game, flied out to shallow left off reliever Joel Peralta for the second out.

Up came Willingham, who worked a 1-2 count before drilling a double into right-center.

"Obviously, you see the ball better, at times," Willingham said. "I saw the ball good tonight, hit the ball hard a few times tonight. [I] didn't find any holes early, then the last one found a hole."

"Off the bat, I actually thought I had a bead on it," said Rays center fielder B.J. Upton. "But the closer I got to it, it wasn't hit true. Somehow he hit a ball the other way that [had topspin]. It was just good placement."

Willingham's big hit took right-hander Hendriks off the hook. Hendriks looked like he was on track for a second consecutive quality start before giving up four runs and two homers.

Hendriks held Tampa Bay to just two baserunners in his first four innings of work. Both came in the second inning, while his other three frames were perfect. The only thing that went wrong for Hendriks before the sixth inning was a 3-1 fastball that Rays outfielder Matt Joyce launched over the fence in right-center field for a solo home run in the fifth inning.

Gardenhire described that part of Hendriks' outing as "fantastic." His infielders didn't do him any favors in the sixth inning, and Hendriks gave up a big hit that would have been the difference in the game -- if not for Willingham.

Sean Rodriguez led off the sixth with a line drive that bounced off Casilla -- a play Gardenhire said the second baseman should always make. Then, Casilla failed to cover first on Desmond Jennings' successful bunt attempt in the next at-bat. Hendriks then walked Ben Zobrist to load the bases with no outs, but got out of the jam by forcing Carlos Pena into a 4-6-3 double play, which scored Rodriguez to tie the game at 2. But he had no such luck with Longoria.

The Rays' third baseman blasted an up-and-in two-seamer over the left-field wall, putting the Rays ahead, 4-2. Hendriks left with a no-decision, marking the fifth time in six Major League starts that he pitched into the sixth inning without earning a win.

"It was probably a ball, and [Longoria] put a good swing on it. He was getting up for that," Hendriks said. "I made the wrong pitch selection, and it came back to haunt me.

"It's always on the cusp [of my first win], but I can never quite finish it off. It'll come. I just need to keep going out there and throwing well."

The Twins jumped out to a 2-0 lead, due largely to Mauer's continued success at the plate at Tropicana Field.

After going 2-for-3 with two walks, Mauer leads all active Major Leaguers in batting average at Tropicana Field (.443) with 19 RBIs and 16 walks in 18 games. He drove in Carroll with a base hit to left field in the first inning and plated another in the fifth.

"For whatever reason, I see the ball pretty good here," Mauer said. "Hopefully, I can continue that the next couple [of] days."

MLB.com Comments