That's right, LNP delivered on what would be the game's deciding run.
For six innings on Saturday afternoon, Francisco Liriano was the ace of the team. He was striking guys out, the walks weren't an issue and he set himself up to go seven innings by being efficient with pitch counts (at least after the second inning). He was fun to watch, especially because for most of it he was out-duelling Detroit starter Edwin Jackson.
The Twins struck first in this one, witnessing solo shots from Michael Cuddyer (his 13th) and Justin Morneau (20th) as Liriano strung together zeroes. A great diving stop at the hot corner by Brian Buscher here (completely horizontal and a great reaction play) and a couple of strikeouts there (and there, and there, and there, and...), and Minnesota was playing the complete game. Sure, it was moving slowly at times, but at least the Twins were winning.
And so it came to pass that with 90 pitches under his belt through six innings, and following on from Friday night/Saturday morning's fiasco with all the arms, Cisco came out for the seventh inning with a 2-0 lead. Consecutive singles preceeded a strikeout of Brandon Inge (who went down on strikes three times), and that preceeded a Maggio Ordonez three run blast (his fourth this year). Liriano had faced four batters that inning up to this point, and the three who weren't retired all succeeded on just one pitch. Magglio's was a fastball that was up and caught way, way, way too much of the plate. Denard Span tracked it back to the wall, but could do nothing about it.
Detroit took a 3-2 lead, leaving Liriano bent over, hands on his knees. The disappointment was evident on his face and in his body language, and it was at this point that I thought to myself: He needs to stay in there and finish the inning. He needs to prove that he can do it.
It's the quiet battles that mean the most, and whether this was one of those moments for Liriano or not, it was still a big situation for him. He'd pitched very well, and lost it all on one mistake pitch to a struggling veteran outfielder. It can be a worse feeling than being the culprit in a blow-out, because that big shining team 'W' was in sight. Would he be able to be the man who pitched in June and step up and finish the inning? Or would he revert to who he'd been in April and May?
While it did appear at first that he was about to lose it, walking Adam Everett on four pitches after getting a quick ground-out, it was Liriano's instincts that got him out of the inning and not his slider. He caught Everett too far off the bag, throwing to Morneau who threw to Harris, who easily applied the tag at secodn on a sliding Everett to end the inning and the threat.
The offense was equal to the momentum shift, and returned fire immediately. Span walked, Joe Mauer singled up the middle and then Morneau came through again, plating Denard to knot the game back up at three. But it wasn't until the bottom of the eighth inning that it all came to a head.
Buscher singled off Tiger reliever Brandon Lyon, shocking a hard-hit liner into the left-center field gap. A faster runner might have had a double, but Ryan Raburn held him to a single. Catcher Jose Morales failed in bunting him forward, but succeeded in advancing Matt Tolbert (who was running for Buscher) on a ground-out. Then stepped in the hero of the game. With Joe Crede and Delmon Young still on the bench, Ron Gardenhire stuck with Nick Punto. And little Nicky delivered! Hit in the air the ball died, falling just over the out-stretched glove of Everett (who's a big boy now, did you know?) and rolling into shallow left field.
The ball slowed just enough on bouncing to the turf to enable Tolbert to round third base with a full head of steam. Raburn again fielded the ball, and with a strong relay to the plate made it a close play. Tiger catcher Dusty Ryan fielded the ball just in front of home. Tolbert slide do the outside, reaching in with his left hand while sliding by the plate, dragging his fingers across the dish. Ryan's swipe tag was wide and slow, in an effort to reach out to tag Tolbert somewhere, anywhere, but it was too late.
Both Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan came on after the seventh to lock it up, and that's exactly what they did. Each of their performances couldn't mean more in a game like today under the circumstances, but it was Liriano's ability to go a full seven innings that makes the pitcher's part of the tale for the day.
Back in the win column and a pair of games back over .500, Minnesota's in position to take another series tomorrow afternoon. We'll see you there!
Stars of the Game
#3: Francisco Liriano (7 IP, 5 H, 8 K, 2 BB, 3 R, -.086 WPA)
#2: Justin Morneau (4-for-4, HR, 2B, 2 RBI, R, .358 WPA)
#1: Nick Punto (2-for-3, RBI, BB, .239 WPA)