Twins ride Willingham in 2-1 win over Pirates
Willingham hits 14th HR of the year
PITTSBURGH — Josh Willingham didn’t know what was coming. His teammates sure did.
Digging in against Pittsburgh reliever Jason Grilli with the game tied in the eighth on Wednesday night, the Minnesota outfielder was simply looking to get something started.
He ended up finishing off the Pirates.
Willingham turned on a 93 mph fastball and sent it into the seats in left-center field to lift the Twins to a needed 2-1 victory.
“It’s probably the most obvious call in the clubhouse is, `Willingham’s going to hit a homer,’ and they’re all taking credit,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s the one guy who walks up there and he’s swinging for it. He can juice a baseball, he can pull a baseball. And I called that one too.”
Willingham’s 14th home run of the season lifted the Twins to just their second victory in their past seven games. Reliever Jared Burton (1-0) helped Francisco Liriano avoid major trouble in the seventh while Glen Perkins picked up his first save in place of injured closer Matt Capps, who is battling right shoulder inflammation.
The Twins weren’t the only ones who knew Willingham was going to go deep. Grilli (1-2) did too the moment the ball left his hand.
“It was probably the worst pitch I’ve thrown all season,” Grilli said after giving up his first homer since April 17.
Minnesota will take it on a night Liriano looked like the pitcher who baffled the Pirates during his only other start at PNC Park six years ago.
Liriano allowed five hits and struck out 11 against no walks on June 16, 2006, a performance that came in the midst of a season in which he went 12-3 and made the All-Star team before injuring his left elbow at the end of the year.
He has shown only flashes of brilliance in the interim and pitched so badly at the beginning of the season he spent some time in the bullpen in May before returning to the starting rotation on May 30.
Though Liriano’s stuff wasn’t electric against the Pirates, it was efficient. He breezed through the first five innings and didn’t get a three-ball count on any batter until he intentionally walked Andrew McCutchen with two outs in the sixth. Not bad for a pitcher who was averaging 5.4 walks per nine innings coming in.
“I feel fine, I feel more consistent with my delivery, throwing more strikes,” Liriano said. “I’m hitting my spots. I’m confident in all my pitches.”
He’s also confident in his defense, particularly after it bailed him out in the seventh.
The Pirates loaded the bases with one out when pinch-hitter Rod Barajas sent a sinking flyball into the gap in left-center. Minnesota centerfielder Denard Span made a spectacular diving grab to turn a potentially disastrous moment into a game-tying sacrifice fly.
“He was tracking that ball the whole way whether it was going to get to the ground or not,” Gardenhire said. “It was hooking the whole way, too, so that was a hell of a play.”
Burton came on to get Jose Tabata to ground out to first to end the threat. He cruised through the eighth before giving way to Perkins, who overcame a leadoff walk in the ninth to earn his third career save.
Pittsburgh’s Erik Bedard did his best to keep pace with Liriano. The left-hander has struggled in June, failing to get out of the fourth inning in two of his three starts this month, including a miserable outing in a 12-6 loss to Baltimore last week in which he gave up seven runs in 3 1-3 innings.
It looked like more of the same early. Willingham doubled with two outs, Justin Mourneau walked and Willingham came home on a single by Trevor Plouffe. A walk to Brian Dozier followed to load the bases before Bedard got Jamey Carroll to line back to the mound.
“I got two quick outs, just couldn’t get the third one,” Bedard said. “I felt good. It was just one of those innings.”
Bedard had little trouble over his final five innings, but Pittsburgh’s offense couldn’t pick him up.
NOTES: Twins C Joe Mauer missed his second straight game while nursing a bruised right quad suffered during Sunday’s game against Milwaukee. Mauer could have been available to pinch-hit but still has trouble running. … Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle says Major League Baseball told him Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski could not be in the dugout during games. The Pirates brought in Mazeroski and former outfielder Bill Virdon this week to serve as mentors to the young team. Mazeroski and Virdon watched the game from elsewhere inside PNC Park … The series wraps up Thursday as Pittsburgh’s James McDonald (5-3, 2.32 ERA) faces Minnesota’s Liam Hendricks (0-3, 7.83).