(Sports Network) - An outstanding road trip has enabled the Minnesota Twins to stretch their lead atop the American League's Central Division. The likely postseason participants now return to Target Field, where they've been sensational in recent weeks, to begin a three-game series with the Oakland Athletics tonight.
After dropping the opener of a six-game trek last Friday, the Twins responded by winning the next five tests to continue their second-half success. After closing out the trip with three consecutive victories over second-place Chicago, Minnesota now owns a cushy nine-game advantage on the White Sox with just 16 left to play.
"If you want to put distance between yourselves and somebody that's what you have to do, you have to win the series against them," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire after last night's 8-5 victory over the White Sox. "We did a heck of a job against them."
Delmon Young led the way offensively for the Twins by going 3-for-5 with a two-run homer, with Michael Cuddyer also coming through with two RBI on the night. Joe Mauer added two hits and scored twice in the win, Minnesota's 11th in its past 12 contests.
Twins starter Carl Pavano (17-11) lasted only five innings and allowed five runs while serving up three homers, but still managed to register his 17th win of the season due to a strong showing by his team's bullpen. Five Minnesota relievers combined to hold the White Sox scoreless over the final four frames, with Matt Capps throwing the ninth to pick up his 13th save as a Twin.
Minnesota now has a magic number of eight to capture its second straight AL Central title and is closing in on home-field advantage for the entire AL Playoffs as well. Gardenhire's squad now trails Tampa Bay by only a half-game for the league's best record.
Playing at home could help the Twins overtake the Rays in the standings. Minnesota has won six straight games at Target Field and is 19-3 at its new ballpark since July 21. The club has compiled an impressive 48-23 record in Minneapolis for the season.
The Twins have also had success when taking on the Athletics this year. Minnesota has won five of the six clashes between the teams thus far in 2010 and swept a three-game set from Oakland at Target Field from August 13-15.
Gardenhire will hand the ball to Nick Blackburn, who's been a different pitcher since coming back from a needed trip to the minors, for tonight's opener.
An 11-game winner for the Twins in each of the previous two years, Blackburn was 7-7 with an awful 6.66 earned run average before being banished to Triple- A Rochester in late July. The right-hander returned to the majors on August 23 and has performed very well in four starts following the promotion, going 2-1 with an impressive 1.76 ERA and working seven innings or more in each of those assignments.
Blackburn fired eight shutout innings in his last outing, though he wound up without a decision in his team's 1-0 verdict at Cleveland this past Saturday. Six days earlier, he bested AL West-leader Texas at Target Field by tossing seven innings of two-run ball.
The 28-year-old was rocked for five runs and 10 hits in just 2 2/3 innings of a road loss to Oakland back on June 5, however, and he's 0-3 with a subpar 7.24 ERA in six career starts against the A's.
Brian Anderson gets the call for Oakland tonight and will be aiming for a third consecutive winning start. After yielding just one run and four hits over 7 2/3 innings to top Seattle on September 6, the young lefty held Boston to two runs in seven effective frames in a 4-3 decision at the Coliseum on Saturday.
Anderson had lost four straight decisions prior to those two wins but has usually pitched well since coming off the disabled list in late July. The second-year major leaguer has allowed two earned runs or less in seven of his last eight starts and sports a very solid 2.94 ERA for the season.
The 22-year-old faced the Twins twice as a rookie last year and split a pair of decisions while pitching to a 4.97 ERA. The one victory took place last September at the Metrodome, where Anderson limited Minnesota to two runs on five hits through seven innings.
He'll be trying to halt a two-game losing streak for the A's, with both defeats coming on the road to Kansas City. Oakland was handed a 6-3 setback on Wednesday, with the Royals fighting back from an early 3-0 deficit to deny Trevor Cahill a 17th win of the season.
Cahill (16-7) gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Wilson Betemit in the bottom of the third inning and a two-run homer to Billy Butler in the fifth, the 2010 All-Star's final inning of work.
"You've just got to tip your cap," Cahill said about Betemit's at-bat. "He made me throw a pitch that he liked. He fouled off the ones that I thought were good. It was just an overall good at-bat and he won the battle."
Mark Ellis and Kurt Suzuki stroked back-to-back RBI singles in the top of the first to stake Cahill to a 2-0 lead, with Matt Carson extending the margin with a solo homer in the second.