Capturing a second straight American League Central title may be the Minnesota Twins’ main objective, but judging by the team’s performance at Target Field this season, having home-field advantage for the opening round of the playoffs would be a big deal as well.
The first-place Twins will try to move a step closer towards accomplishing both goals in tonight’s middle test of a three-game series with the visiting Kansas City Royals.
Minnesota maintained its 3 1/2-game advantage on the determined Chicago White Sox for the Central’s top spot with Monday’s 5-4 decision over the Royals. The win was the Twins’ fourth in a row and ninth in their last 11 contests, and improved Ron Gardenhire’s squad to an outstanding 46-23 at Target Field this season.
The Twins have now won 17 of their past 20 games at the first-year ballpark and are in excellent position to start the postseason at home if they can hold off the White Sox for the division crown. With both the top team and the wild card likely to come out of the AL East, Minnesota currently owns a 5 1/2-game lead on West front-runner Texas for the No. 2 seed for the upcoming playoffs.
Jason Kubel snapped a 2-2 tie in Monday’s matchup with a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning, with Jim Thome belting a solo shot two batters later to give the Twins a three-run cushion. The long ball was the 585th of Thome’s storied career, moving the veteran slugger one away from catching Frank Robinson for eighth place on baseball’s all-time list.
Thome’s homer also proved to be an important one, as the Royals scored twice in the top of the sixth to pull within 5-4. They would get no closer, however, as relievers Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Matt Capps kept Kansas City off the board over the final three frames to come out on top.
Capps threw a 1-2-3 ninth to notch his 10th save since joining Minnesota in a trade with Washington just prior to the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Capps said about his time with the Twins. “Hopefully, we keep playing good baseball and it remains fun.”
Brayan Pena finished 2-for-4 with two RBI for Kansas City, losers of four of its five games. Starting pitcher Sean O’Sullivan (2-5) was hung with the defeat after allowing five runs, including the pivotal homers to Kubel and Thome, over 4 2/3 innings of work.
“Two pitches changed the whole game,” O’Sullivan said afterward.
The Royals hope to fair better tonight behind Brian Bannister in the right- hander’s return from a month-long stint on the disabled list due to shoulder tendinitis.
Bannister had been struggling mightily prior to being shelved on August 3, losing five straight starts and going 1-7 with a brutal 7.96 earned run average over a 10-game stretch beginning in mid-June. One of those setbacks came against the Twins in Kansas City on July 28, when he was reached for five runs and 11 hits over six innings.
The 29-year-old, who tossed 3 1/3 scoreless frames in his final rehab assignment for Triple-A Omaha on Wednesday, did throw 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball to beat Minnesota on April 25 and is 4-5 with a 4.36 ERA over 12 lifetime starts against the Twins.
Minnesota counters with Francisco Liriano, who’ll putting his unbeaten second- half record on the line in tonight’s tilt. In nine starts since the All-Star break, the tough left-hander has compiled a 6-0 mark along with a sensational 2.17 ERA and allowed only a single home run in a span of 58 innings.
Liriano didn’t come up with a victory his last time out, although he certainly deserved one after limiting Detroit to five hits and striking out seven batters over seven shutout innings on Wednesday. He exited the game with a 1-0 lead, but the Tigers would tie it against the Minnesota bullpen later on.
The Dominican native also fired seven scoreless frames in a July 26 encounter at Kansas City, this time gaining the win in a 19-1 Twins’ rout. The effort moved Liriano to 4-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 10 career appearances (seven starts) against the Royals.
In 13 starts at Target Field, where he hasn’t lost since June 28, Liriano is 6-3 with an impressive 2.51 ERA.
The 26-year-old will be trying to pitch the Twins to a fifth consecutive win over Kansas City. Minnesota has gone 10-3 against the Royals so far this season and has prevailed in five of the seven games between the teams held in Minneapolis.