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Twins-Sox showdown: Two down, one to go

Lack of power and shoddy bullpen work have been two of the Twins’ weaknesses.

Lack of power and shoddy bullpen work have been two of the Twins’ weaknesses. They rank dead last among AL teams in homers, and since Pat Neshek suffered a season-ending arm injury the non-Joe Nathan members of the bullpen have combined for a 4.54 ERA. So naturally in the season’s biggest series they hit three homers Tuesday night and got four shutout innings of relief last night. Baseball can be a funny game, but with the Twins now a half-game back in the AL Central, you knew that already.

Prior to Tuesday night’s series opener, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen talked about needing to “get those piranhas in a big net” and “put some poison in the water to make their teeth fall out.” And rightfully so, because Guillen’s team arrived at the Metrodome with an MLB-leading 223 homers, yet had been outscored by a Twins lineup that had fewer than half as many long balls. Billed as a matchup pitting speed versus power, Game 1 instead saw the Twins do their best White Sox impression with three homers and six extra-base hits.

As the Metrodome crowd of 35,000 used chants to cast their MVP vote for Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel went 3-for-4 with a pair of homers, a triple, and three RBIs to provide more than enough support for Scott Baker‘s seven innings of one-run ball. For Kubel, it was a signature moment in what has been an outstanding, underappreciated season.

MVP-caliber years from Morneau and Joe Mauer have carried what is now the highest-scoring Twins offense since 1996 and Denard Span‘s emergence over the past three months has also been hugely important, but Kubel has quietly been the team’s third-best hitter all year. He’s hit .276/.340/.480 with 20 homers and 78 RBIs in 499 plate appearances to give the power-starved lineup a second home-run threat alongside (and recently behind) Morneau.

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Morneau and Kubel have combined for 39 percent of the Twins’ homers, going deep 43 times in 1,185 plate appearances while the rest of the team has managed just 68 homers in 4,921 trips to the plate. Leading the league with a .280 batting average overall and hitting .310 with runners in scoring position for the league’s highest RISP mark in over three decades go a long way toward explaining the Twins’ surprising run production this season, but oddly enough smacking the ball over the fence works, too.

Baker’s effort may get lost in Kubel’s big night, but he was fantastic against a team he’d struggled with previously. Baker came into the game sporting a 7.99 ERA in seven career starts versus the White Sox, which perhaps isn’t shocking given his extreme fly-ball tendencies and their power. Yet he kept the ball in the ballpark, limiting the White Sox to just five singles and one walk in 26 plate appearances before handing a 9-1 lead over to the bullpen. He’s now 10-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 27 starts overall.

Nick Blackburn wasn’t nearly as impressive last night but wriggled out of jams despite allowing eight hits and two walks to 23 batters, leaving after five innings with just two runs on the board. For most of the past few months, a five-inning start would have preceded a bullpen breakdown, but instead the unlikely trio of Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser, and Jose Mijares each tossed a scoreless frame with a one-run lead to set up Joe Nathan for his 200th career save.

Mijares working a 1-2-3 eighth inning was particularly impressive, given that he’s been in the majors for less than two weeks after making the jump from Double-A, and he was up against 1,445 career homers in Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Ken Griffey Jr. One bad pitch and the game is tied, yet the 23-year-old rookie who spent half the season rehabbing a broken elbow got Thome to fly out and then induced a pair of ground balls to preserve the 3-2 lead.

Nathan looked somewhat shaky in the ninth inning, which has uncharacteristically been the case quite a bit lately, but thanks to Carlos Gomez‘s sprinting catch of an A.J. Pierzynski drive in the left-center gap he closed out the 86th victory of the season. Facing long odds down 2.5 games with six games to play, the Twins are now one win away from overtaking the White Sox and jumping into the driver’s seat for a playoff spot heading into the final weekend.

Kevin Slowey takes the mound tonight against Gavin Floyd, who’s 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA in four starts versus the Twins this season and nearly no-hit them in May. Chicago also knocked Slowey around for eight runs when he matched up against Floyd in June, but since then he’s 10-5 with a 3.35 ERA in 18 starts, including a masterful complete-game shutout of the White Sox when he last faced them in late July at the Metrodome.

As an extreme fly-ball pitcher facing baseball’s most powerful lineup keeping the ball in the ballpark will be a struggle for Slowey, but he’s a smart, calm, strike-throwing machine who’s been the rotation’s second-best starter all season. A victory tonight would be huge, giving the Twins a half-game lead with the Royals coming to town and the White Sox hosting an Indians team that’s quietly gone 30-15 since early August.

White Sox 86 71 .548
Twins 86 72 .544 0.5

Two down. One to go.