After winning the first two games of their biggest series this season, the Twins will try to overtake the White Sox for the top spot in the division on Thursday night.
Since July 27, these teams haven’t been separated by more than 2 1/2 games - exactly what Minnesota (86-72) trailed Chicago by coming into Tuesday’s series opener.
The Twins, who hit three homers en route to a 9-3 win in that first game, used small ball to post a 3-2 victory on Wednesday. Joe Mauer, who leads the AL with a .327 batting average, drove in two without getting a ball out of the infield, and rookie Denard Span added an RBI single.
Nick Blackburn twice worked his way out of trouble over five innings of work to improve to 8-3 at home. Three relievers each tossed a scoreless inning before Joe Nathan recorded his 39th save in 45 chances.
“I think I had the toughest inning out of us all,” said Nathan, who watched Carlos Gomez track down A.J. Pierzynski’s drive to left-center with a nice running catch. “It was nice to finish one out. We know we’ve had some tough stretches.”
Minnesota - looking for its fifth division title since 2002 under manager Ron Gardenhire - is 7-1 at home against Chicago this year, and 12-5 there over the last two seasons.
“They’re tough customers,” Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. “No doubt about that. We got to play hard to beat them.”
The White Sox’s Mark Buehrle lost for the first time in five starts this month, and Ken Griffey Jr. drove in both runs with an RBI groundout and his second homer of the series. Griffey, now fifth all-time with 611 homers, has hit 24 in the Metrodome.
Chicago (86-71) has homered in six straight games, pushing its major league-leading total to 225, but is just 2-4 in that span.
“You know what? We win (Thursday) and these first two games don’t even matter,” Pierzynski said.
Minnesota’s Kevin Slowey (12-11, 3.85 ERA) will try to dominate Chicago again at home as he looks to avoid losing his third consecutive start.
The right-hander lost on Sept. 15 at Cleveland, then followed that with another road defeat on Saturday against playoff-bound Tampa Bay. He yielded five runs and nine hits over 4 1-3 innings of a 7-2 setback that put the Rays in the postseason for the first time.
Since June, Slowey has been nearly unbeatable at the Metrodome. He’s gone 7-1 with a 2.25 ERA in his last eight starts there, including a six-hitter in a 7-0 victory over the White Sox on July 28.
Gavin Floyd (16-8, 3.84), slated to start for Chicago, has lost two of his last three outings, including on Saturday against Kansas City. Floyd was tagged for five runs and eight hits - including three homers - in a 5-2 defeat.
“It was pretty much a case that I made a couple of bad pitches and they capitalized,” Floyd told the White Sox’s official Web site. “I tried to pound the zone and left them more over the plate than I wanted.”
Floyd has given up a team-high 30 homers in 194 2-3 innings this year, but only two to Minnesota, which Floyd has done well against in 2008. In four starts, the right-hander is 3-1 with a 1.86 ERA, holding the Twins to a .168 average.
The White Sox’s magic number to clinch the Central remains five. Following this series, Minnesota welcomes Kansas City for three games while Chicago closes out its season at home versus Cleveland.
If necessary, the White Sox also must make up a game against last-place Detroit that was rained out earlier this month. If the Twins and ChiSox remain tied after that, they would meet for a one-game playoff on Tuesday in Chicago.