Twins dig long ball, at least for one night

Jeff Passan

MINNEAPOLIS – Inside the Minnesota Twins dugout, they figured the roar was for Jason Kubel. His teammates were telling him to take a curtain call after his second home run, and everybody was so busy patting Kubel on the back and slapping his hands that they missed the real reason for the commotion.

Back-to-back home runs for the Twins? That's like two straight laughs at a Dane Cook show. The Twins don't hit home runs. They nibble and pick and gnaw. They've turned small ball into a verb. And here they were, in the game their manager deemed the most important this season, a game that could've shattered their glass slipper, launching balls like they hadn't all year.

Delmon Young's homer pre-empted Kubel from doffing his cap and put the Chicago White Sox on notice that the Twins weren't going down without a fight, not in their own building. The din from Kubel's homer hadn't ceded when Young put the exclamation point on the Twins' 9-3 victory Tuesday to pull them within 1½ games of the White Sox in the AL Central with two remaining in this series at the Metrodome.

"I was in the dugout, giving all the high fives, and I looked up and Delmon had hit one," Kubel said. "When you hear the crowd, you know."

Though they weren't packed to the rafters, 35,225 strong witnessed the Twins' 50th home win in 76 games. And they saw an offense that somehow scored the fourth-most runs in the major leagues in spite of hitting the second-fewest home runs.

Sure, there were signs of typical Twins baseball: Nick Punto laying down a squeeze bunt that scored a charging Young, and Joe Mauer lacing an opposite-field single before coming home on a Justin Morneau gapper, and three more hits with runners in scoring position, bringing their major-league-best total to 444.

It's just that, well, the Twins' starting lineup combined for 85 home runs – which is exactly as many as Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome and Alexei Ramirez have hit this season. And the White Sox had another 51 in their lineup, plus nearly 100 more on their bench.

"We don't win by hitting bombs," Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "It's playing the game right. Getting guys over. Doing the little things right. Nine runs is not uncharacteristic. Three home runs is. It was a big game by big players, and we needed it."

Before the game, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire fielded a question about Kubel's place in the lineup. He entered the game in a 2-for-18 slump. Cuddyer, an important cog who has spent most of the season on the disabled list, was available. Kubel's career average against starter Javier Vazquez: .095. Cuddyer's: .343. Was now the time to switch?

No, Gardenhire growled. Kubel was the Twins' designated hitter. Maybe he'd even hit one over the baggie in right field.

Prescience isn't generally Gardenhire's forte, though he did have the foresight to emphasize the importance of this game, just in case his cache of young players didn't grasp it. This series is the Twins' season. They entered the year minus ace Johan Santana, franchise center fielder Torii Hunter and starter Carlos Silva and long shots behind Cleveland and Detroit. No one in their rotation is older than 27. They have gone 10-18 over the last month. The Republican National Convention sent them on the road for two weeks. They haven't recovered.

Or maybe hadn't.

"If you're not motivated to do that, then you shouldn't be here," Gardenhire said. "Our guys get pretty pumped up playing at home in front of our crowd. We're playing the White Sox. All those good things – it should be easy for you. We came out with a lot of enthusiasm."

Chicago, meanwhile, played the shell-shocked favorite rather well. Leading up to the game, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called out starter Vazquez for his poor performance in big games, and he proceeded to get shelled for five runs in four innings.

Guillen's nonchalance before the game – "We're in first place, man," he said, "and they're the ones that should worry about us" – quickly turned into early-stage panic, his history with the Twins flashing before him after every bat crack.

Remember, Guillen nicknamed the 2006 Twins the "piranhas" because of their incessant nibbling at leads, though boll weevils might fit better, as the Twins are pests of the highest order.

How they've turned into a run-scoring juggernaut, 810 and counting, symptomatic of their .311 batting average with runners in scoring position, which would be the best in major-league history. It makes the Twins the small kid on the playground who knows jiu-jitsu and can fell the big bully with one strike.

"We scored over 800 runs playing our Twins baseball, bunting and stealing and all that kind of stuff," Morneau said. "It's nice to hit those homers and put the game out of reach, but we can't expect to do that every night."

No, it was a special evening at the Metrodome, from the homers to the seven great innings from starting pitcher Scott Baker to the cavalcade of overweight security guards trying to chase down an interloper during the ninth inning. The fan popped out of the left-field stands during the ninth inning and spent a good minute outrunning 10 guys in white shirts. He waved his arms and engaged the crowd and even caused a smile to spread across Kubel's face.

The fight was over. The slipper was intact. And there would be two more to play.