Twins outduel Rangers in first-place battle

Twins outduel Rangers in first-place battle

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kevin Slowey had been giving his team opportunities to win games so far this season, as witnessed by his 5-3 record and 4.53 ERA heading into Friday night's start against the Rangers.

But the one thing that seemed to elude the Twins' right-hander was the ability to pitch deep into ballgames.

Facing a hot-hitting Rangers squad that's in first place in the American League West, Slowey managed to pitch past the sixth inning for only the second time in 10 starts, and the Minnesota bullpen held onto a slim one-run lead to capture a 2-1 victory over Texas before a crowd of 39,581 -- the largest in Target Field's brief history.

"Our pitching was fantastic," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "Slowey was really good pitching in and out. He gave us a great effort and a great opportunity to win a ballgame. We've talked about more contact and getting deeper into games, and tonight he did that -- he got into the seventh. We can handle that, we can handle a couple innings out there [from the bullpen]."

Slowey held the Rangers to just one run on six hits over 6 2/3 innings to pick up his sixth win of the season for the AL Central-leading Twins, tying him for the team lead with Nick Blackburn -- and placing him in a tie for second in the junior circuit. It was by far his best start since going eight innings and allowing just one run in his April 20 start against the Indians -- his only other start where he pitched past the sixth this season.

"My last couple of starts don't really have an effect on this start, and this start probably won't have an effect on my next start," Slowey said. "We take them all as individual starts. I feel like every start is an individual challenge."

In recent weeks, Slowey has been throwing two bullpen sessions between starts with pitching coach Rick Anderson. The two worked on getting Slowey to separate his hand a bit quicker in order to help give him better command of his pitches. It's something that seems critical for a command-type pitcher like Slowey.

And on Friday night, Anderson said that work started to show based on the performance that Slowey delivered.

"He's been missing more over the plate than he ever has," Anderson said. "As we've talked before, he's been overthinking and trying to do too much at times. Once you're confident in your ability and mechanics as a pitcher, you get confident throwing your pitches. It showed tonight that he got his confidence back because his delivery was so good."

But before Slowey left the contest, he put himself and his club in a bit of a jam -- one that the bullpen would have to work through. The right-hander walked Max Ramirez, the Rangers' No. 8 hitter, to load the bases with two outs in the seventh after starting Ramirez out 0-2 in the at-bat.

Gardenhire called upon left-hander Jose Mijares to enter the game with left-handed-hitting Julio Borbon on deck. Instead, Rangers manager Ron Washington had one of this club's best hitters, Nelson Cruz, pinch-hit for Borbon.

Cruz, who was hitting .330 on the season with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs, had been questionable coming into the game after injuring his left hamstring on Wednesday. But before the contest, Washington said that Cruz was a possible pinch-hit option.

It was just Mijares' second appearance since May 21 and the first time the lefty pitched in a tight contest since going on the disabled list with a strained left elbow back on April 16. Despite the layoff and the situation -- bases loaded and two outs in a one-run game -- Mijares got Cruz to ground out to third baseman Nick Punto on a slider and end the inning. The southpaw said he felt "really good" after the game.

"We tried to ease him back into the situation," Anderson said. "He's crisp again. His breaking ball has bite and his fastball has life. Now you can start getting back into situations we're used to putting him in. Tonight was a good test for him, and he came out and threw some good pitches to Cruz."

The rest of the bullpen made that one-run lead hold. Matt Guerrier pitched a perfect eighth inning before Jon Rauch, who made a mechanical adjustment himself, shrugged off a blown save and a loss in his past two outings to convert his 11th save in 13 chances.

The Rangers scored their only run in the fourth inning despite having a home run call reversed when Ian Kinsler hit a long fly ball down the left-field line. It was initially ruled a homer before Gardenhire went out to ask the umpiring crew to review the call. After video evidence deemed it was a foul ball, Kinsler followed with a double to right field and wound up tallying a run for Texas anyway. After stealing third base, he scored on Vladimir Guerrero's RBI single to tie the game at 1.

While the Minnesota offense has not been putting up big numbers in many of their recent games -- it has scored three runs or fewer in seven of its past 10 contests -- this time, they were able to make those two runs count.

Joe Mauer delivered both runs for Minnesota off Rangers starter Colby Lewis, tallying an RBI single in the third inning and giving the Twins a 2-1 lead in the fifth when he grounded into a 4-6-3 double play with the bases loaded, plating Nick Punto. It was the 12th time Mauer has grounded into a double play this season, tying him for the team lead with Michael Cuddyer.

And thanks to Slowey's performance, and that of the rest of the pitching staff, it was the only offense the club needed.

"He did a good job," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said of Slowey. "He didn't walk anybody and threw quality strikes. He had a good tempo. He did a good job making those two runs hold up."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.