CHICAGO -- It was a night that featured plenty of opportunities for Francisco Liriano to falter. And if it had been a year ago, perhaps the Twins left-hander might have wilted under the pressure. But with the Twins needing a big outing from Liriano on Thursday night in order to leave Chicago with sole possession of first place in the American League Central, the left-hander managed to work his way out of trouble and limit the damage in a 6-1 victory over the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.
Liriano faced three bases-loaded situations over his 5 2/3 innings and yet the White Sox managed to scratch across just one run. Still, those bases-loaded scenarios certainly created many heart-pumping moments for the Twins. "An exhausting night -- a lot of big innings out there," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. The Twins head back to Minnesota with a one-game lead in the division race, having taken two of three from the White Sox in Chicago. But in order to regain the AL Central lead, the Twins had to stave off trouble for most of the evening in a tight contest that didn't break open until Jason Kubel's three-run homer in the seventh inning. And the final score was deceiving considering that Liriano certainly had his hands full getting himself into, and out of, plenty of big jams. It didn't take long for Liriano to face a big challenge. After he got two quick outs in the first with this team holding a 1-0 lead, thanks to Orlando Hudson's solo homer in the top half of the inning, things got a little shaky. Alex Rios singled, Paul Konerko walked and Liriano hit Carlos Quentin on his left foot with an 0-2 slider to load the bases. A.J. Pierzynski then hit a roller up the third-base line that stayed fair to score a run and knot the game at 1. Liriano escaped further damage when Dayan Viciedo flew out to deep center field, a ball that fell a few feet shy from being a grand slam. Yet, even after his team had taken a 3-1 lead thanks to some White Sox miscues, Liriano found himself having to again get out of trouble. In the fifth, Liriano faced perhaps his biggest test of the night. He loaded the bases with no outs and the middle of the order on deck for the White Sox. Of course he had some help getting there. In addition to Liriano walking the leadoff batter, No. 9 hitter Gordon Beckham, left fielder Delmon Young had a ball bounce out of his glove on a Juan Pierre single and on a bunt attempt, third baseman Danny Valencia bounced his throw and another single resulted. But Liriano didn't falter. Instead he got Rios to hit a comebacker to the mound. Liriano threw home to get the first out of the inning but catcher Joe Mauer held on to the ball rather than throw to first to try for a double play. He then struck out Konerko and Quentin to get out of the inning unscathed. "I was making some good pitches when I needed to. I got myself in trouble but I just told myself to calm down and not try to overdo things. Take it one hitter at a time," Liriano said. "He buckled down in a huge fifth where he really had to work to get through it," Gardenhire said of Liriano. "He made some pitches when he had to against the heart of the order, which was just huge." Things didn't get easier for Liriano in the sixth with his club still holding a tenuous two-run lead. This time he loaded the bases with one out before getting Juan Pierre to line out to center. Next up was Alexei Ramirez, who was 7-for-13 in his career against Liriano. But Gardenhire headed to the mound to chat with Liriano before calling upon right-hander Matt Guerrier to face Ramirez. Gardenhire asked Liriano how he was feeling and told his starter that he had a right-hander up if he felt fatigued. Although Liriano had thrown just 106 pitches, the tough night had caught up to him and the decision was made to have Guerrier pitch. Guerrier got Ramirez to break his bat and pop out to shortstop Alexi Casilla to end the threat. "Every inning it seemed like they were a hit away from getting a couple runs," Guerrier said. "Frankie comes up huge almost going six innings and [the bullpen] kind of pieced together what we could to finish out the game. It's definitely a stressful game but I think all of our games are when it comes down to it." While Gardenhire chose to take his starter out of the game for a key at-bat, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen made the opposite move as he left Gavin Floyd in to face Kubel in the seventh inning having thrown 125 pitches. Floyd had just intentionally walked Joe Mauer for the second time in the contest. But while Kubel had grounded out in the same situation in his previous at-bat, this time he came up with the clutch hit. On an 0-2 pitch from Floyd, Kubel crushed the three-run homer, his fourth of his team's 10-game road trip, and gave the Twins a big cushion to secure the victory. "It's always frustrating when you have good chances with men on base and no outs and you don't perform the way you want," said Rios. "It's part of the game and we just have to step it up these coming games." In the first of two key series between the Twins and White Sox over a two-week stretch, it was the Twins who managed to deliver the first punch by taking this series in Chicago. The series victory ended what was a solid 10-game road trip for the Twins, with a 6-4 record, and capped off a stretch of 17 of 20 games on the road for the club in which it went 12-5. "I think we're all ready to get home for a nice stretch," Guerrier said. "This road trip, these two combined, have been one of the best I think in my career. So it's great to have that momentum coming home for 10 days."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.