CHICAGO -- The intensity was sure to be high in this series with the top two teams in the American League Central meeting up for their final three head-to-head games of the season. But with the Twins entering Tuesday night's series opener holding a six-game lead over the White Sox, the pressure clearly was on Chicago to come up with a strong opening statement and get itself back in the race. Instead, the Twins delivered the first blow of what they hope will be a knockout punch in the division race by taking a 9-3 victory at U.S. Cellular Field.
"To come in here and win this first game is huge," said Twins reliever Jesse Crain. "[The White Sox] wanted to sweep and if they did that, they would have been right back in the thick of things. It's still not over, but to come in here and take this game, I think mentally it's got to hurt them a little bit. "It's a huge win, probably one of the biggest of the season for sure." Twins starter Francisco Liriano pitched six innings, allowing three runs on six hits while striking out seven. And Denard Span hit a bases-clearing double off the glove of center fielder Alex Rios as part of a five-run eighth inning to ensure the victory that pushed Minnesota's lead in the division to seven games and reduced the Twins' magic number to 12. The night clearly had the feel of a pennant race early on as it was a tight battle between the two teams up until the eighth inning. But it was the Twins who managed to deliver the clutch hits and, perhaps most importantly, the big pitches to help the club eke its way out of jams. The Twins had scored two runs off White Sox starter John Danks in the top of the seventh to take a 4-3 lead. But it was the jam that Crain worked out of in the bottom of the seventh that was the biggest moment of the game for Minnesota. Matt Guerrier entered Tuesday night having not allowed a run in 8 1/3 innings against the White Sox this year. But in the seventh, Guerrier gave up back-to-back singles to Gordon Beckham and Juan Pierre to start the inning. Crain took over and he loaded the bases with a one-out walk to Alex Rios. But in a critical situation, Crain showed why he's been the Twins most trusted setup man of late -- striking out Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez in order to get out of the inning unscathed. "He made some huge pitches on some very good hitters and one of them being Konerko, whom we did not want to face in a big situation," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "[I was] hoping we could get to a base open and walk him, to tell you the truth. He made just some huge pitches against two very good hitters in Konerko and then Manny. "That was the ballgame." Crain fell behind 1-0 against Konerko, who has been one of the best hitters in the game of late. But he then threw a slider for strike one and got Konerko to foul off three straight pitches before striking him out on a 97-mph fastball. "He doesn't miss too much right in the middle," said Konerko, who has struck out in each of his last five at-bats against Crain. "He hits the spots or misses to where he can't get hurt. He's done the job against us. He's done the job against me." Crain then got Ramirez down 0-2 by throwing two sliders to start the at-bat. Ramirez, who has yet to drive in a run since coming to Chicago, battled to work the count to 2-2 but he struck out swinging on the third slider thrown by Crain in the at-bat. It also kept a scoreless streak intact, as Guerrier and Crain have now combined to throw 18 shutout innings against the White Sox this season. Knowing that this week provides an opportunity to perhaps put an end to Chicago's postseason hopes, the Twins didn't come into this series lightly and there seemed to be a little extra adrenaline early for both team's starters. Danks and Liriano exchanged zeros through the first four innings, before the Twins struck first. Delmon Young, who was celebrating his 25th birthday on Tuesday, led off the fifth inning with a solo home run to left field on the first pitch from Danks and Span added an RBI single to put the Twins up 2-0. But after the Twins scored, Liriano's early dominance hit a snag as Alexei Ramirez's two-run single knotted the game right back up. Liriano has admitted to getting a little too amped up for big games at times this season, and perhaps that showed later in the outing. Catcher Joe Mauer made numerous trips to the mound to keep Liriano calmed down and it earned some boos from the Chicago crowd as those trips became more frequent. In the sixth, Liriano found himself in another jam -- this time with the bases loaded and no outs. He managed to allow just one run to score when A.J. Pierzynski grounded into a double play and gave Chicago a 3-2 lead. But he then got Omar Vizquel to fly out to end what could have been a big inning for the White Sox. From there, the night would belong to the Twins. But while it was a big win, the Twins aren't ready to declare the race close to being over, although the White Sox admitted that their task just got a lot more difficult as they now trail by seven with 18 games left to play. "We are through the wall right now," said Konerko when asked if the White Sox now have their backs against the wall. "Before the series, you know it's tough and you have to probably sweep. But you just continue to play hard and who knows, we get the next two and keep battling until they tell you that you can't battle anymore." For the Twins, the hope is that Chicago's battle cry will be silenced sooner than later. But having been the team to make a late comeback push in the division race over the past two years, they know that now is not the time to let up. "Today's over with," Span said. "We did our job today and now we've got to come back tomorrow and try to do the same thing and hopefully kill their dreams."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.