CLEVELAND -- The only words that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had to describe what his club endured on Tuesday night was "heartbreaking." In a season that has been full of ups and downs for the Twins, perhaps no game seemed to better exemplify the roller-coaster ride than this one against the Indians. The Twins watched as Francisco Liriano struggled to find his form -- much like he did in his abbreviated comeback stint in April -- putting his team in a seven-run hole after just 2 2/3 innings.
Minnesota then managed to mount a spectacular comeback, scoring eight runs -- all after the fourth inning -- to take a one-run lead into the bottom of the eighth. But on the verge of tying the club record for the greatest deficit overcome in a victory, the Twins instead suffered yet another disappointing loss in the late innings at the hands of their bullpen. Eddie Guardado gave up a game-tying solo home run to Grady Sizemore in the eighth inning that sent the game to extras. And closer Joe Nathan gave up the first walk-off homer of his career, a three-run shot by Victor Martinez, in the 11th as the Twins were handed a 12-9 loss in devastating fashion at Progressive Field. "A very disappointing loss for us and a tough one for those guys to swallow out there," Gardenhire said. "You feel for the guys in the clubhouse. They really battled. They are feeling the effects of this one." It was the third straight loss for the Twins, and making this one even tougher was the fact that the White Sox beat the Yankees, 6-2, in New York earlier in the night. The Twins dropped to 2 1/2 games behind Chicago in the AL Central with 11 games to play. A lead that certainly isn't insurmountable, but with the clock ticking away, the Twins knows they can't afford to see the number going in the other direction. Especially not on a night where the Twins seemed poised to capture what could have been a statement game. That's because the four-hour, 25-minute battle between the division rivals certainly didn't look like it might be a possible victory for Minnesota early in the contest. The Twins were put in the early hole after Liriano delivered his shortest outing since rejoining the Twins on Aug. 1. Liriano allowed a career-high eight runs (four earned) on six hits. And having tallied just one run in the first inning off Indians starter Zach Jackson, the Twins' offense looked like it would be shut down by a rookie starter for the third straight day. The defense was struggling to make plays, and the Twins didn't look on their way to making any sort of comeback. However, in the fifth inning, momentum shifted. The Twins' bats awoke and scored four runs off Jackson before added two more runs in the sixth to pull within a run. That's also when things started to get really stomach-churning for the Twins. They had a chance to tie the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, but Justin Morneau flew out to right field to end the threat. The Twins missed another chance to take the lead in the seventh with the bases loaded and only one out. This time, Carlos Gomez hit a line drive to third baseman Andy Marte, who then stepped on the third-base bag to complete the double play. "We're just kind of snakebit," Gardenhire said. "We can't keep the ball in the ballpark, and when we hit balls hard, it seems to be at them in big situations. It's all those things that you go through when you're struggling." But the Twins finally got their chance to go ahead in the eighth. And with yet another chance to drive in critical runs, Morneau took advantage. He hit a double to deep center field that hit off the wall, scoring the tying run. Delmon Young's sac fly to right field then put the Twins ahead. But after battling back, the Twins watched as their one-run lead in the eighth disappeared almost as soon as they had grabbed it. With the bullpen already taxed from pitching a lot of innings in Baltimore and eating up innings due to Liriano's short start, the Twins were forced to mix and match. The Twins were also without setup man Jesse Crain, who left the team on Monday to head back to Minnesota to join his wife for the birth of their second child. After using right-hander Matt Guerrier in the seventh, Gardenhire chose to go with the left-handed Guardado for the start of the eighth. The skipper said he planned on using Guardado for two outs -- against a switch-hitter and a lefty -- and then wanted to bring in Nathan for the final out of the inning. But the Twins never got to that. After Guardado recorded a flyout vs. the first batter, he hung a slider on a 2-2 pitch to Sizemore, who was 0-for-7 against the lefty coming into the game. The Indians' center fielder belted the pitch down the right-field line, striking the foul pole for a solo home run to tie the game at 9. "I'll take the blame for this," said Guardado, who suffered his first blown save of the season. " But you just have to keep your chin up. Like I tell the youngsters, as long as you keep playing this game, the things are going to happen. You just don't want them to happen now because you are in the middle of the pennant race and this is real tight." After warming up in the bullpen in every inning from the eighth on, Nathan finally got to the mound in the 11th with the game still game tied. He gave up a leadoff single and then could not put Jhonny Peralta away, so Nathan was forced to pitch to Martinez. On a 1-1 fastball that Nathan left up, Martinez belted a ball to right-center field for only his second homer of the season. It was Martinez's second career hit off Nathan, both of which have been homers. Nathan admitted it was a mistake pitch and one that seemed particularly tough, in that it led to the Twins' third straight loss while in this tight AL Central chase. But not all was lost from the thwarted shot at a victory, Nathan said. "It's a tough loss, but the good thing is the guys battled back from a game where it looked like we were down in the dumps," Nathan said. "We're in a little bit of a hole now, sure. The one good thing is the confidence, offensively. I think everybody is feeling good. We can come in and score some runs and give ourselves a chance to win They just hope it's not too little, too late.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.