ST. PETERSBURG -- The Twins were hoping that a ninth-inning comeback against one of the best teams in baseball on Thursday night might be the spark they needed. Instead, they followed it up on Friday with an absolute clunker, suffering an 11-1 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field. It was the Twins' worst loss since they fell to the Blue Jays, 9-0, in Toronto on Sept. 4. And the loss dropped the Twins once again to 2 1/2 games back in the American League Central race behind the White Sox following Chicago's 9-4 win over Kansas City.
For the Twins, it was much of the same story in this loss. They were once again plagued by a problem that keeps popping up over the course of the road trip -- rough outings by their starters. One night after Glen Perkins lasted just two-thirds of an inning in his start, the Twins were handed another rough outing by their starter. This time out, Nick Blackburn gave up six runs on six hits while pitching only 1 1/3 innings. The problems began from the first batter that Blackburn (10-10) faced, as he gave up a leadoff triple in the first. From there, things only spiraled downward. He gave up hits to three of the next four batters he faced, allowing three runs to score. Manager Ron Gardenhire said Blackburn was trying to establish his sinker early on and started throwing primarily fastballs. So when pitching coach Rick Anderson went out to the mound, he told the right-hander to mix in all of his pitches. Blackburn got the inning-ending double play by doing just that. Unfortunately for the Twins, it ended up meaning that in the next inning, Blackburn threw an array of offspeed pitches and no fastballs. "When you start doing that, you get all out of whack and there's not much you can do from there," Anderson said. With Blackburn unable to get anything going, the Twins were forced to turn to Boof Bonser in the second inning. After getting the final two outs in the second, Bonser managed a 1-2-3 inning in the third. But in the fourth, more bad luck found the Twins. With two outs and runners on first and second, Carlos Pena hit the first pitch from Bonser deep to right-center field. The ball hit near the top of the fence and Pena was originally awarded second base on fan interference. The managers of both clubs went on the field to discuss the play -- Gardenhire was looking for an out due to fan interference, which possibly prevented a catch. Rays skipper Joe Maddon was looking for a home run call. The umpires convened to discuss the play, instant replay was used, and the ruling was overturned to a home run. And as the runs mounted up against them, the Twins couldn't get anything going offensively. Rays starter Edwin Jackson figured out very early in the contest how to shut down the Twins' offense, relying primarily on his mid-90s fastball. Minnesota tallied just one run on seven hits. The lone run came in the sixth inning on a Joe Mauer sacrifice fly. Still, Gardenhire turned the focus away from the offensive woes and back to the problem that has hampered the club throughout the past week -- its inability to get good starting pitching from its young arms. In eight games of their current road trip, a Twins starting pitcher hasn't made it past the fifth inning in six of those contests. "We can't keep going to the bullpen for six, seven innings," Gardenhire said. "It's going to kill us. We're looking for somebody to step up. Hopefully tomorrow is the day." Fatigue has been mentioned as a possibility for why the starters have struggled. Like Perkins, Blackburn has already reached a career high in number of innings pitched. And after posting a 2.23 ERA over six starts between July 2 and Aug. 1, Blackburn has now posted a 5.86 ERA over his last eight starts while going 1-4. But like his fellow starter, Blackburn also did not place the blame on feeling tired. "Obviously, it looks like I'm getting tired, but everything feels great," Blackburn said. "Nothing feels like it's wearing down." That doesn't mean Blackburn isn't frustrated. "It's obviously not a good time in the season to be doing what I'm doing right now," Blackburn said. "These last couple of outings haven't gone anywhere close to how I'd like them to be going. It's extremely frustrating to keep going out there and doing what I'm doing. I'm not even giving the team a chance to win right now." That's been a trend for a few of the starters, not just Blackburn. With only eight games left in the regular season and trailing Chicago by 2 1/2 games, Gardenhire knows his team has to turn things around quickly. And if the Twins are going to do that, the starting pitching will have to get back on track. "This is a pennant race," Gardenhire said. "We have to go out there and make pitches. They say they are not tired, they don't feel tired. So it's about making pitches and using your sinker and getting it down in the zone. "We have to get innings out of these young men. I know they are young, and I understand the whole thing [about possibly being tired]. We have been worried about that forever, but it's still about giving us a chance. We can't continue going to the bullpen for six, seven innings. These guys have to throw the ball."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.