MINNEAPOLIS -- After Scott Baker's last start against the Red Sox -- the second straight tough outing by the Twins' No. 1 starter since coming off the disabled list -- Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said he felt the pitcher had to make a mechanical adjustment. Gardenhire read in the paper the next day that Baker didn't feel his troubles were mechanical, so the manager made one thing clear in some comments to the media -- whatever the problem was, Baker needed to fix it. In his first time back on the mound since those comments by his skipper, Baker took what Gardenhire called a "step in the right direction" during his start against the Rays on Monday night.
The problem was, the step by Baker wasn't enough for him to outduel Tampa Bay rookie right-hander Jeff Niemann, as the Twins fell to the Rays, 7-1, in the series opener at the Metrodome. "Offensively, we just didn't do anything against the guy," Gardenhire said of Niemann. "We had chances; he made pitches. We hit a lot of balls up in the air. He has a little funk to him, a little hitch in his giddy-up. ... He made it tough on us." Despite not having overpowering stuff and being a little wild early in his outing, Niemann managed to use that spasmodic motion to keep the Twins off balance. The 6-foot-9 righty gave up just one run while scattering three hits over his 5 2/3 innings. The lone run Niemann allowed came on a homer by Joe Crede in the sixth inning. It was the third baseman's first dinger in the Metrodome as a member of the Twins. "I've never had much success here, even as a visiting player," said Crede, who spent parts of nine seasons with the White Sox before signing with Twins this past winter. "But as a home player, you are going to have to go out there and battle through at-bats and get the job done." While Crede was able to get one good swing off Niemann, the rest of the Twins were unable to take advantage of the opportunities the Rays starter gave them. In three of the first four innings on Monday, the Twins had two runners on base with one out. But like their loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Twins were unable to take advantage of those scoring opportunities. In the first inning, Alexi Casilla drew a one-out walk, and Justin Morneau was hit by a pitch. But Jason Kubel and Crede both recorded flyouts to end the inning. In the third, Denard Span singled to right with one out, and Casilla drew another walk. But this time, Niemann was able to get the club's two power-hitting lefties -- Morneau and Kubel -- to chase pitches out of the strike zone for swinging strikeouts. In the fourth, Michael Cuddyer drew a one-out walk and Delmon Young added a single to center. But just when it looked as though the Twins finally might get something going, bad luck struck. Jose Morales made solid contact, but he lined the ball right at second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who turned an inning-ending double play. "He does have some motion out there, but really, he was a little wild out there at first," Crede said of Niemann. "You've got to make sure you bear down up there, get your pitch and do something with it. We just weren't able to do that tonight." Minnesota had one more chance at a comeback in the seventh, after Niemann was out of the game. Morales and Nick Punto delivered back-to-back singles off Grant Balfour, but Joe Nelson came in and got three straight outs to once again halt any chance of a scoring threat. The Twins went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position on Monday after going just 1-for-9 in those situations on Sunday. The offensive woes made it impossible for the Twins to pick up Baker, who, despite being better than his previous two starts, still allowed four runs on six hits over six innings. For the Twins, though, there was a positive to the outing. Baker was able to shake off some early trouble to make the adjustment that had been missing in his first two starts of the season. After allowing two runs in the first on three straight two-out hits, Baker got Gabe Gross to strike out swinging to end the frame. Gross was the first of 10 straight batters Baker retired. Baker found some trouble again in the fifth, giving up two more runs. But despite the fact he dropped to 0-3 for the first time in his career with the Twins, he and Gardenhire felt it was an improvement from his two previous homer-filled starts. "I'm going to continue to make the adjustments," Baker said. "Becoming emotional about it or getting down about it, I don't see how that would help me make better pitches. Basically I'll just stay positive. I know I'm capable of producing good starts and helping the team win -- and [I'm] not really too concerned about the stats right now. I just want to give our team a chance to win a ballgame."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.