MINNEAPOLIS -- The first month of the 2009 season is over for the Twins, and that also means the end of life without Joe Mauer. Having departed Spring Training without their All-Star catcher, who remained back in Fort Myers, Fla., to rehab an inflamed right sacroiliac joint, the Twins had one goal in mind -- try to weather the storm as best they could in his absence. That wasn't an easy task, as the club faced quite a challenge over its first 22 games. The Twins played all four of the 2008 American League playoff teams-- the Rays, the Red Sox, the White Sox and the Angels, while also hosting two of the hottest teams in the league so far this season -- the Mariners and the Blue Jays.
But with their 8-3 victory over the Rays at the Metrodome on Wednesday night, the Twins ensured that when Mauer returns to the lineup on Friday against the Royals, he'll be joining a team with a .500 record. "It's not as good as we would have liked, but we were treading water until Joe came back," Justin Morneau said of the club's 11-11 record. "We can't completely rely on Joe, but he will make a difference in our lineup. Now that we get him back, hopefully it gives everyone some added confidence, knowing that he's in the lineup, and it takes the pressure off other guys. Hopefully we'll go out there and play the way we're capable of." Wednesday night's game was at least a start in showing they could take a commanding lead early. The Minnesota hitters were able to take advantage of a shaky first inning by Tampa Bay starter Scott Kazmir, scoring four early runs off the left-hander. It wasn't quite the offensive display the Twins would like to showcase, as the club tallied the runs thanks to a couple of infield hits, a blooper and two wild pitches by Kazmir. With the bases loaded and no outs in the first, Kazmir (3-2) threw his first wild pitch during Jason Kubel's at-bat. It allowed Denard Span to score from third base. After the Twins added two more runs, Kazmir bounced another throw to catcher Dioner Navarro during Delmon Young's strikeout, and Kubel was able to slide into home plate safely to make it a 4-0 lead. "He wasn't really throwing his fastballs for strikes," Brendan Harris said of Kazmir, his former teammate. "That's the most sliders I've ever seen him throw. That means he was really feeling for it a little bit and couldn't put his fastball where he wanted to. With a guy with such a live arm like that, that's going to be tough. That's his money pitch." Minnesota added another run off Kazmir in the third on Young's sacrifice fly that scored Joe Crede from third base. But it was another Rays mistake -- this time a passed ball by Navarro -- that had allowed Crede to advance to third and be in position to score on the play. Two errors by Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura in the fourth inning allowed the Twins to score a run and extend their lead to 8-1. Span, Harris and Morneau -- the top three hitters in the club's lineup -- all finished with three hits. Michael Cuddyer reached base three times in the contest. The early offense came as a nice bonus for Blackburn, who improved to 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA over his last two starts. Blackburn followed up his strong outing in Cleveland with another solid start, holding Tampa Bay to just two runs on eight hits over seven innings. Making Blackburn's outing more impressive was the fact he was feeling light-headed and wobbly for most of his time on the mound. The pitcher told assistant trainer Dave Pruemer after the fourth inning that he wasn't feeling too well, despite having given up just one run on five hits at that time. The coaching staff told Blackburn to let them know if he needed to come out at any point in his outing, but Blackburn said it never got to the point in which he felt he couldn't continue. "I figured with that kind of run support, I was going to stick it out and see what I could do," Blackburn said with a smile. After the victory, Blackburn said he still felt a little wobbly, as though he was "in a boat right now, on a lake or out in the middle of the ocean." The pitcher might have felt he was on a little shaky ground after the contest, but as a team, the Twins were feeling like things were finally coming together at the end of the season's first month. Not only were the Twins coming off their second straight series win, but they are looking forward to an off-day before adding their two-time batting champion back into the lineup on Friday as they face their American League Central division foes, the Royals. "There is a lot of confidence in the dugout right now," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We'll see if we can continue that in the next series. It's all about winning series now, and if we pitch like this, we'll be OK."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.