Cuddyer's homer backs Baker's gem

Cuddyer's homer backs Baker's gem

ARLINGTON -- Before his club headed off for the All-Star break, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire singled out two keys for his club in the second half of the season.

One was health and the other was starting pitching.

When talking about his club's rotation, Gardenhire focused on two starters needing to find their form the second half -- Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano.

"Those are the two we were really relying on, and it hasn't happened yet," Gardenhire said at the end of the first half. "Whether it will or not, we'll see."

For at least his first start of the second half, Baker showed promise of being the staff leader that he was in 2008.

The right-hander delivered one of his best starts of the season, allowing just one run over eight innings to the Rangers in the Twins' 4-1 victory on Saturday night. The victory pulled the club to within two games of the American League Central-leading Tigers.

"It's definitely in the direction that I want to be headed," Baker said of his start. "I want to have a big impact on this team in the second half."

Baker entered the contest with the second worst ERA in the AL (5.42), although much of that was due to his early season struggles. The pitcher, who had signed a four-year, $15.25 million contract in the spring, posted a 9.82 ERA in April and lost his first four starts.

He rebounded with a solid June -- going 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in six starts -- only to see his ups and downs continue with two shaky starts to kick off July.

But on this night, those struggles were not even in Baker's mind, as he cruised with relative ease.

"Things are starting to click," Baker said. "I feel like the ball is coming out of my hand well. With both catchers I've been on the same page with them the last few starts. I'm definitely excited about the second half and I think we are on the up and up."

Facing a potent Texas lineup that leads the league in home runs, Baker (8-7) limited the damage to a Nelson Cruz homer. It came with two outs in the fourth inning on the first pitch Baker threw -- Cruz's 23rd home run of the season.

Other than that, Baker kept the Rangers off-balance. While throwing a majority of first-pitch strikes against what he knew was an aggressive-swinging club, Baker scattered just six hits and struck out eight while lowering his ERA to 5.15.

"He pitched a good game," Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "He located well. He doesn't have overpowering stuff or anything tricky. He just did what he's supposed to do."

The Twins' offense did the same, giving Baker enough support to pick up the win and move his record over .500

Michael Cuddyer's 15th home run of the season helped extend the Twins' lead to 3-1, after Cruz had trimmed it to just one with his long ball. On a low, 1-2 curveball from Feldman, Cuddyer managed to get enough bat on it to deposit it in the left-field seats.

The Twins added an insurance run in the eighth off reliever Jason Jennings. Alexi Casilla hit a two-out single and stole second before scoring on Justin Morneau's RBI single to right.

Joe Nathan came on to close out the ninth for his 25th save of the season and to secure the Twins their fifth straight road series win. That's after the Twins began the year with a 7-19 record on the road.

"We started off so bad, we knew that was an aberration," Gardenhire said. "You know you're not that bad of a road team. Now we're trying to make up ground and get back to .500 on the road."

But this win was not without a little additional excitement as well.

With one out in the inning Cruz hit a ball up the middle to Nathan, who tried to tag him out as Cruz zig-zagged up the first-base line. First-base umpire Gary Cederstrom ruled that Cruz avoided the tag and that Nathan's throw to Morneau at first did not beat Cruz, who slid into the bag.

Believing that Cruz had run too far inside the baseline on the play, Gardenhire went out to argue the call -- to no avail. The Twins skipper was ejected for the fourth time this season.

"He said [Cruz] didn't go out of the basepath," said Gardenhire of the explanation given to him by Cederstrom. "Well, which one are we talking about? Because he went all around the one down the middle. ... That was great baserunning, because if you get away with that, you get away with murder."

Though a little fired up about the finish, Gardenhire acknowledged that the night was about Baker and his return to form.

Pitching in front of a huge group of family and friends who had traveled in from his hometown of Shreveport, La. -- about three hours from Arlington -- Baker managed to deliver the type of performance the Twins have been hoping to see from him.

"Tonight was a really good one by Bake, and we're going to need him a lot more," Gardenhire said. "So a good start for him in the second half and a good win for our baseball team."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.