KANSAS CITY -- The Twins had managed to avoid facing Zack Greinke the first 14 times that they played the Royals this season. But on Sunday their luck ran out, as they saw firsthand why Greinke is considered one of the favorites to win this year's American League Cy Young Award. Greinke continued his dominating season -- holding Minnesota to just one run over seven innings -- as the Twins fell to the Royals, 4-1, on Sunday afternoon to snap the club's five-game winning streak. It was just Minnesota's second loss in its past 13 games, and thankfully for the club it turned out not to be too costly.
As they packed up in the visitors' clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium and headed to Detroit for their critical four-game series with the Tigers, the Twins found themselves sitting just two games back in the American League Central race thanks to Detroit's 8-4 loss in Chicago. "We didn't lose any ground today thanks to another team," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We're going there now, and it's all in our hands. We've got to win the series. That's what it's all about." Minnesota won both of its first two series on this road trip but missed a chance to bring its record on the trip to 6-0 by neglecting to capitalize on the opportunities it did have against Greinke. While the Twins averaged eight runs in their five victories to open the trip, they knew they were in for a tough battle against Greinke, who is now 4-0 with a 0.43 ERA in his past six starts. Greinke kept Minnesota off-balance at key times during the contest, using everything from a 71-mph curveball to the 98-mph fastball he threw to strike out Orlando Cabrera for the final out in the seventh inning. And on this day, they couldn't find a way to get a big hit off Greinke, who struck out eight and lowered his Major League-leading ERA to 2.06 to earn win No. 16. Of the Twins' chances, the best one came in the third inning when they had the bases loaded and no outs. Matt Tolbert walked, Nick Punto bounced a single off Greinke's glove and Denard Span blooped a single just over the outstretched glove of third baseman Alberto Callaspo. But from there, Greinke settled down and made some key pitches. He got Cabrera to hit a weak grounder to Luis Hernandez, who then threw home to get Tolbert on the forceout. Although catcher Miguel Olivo didn't try to get the double play at first base, Greinke settled for getting two key outs another way -- strikeouts. The right-hander fanned Joe Mauer on a nasty slider for his second swinging strikeout and then got Jason Kubel to do the same. "He's not too much different from last year," Mauer said. "I thought he was one of the best last year. But his stuff is right up there with the best in the league. He was on today. He threw the ball well." In the sixth and seventh innings, Minnesota had runners on first and second with no outs. But the only run it could push across came in the sixth on Michael Cuddyer's RBI groundout. The Twins wound up leaving 11 runners on base, and they couldn't help but feel like they missed a big opportunity heading into the Tigers series. "Yeah, [Greinke] made big pitches when he had to," Cuddyer said. "We got hits off him, we gave ourselves a chance. ... We just didn't come through when we needed to." It didn't help that the club was put in an early hole against Greinke due to a rough return to the rotation by Francisco Liriano. In his first start since Aug. 17, Liriano didn't make it out of the second inning. The left-hander gave up a three-run homer to Yuniesky Betancourt with one out in the second to put Minnesota in a 3-0 hole. Liriano (5-13) then walked two of the next three batters he faced before Gardenhire decided enough was enough and turned to Jeff Manship with two outs in the inning. "It just wasn't a pretty performance," Gardenhire said of Liriano, who scattered three hits and walked three in 1 2/3 innings. "Pitching to Betancourt with a base open, he threw a fastball pretty much middle in and [Betancourt] put it in the seats. For us, it was pretty much a back-breaker early in the game with facing Greinke." "I wasn't making good pitches," Liriano said. "I was walking too many people too early in the game. I think it was a good idea to take me out of the ballgame." Betancourt scored the only other Royals run in the fourth inning. After leading off the inning with a double to left field, Betancourt advanced to third on a sac bunt and scored on a wild pitch by Manship. Kansas City wouldn't even need that many runs, as Minnesota could muster just the one run while facing Greinke for seven innings and then closer Joakim Soria for the final two frames. While the Twins were frustrated by their effort against Greinke, they will have another shot at him Saturday, and their hope is that the division will still be in play. To have that happen, Minnesota will have to take care of business in Detroit. And while the Twins were not able to dwindle their deficit in the division to one game before heading to Motown, they weren't complaining about getting to play the series with a division title still on the line. "At least it's two, it could have been three," Kubel said. "We're still right there." "With the way our back has been against the wall, every series has been huge," Cuddyer added. "Every series has been the season. Nothing is changing with this four-game series. ... We've got a chance to continue to control our own destiny. That's all you can ask for."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.