By La Velle E. Neal III, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With the bases loaded in the seventh inning on Friday night, Rays reliever Joel Peralta got Joe Mauer to fly out meekly to left field — and Mauer crushes everything in Tropicana Field.
Josh Willingham followed and fell behind 1-2. Peralta, who has a good splitter, threw his first fastball of the night, but Willingham was all over it, crushing a three-run double to right-center that cleared the bases and helped the Twins beat Tampa Bay, 5-4.
“I was just battling,” Willingham said. “It was a 1-2 count. I wasn’t looking for anything, just trying to see the ball out of his hand and try to see it as deep as I could because he does have a good split. Just reacted to the fastball.”
When a hitter is going good, great things happen out of simple things. See ball. Hit ball. See Willingham hammer the ball.
See Willingham climb the charts in the Twins record book. The double extended Willingham’s career-long hitting streak to 14 games, and on Friday he set a club record for the longest hitting streak of any player starting his career with the Twins.
Next up is Kirby Puckett, who holds the club record for the longest streak to begin a season at 15.
Mauer hadn’t expected such heriocs Friday. Well, not from others. Tropicana Field is his place. Mauer was 2-for-3 Friday and leads active players with a .433 batting average at Tropicana Field.
“I was actually kind of surprised when that happened,” Mauer said of Willingham’s clutch hit. “He’s swinging the bat great for us. He picked me up with the bases loaded. Hopefully we can ride that thing out as long as he can.”
The Twins lost a 2-0 lead but rallied for their fourth come-from-behind win. They have scored in the first inning in four of their past five games. The bullpen has allowed only two earned runs over its past 12 innings.
Willingham signed a three-year, $21 million contract during the offseason as the Twins sought a bat to replace the departed Michael Cuddyer. Willingham has been more than a replacement: He’s been an upgrade.
He leads the Twins with 12 RBI. He entered the game with a team-high five home runs. He also began the day third in the American League with a 1.111 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His impressive start persuaded manager Ron Gardenhire earlier in the week to bat Willingham between Mauer and Justin Morneau — something that hadn’t happened in a Twins lineup since 2008.
“That’s the reason we went after him, to hit the ball in the seats and drive in some runs,” Gardenhire said, “and to this point, he’s done pretty much exactly what we were hoping he could do.”
Twins rookie righthander Liam Hendriks began the sixth with a 2-1 lead, but Tampa Bay loaded the bases with no outs as Alexi Casilla, on successive plays, misplayed a ground ball and was late covering first base on a bunt. Ben Zobrist then drew a walk.
The tying run scored during a double play, before Evan Longoria hit a towering two-run homer to left that gave the Rays a 4-2 lead and chased Hendriks to the showers.
But the Twins came right back against lefthander Matt Moore in the top of the seventh. Casilla and Span both hit one-out singles, then Carroll drew a walk to load the bases. Willingham did his thing two batters later.
Teams talk about being resilient. The Twins have been that this week.
“It needs to happen a few times,” Willingham said. “If you don’t ever come back, you maybe start to believe that you can’t. You do it a few times, then you start believing you can. The effort is there, and you just have to have it happen a few times.”