CLEVELAND — In his 18th major league start, Twins righthander Liam Hendriks finally notched his first major league victory Wednesday night, yielding just two hits over six innings against the Indians.
Hendriks squandered an early lead, but Josh Willingham kept lending support, going 4-for-5 with four RBI and hitting his 35th home run, as the Twins defeated Cleveland, 6-4, at Progressive Field.
The teams were tied for last place in the American League Central, but at 62-87, the Twins have a one-game lead over the Indians and will try for a three-game sweep in Thursday afternoon’s series finale.
Hendriks (1-7) allowed a first-inning home run to Asdrubal Cabrera and let the Indians tie it in the third inning after the Twins had taken a 2-1 lead, but his final pitching line looked pretty good: Six innings, two hits, two earned runs, two walks, two strikeouts.
In his first 17 career starts, including four last September, he went 0-9. Since 1920, only four other major league pitchers have opened their careers with 17 career winless starts: Bill Caudill (20), Mike Mohler (20), Craig Anderson (17) and Jason Hammel (17).
After hitting an RBI single in the third inning, Willingham hit a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the fifth inning off Indians starter Zach McAllister (5-8), becoming the first Twin with 35 home runs since Harmon Killebrew hit 41 in 1970.
The only other Twins player to reach the 35-home run mark was Bob Allison, in 1963. Killebrew did it eight times.
Chris Herrmann’s first career RBI made it 5-2 that inning, and Willingham added a two-out, RBI single in the sixth, making it 6-2. That gave Willingham 110 RBI, the most for a Twin since Delmon Young had 112 in 2010.
The Twins were glad Willingham kept hitting against a team that considered signing him last offseason. Indians closer Chris Perez has publicly criticized team management for failing to sign Willingham, and he continues to rub salt in the wound, with 19 RBI against Cleveland this year.
With Hendriks at 97 pitches, and a bullpen that had pitched seven innings in Tuesday’s 12-inning victory, manager Ron Gardenhire turned to Alex Burnett to start the seventh.
Burnett got three quick outs, but Cleveland rallied in the eighth after the umpires reversed a call and took a hit away from Joe Mauer. Third base umpire Mike Muchlinski originally ruled that Mauer’s line drive had landed, but replays clearly showed left fielder Vinny Rottino had made a diving catch. Indians manager Manny Acta protested. The umpires didn’t use replay, but they conferred and overturned the call, leaving Mauer 1-for-4 with a walk on the night, dropping his average to .324.
Jason Kipnis hit an RBI single off Burnett, and then Michael Brantely hit a two-out, RBI single off Tyler Robertson, trimming Minnesota’s lead to 6-4. Brantley’s hit was the first for a lefthanded batter off Robertson since Josh Hamilton got one on Aug. 23.
Robertson rebounded by striking out Travis Hafner to end the eighth, and Glen Perkins came on to pitch the ninth, earning his 13th save and sealing that elusive first victory for Hendriks.