Twins tough to beat inside their dome

9/24/2008 - MLB

MINNEAPOLIS -- Their general manager said he was never coming back here. Their manager said he wished he didn't have to. Unfortunately for the Chicago White Sox, this series against their division rival had to happen, and it had to happen here. In the Metrodome, where the Twins again showed why they're so dangerous.

GM Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen could only watch as Minnesota outplayed, outpitched and outmuscled Javier Vazquez and the White Sox in a 9-3 win on Tuesday night in the opener. Jason Kubel hit two home runs and Scott Baker threw seven innings as the Twins' sound victory reinforced some of the questions about Vazquez's big-game pitching ability, while reaffirming that Minnesota is one of the best home teams in the major leagues. Chicago now leads the American League Central by just 1½ games, with two more left to play in the Twins' indoor playground, where they are 50-26 this season.

"We're at home. We're in front of a big crowd of 40,000 people," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "If you're not motivated to do that, then you shouldn't be here."

Gardenhire immediately underscored the urgency of this game, all but calling it a must-win. He also held a team meeting, telling his players to play "Twins baseball." The team responded to his message, and played with authority, energy and an assuredness that shows why the Twins are 6-1 here against Chicago this season.

"He knows how to handle everybody -- the young guys, the veterans," shortstop Nick Punto said. "Coming in and throwing that meeting was perfect timing. I'm sure he made those young guys relax and we went out and played [Twins] ball."

As the Twins continue to chip away at the division, Guillen faces nonstop questions about the pressure of this series. Even before Tuesday's loss, Guillen was already becoming agitated at the presumption that somehow the White Sox were coming from a position of weakness.

"We're in first place," Guillen said. "They are the ones who have to worry about us. We'll let them worry about us. I think we have that killer instinct right now."

Instead it was the scrappy Twins displaying that kind of instinct on Tuesday, doing what they are so well-known for:

• hustling after balls in foul territory

• aggressively stealing bases

• bunting players over

• hitting with runners in scoring position

• playing good defense

Minnesota showed its competitive spirit right away in the second inning. After the White Sox went up 1-0 in the top half, Kubel hit a two-run homer in a four-hit frame, and the momentum started to shift, the crowd of 35, 225 growing louder.

"It's a good feeling when you have the confidence to play here," said Justin Morneau, who set a new team record with his 47th double and was serenaded with MVP chants each time he stepped to the plate. "We did the little things that we usually do."

Leading off the fourth, Kubel smacked a triple past a diving Ken Griffey Jr. in center field and Delmon Young drove him home by doubling to right. The Metrodome -- despite less than a sellout crowd in attendance -- was booming and the players were energized. That's when Punto laid down the Twins' major league-leading 63rd bunt hit, and Vazquez allowed his fifth run, reinforcing Guillen's claim earlier this week that he is not a "big-game pitcher."

"I just didn't get the job done," Vazquez said. "No excuses."

So complete was Minnesota's game on Tuesday that it even stole a page from the power-hitting White Sox: smashing the ball, with Kubel and Young hitting back-to-back homers in the seventh inning.

To think there were questions about whether Kubel should start the game. He had entered just 2-for-21 (.095) against Vazquez, while Michael Cuddyer was 12-for-35 (.343) with two homers and six RBIs. Gardenhire reasoned, however, that Kubel has been the DH for most of the year, so why change that now?

"If that is indeed that spot I'm playing at," Kubel said, "then I want to take pride in it and put the best numbers I can."

Baker, meanwhile, was cruising. He got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning and left to a standing ovation after the seventh. The 27-year-old righty got his career-high 10th win, becoming the fifth Minnesota pitcher to record double-digit wins this year. That hasn't happened since 1970.

"He's our veteran pitcher," Punto said. "It was nice to have him on the mound."

The last time the White Sox played here, on July 31, Guillen pulled his players off the field after fans threw bottles and hats onto the turf. The Twins won three out of four in that series, pulling to within a half-game in the division. The next day, Williams told reporters that he was ''never going [to the Metrodome]. Bad things happen whenever I go up there. Twelve more games [until the Twins get a new ballpark in 2010]. Twelve more games.''

But there Williams was before Tuesday's game, sitting in the visitors' dugout, saying he wanted to be assured that the effort, heart and character still remained in his players.

"I've got to look at my players' eyes, and that will tell you what you need to know," he said.

Who knows what he saw on Tuesday night, but his players still have the unenviable of task trying to hold off the Twins, who have a dome on their side.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.