MINNEAPOLIS -- Justin Morneau had designated hitter duty, leaving him with little to do between at-bats during a three-hour game but ride a stationary bike behind the dugout.
Wise choice. His legs sure needed to be loose at the end.Morneau hustled to beat out a potential double play and allow the winning run to score in the bottom of the ninth inning, leading the Minnesota Twins past the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 Tuesday night."I had confidence he was going to get me in, no matter what," said Jose Morales, who raced home when Morneau hit a hard grounder to second baseman Akinori Iwamura. After an easy force, the relay throw was a hair late. First base coach Jerry White jubilantly jumped in the air, and Morneau coolly tossed his helmet toward the mound as his teammates rushed at him."I did everything I could do," Iwamura said.Ben Zobrist, whose pinch-hit homer tied the game in the top of the ninth against Twins closer Joe Nathan (1-0), was summoned from right field to serve as a fifth infielder with one out in the bottom half after reliever J.P. Howell (0-2) gave up two singles and a walk to load the bases.Morneau was so focused on hitting a ball in the air for a sacrifice fly, he said he didn't even notice the unusual formation."Didn't work. He beat it out," manager Ron Gardenhire said, when asked for his take on Rays manager Joe Maddon's decision to stack the infield. "Speed kills.""My speed usually kills us," Morneau quipped.Jose Mijares struck out the side in the eighth after a leadoff walk, but Nathan's first blown save in four attempts came quickly in the ninth. The Twins have been outscored this year 113-85, despite a 10-11 record.Zobrist drove Nathan's first pitch inches above the baggie in right field, evening the game at 3 and Francisco Liriano watched his first victory vanish.Morneau handed Liriano the lead in the first inning with a two-run homer, snapping a string of six straight solo shots going back 11 days for Minnesota, which began the game with the third-fewest homers in the league.Liriano, who lost his first four starts, gave up two runs in the sixth but was still in line for the win when Tampa Bay starter James Shields hit Brian Buscher -- who played first for Morneau -- with a two-out, bases-loaded pitch in the bottom of the inning to force in the go-ahead run.Shields left after that, having allowed seven hits and four walks."I am pretty much putting that game on me," he said. "You can't get bases loaded and hit a guy to bring a run in. That's doesn't happen. I don't think that's every going to happen again with me."Liriano lasted 6 2/3 innings, surrendering seven hits and two walks. Only the second opening day pitcher in Twins history to lose his first four decisions (Frank Viola started 0-5 in 1989), the left-hander got a lot more groundballs by locating his two-seam fastball well and showing some fortitude in a few tight spots. Liriano lowered his ERA from 7.06 to 6.04."I know he's been feeling a little rough and worried a little bit, but he can raise his head right there," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He did a super job against a very good baseball team."Maddon was confident the defending AL champions would start winning these close games."We just have to get beyond that. It will start balancing out," he said.
The Rays stole three more bases and lead the majors with 27. Without Joe Mauer, Minnesota catchers have thrown out only one runner this season. Gardenhire has been patient with Morales, a minor-league convert to the position who picked up bad throwing habits because of a bum ankle last year. Mauer was to play his final game with Class A Fort Myers Tuesday and rejoin the team Friday. ... Tampa Bay backup C Shawn Riggans, out with tendinitis in his shoulder, is throwing without pain to the bases and might start a minor league rehab assignment next week.