MINNEAPOLIS -- Fueled by his neatly falling sinker, Nick Blackburn finished an important series for Minnesota by finishing another efficient performance.
As long as Blackburn keeps pitching like this, the Twins can't help but call him their ace.
Blackburn (7-4) took a shutout into the ninth, but left fielder Denard Span dropped a soft fly ball for an error and Brandon Inge followed with a two-run home run, his 19th. Blackburn gave up two more singles, giving the slumping Tigers seven hits for the game, but got the last two outs to notch his third complete game in his last four turns.
The best part for him, of course, is that the Twins -- despite their season-long flirtation with the .500 mark -- have avoided falling too far behind the Tigers in the AL Central race during his establishment as the team's top starter.
"Sooner or later all the breaks had to start going our way, and I think now we're all clicking together," Blackburn said.
The Tigers have held sole possession of first place daily since May 16, but a lack of offensive life on this road trip -- they batted .224 -- led to a 3-6 record. The Twins are two games back, the closest they've been in a month.
"You take a lead and run with it and you get the boys back in the dugout as quick as you can," said manager Ron Gardenhire, whose postgame praise of Blackburn's poise has become routine. "He did that the whole day."
Inge's homer gave some hope, but Blackburn's mastery and Porcello's early exit put manager Jim Leyland on edge after the game.
"Too little too late," Leyland said. "Porcello, for the first time, I thought lost his composure. And, last but not least, our starting pitchers have been getting to the point where their pitch counts are way too high by the sixth inning."
He's throwing first-pitch strikes, putting his sinker in the right places, and using both sides of the plate to get grounder after grounder. Inge said he only saw two balls across the white part of the plate. One of those was his homer.
"Everything else was black corner, black corner," Inge said. "He was incredible on spotting his pitches. Not just fastballs: It was fastballs, sliders, curve balls, sinkers in. I mean, he was very impressive."
Morneau went deep twice during the series and finished 9-for-15 with five RBIs. The Twins scored all of their runs in the fourth against Porcello (8-6), who threw seven shutout innings at them during a defeat in Detroit on May 5.
They sent 10 batters to the plate that inning, though two of the runs were unearned when shortstop Adam Everett snagged Span's RBI single to the hole and tried to make a tough throw to second base that sailed into right field. Porcello finished the inning, but that was it for him: seven hits, two walks and his second straight loss following four consecutive victories.
"I don't feel like I'm losing my focus out there. I think, today especially, I didn't do a very good job of coming back after giving up the big hit," Porcello said. "That's a big reason why I'm having problems in certain innings like that."
Despite Span's drop, the Twins have only 32 errors past the midpoint of the season. That puts them on pace to breeze by their team record for fewest fielding flubs in one year, 74 in 2002. ... The 53 pitches thrown in Friday night's 16-inning game by speed-baller Joel Zumaya prompted Leyland to declare the reliever off limits for the rest of the weekend. Zumaya missed a lot of time in 2007 and 2008 to finger and shoulder injuries, but Leyland said he wasn't worried about increasing the right-hander's pitch count, deadpanning: "He's rested for two years." ... Twins 3B Joe Crede, signed to a one-year contract for $2.5 million plus playing-time escalators, has met his first incentive. He gets $500,000 for 250 plate appearances. If he reaches 540 plate appearances, he will make $7 million this season.