MINNEAPOLIS — A few days after being demoted to the bullpen, Phil Hughes was back in the starting rotation as the Minnesota Twins tried to chase down a playoff spot.
He delivered one of his best outings of the season just when the Twins needed it most.
Hughes pitched five scoreless innings in his return to the rotation, and the Twins had rare success against Corey Kluber in a 4-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night to move within a game of the second AL wild-card spot.
"I told him those were the biggest five zeros he’s had all year," Twins manager Paul Molitor said.
Minnesota trails Houston by a game after the Astros lost to the Angels earlier Wednesday.
Hughes (11-9) allowed four hits and struck out four. Brian Dozier homered and Trevor Plouffe had two doubles, a single and an RBI for the Twins (78-73).
"I wasn’t in a position where I was feeling great about myself," said Hughes, who had struggled in his return from a back injury last week. "Having this outing was a step in the right direction."
Kluber (8-15) gave up four runs on five hits and struck out six in 3 2/3 innings for the Indians. Cleveland played without star outfielder Michael Brantley, who injured his shoulder while diving for a ball on Tuesday night.
Carlos Santana hit a two-run homer in the ninth for the Indians (74-76), who now trail the Astros by 5 1/2 games with 12 left to play.
Some light rain greeted the teams as the game began, but the forecasts called for heavier storms later in the night that led some to wonder if the game would be finished.
Even more ominous for the Twins was seeing Kluber on the mound. They went 4 for 53 against him in his first two starts at Target Field this season, but matched that hit total in their big four-run fourth inning alone.
Dozier led off the inning with an opposite-field homer, Mauer doubled to tie Bob Allison’s franchise record of 42 straight games reaching base and Plouffe sneaked an RBI-double past a diving Jose Ramirez at third base. After Torii Hunter curiously jawed at Kluber after getting hit on the arm to load the bases, Eduardo Escobar broke the game open with a two-run single to make it 4-0.
Last year’s AL Cy Young winner left with one out to go in the third. He has now pitched 7 2/3 innings in two starts since returning from a strained right hamstring.
"I was fighting my delivery the whole night, missing up," Kluber said. "When I missed, I missed up the whole night. In that fourth inning they took advantage of it."
The unexpected outburst backed a sharp outing from Hughes, who was removed from the rotation last week. With the Twins trying to chase down their first postseason berth in five years, manager Paul Molitor didn’t think he could afford to let Hughes work through the rust after he missed time with the back injury.
Hughes pitched out of the bullpen last weekend, but was re-inserted into the rotation when Tommy Milone complained of shoulder fatigue.
Glen Perkins was ejected by home plate umpire Dan Bellino after the game ended. When Yan Gomes popped out to end the game, Perkins immediately started jawing at Bellino, who promptly gave the ejection sign. Though the game was over, Perkins is still eligible to be fined for the tossing.
Molitor said veteran pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who has missed most of the season with ankle trouble, could be activated at some point on the upcoming seven-game road trip.
The Indians will send righty Cody Anderson (5-3, 3.48) to the mound for Game 3 against Twins righty Kyle Gibson (10-10, 3.73). Anderson has won three straight starts, including a 12-1 win against the White Sox last week in which he gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings. Gibson is 1-1 with a 5.61 ERA in five career starts against the Indians.