MINNEAPOLIS — As has quickly become a tradition at Target Field, the player of the game for the Minnesota Twins has the dubious honor of dancing in the middle of the clubhouse as a fog machine and laser lights fill up the room.
Monday was Ricky Nolasco’s turn.
The Twins right-hander earned his fifth straight win in Monday’s 7-2 victory over Boston, and his outing meant he was an obvious choice for the postgame dance. Though his pitching was solid against the Red Sox, he didn’t feel quite as confident about his dance moves.
"I’m terrible," Nolasco said about his dancing.
It’s a good sign for both Nolasco and the Twins whenever he’s the subject of a postgame dance party. After the month of May he’s had, there surely could have been other games in which he’d be a worthy choice. Monday’s win was the fifth in a row for Nolasco, who becomes the only pitcher in the majors this year with five wins in May.
On top of that, it also marked his 100th career victory. That’s even more cause for celebration — and dancing.
"It means a lot. To accomplish something like that and have some success is big," Nolasco said of his 100th win. "It’s been a long road. Just to have some kind of success like that is pretty special for me and my family. Just continue going on and see how many I can rack up."
Nolasco only racked up six wins during the entire 2014 season, his first year in Minnesota after signing a four-year, $49 million contract. He finished last year 6-12 with a 5.38 ERA in 27 starts, which wasn’t exactly what the Twins had in mind when they inked him to that lucrative deal.
As he tried to put 2014 behind him, Nolasco’s 2015 got off to a disappointing start. He pitched just three innings before landing on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He returned from the DL on May 2 and has done nothing but win ever since.
Of those five wins, though, not all of them were pretty. In two of his previous four victories, Nolasco lasted just five innings. In the other two, he went 5 1/3 and 5 2/3 innings. Despite that, he still pitched well enough to keep his team in the game each time.
He did that again Monday, and then some. Of course, a seven-run outburst from Minnesota’s lineup certainly helped. Nolasco worked out of a first-inning jam unscathed and was given a 1-0 lead after one inning. Following a scoreless second inning by Nolasco, the Twins’ offense jumped on Boston starter Joe Kelly for six more runs and a 7-0 lead.
That big cushion allowed Nolasco to be a bit more aggressive against Boston’s hitters. He threw more offspeed pitches, noting that his slider and curveball were both effective Monday.
"Normally, you go out there and can challenge guys a bit more," Nolasco said of pitching with a big lead. "I tried a couple times my last two starts, and I know the scouting report on me is swing early, because I’m going to be throwing a lot of strikes and they may be seeing some fastballs early and they don’t really want to see the breaking stuff. . . . I’ve changed my mindset a little bit on that and tried to make better pitches early."
That philosophy worked well Monday. Nolasco hit a bump in the third inning when Boston scored twice to cut the Twins’ lead to 7-2. But after a two-out single by Hanley Ramirez, Nolasco went on to retire the next 15 Red Sox batters he faced. That got him into the eighth inning before a two-out double off the bat of Mookie Betts ended that streak — and Nolasco’s day.
Nolasco was taken out after 7 2/3 innings, his longest start since September 16 of last season. He continued a trend the Twins pitchers have followed of getting deeper into games than they did in recent years.
"We’re always looking for innings out of the starters as much as we can," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "After we got through the third we were hoping he could regroup and get us deeper in the game. I really didn’t know how far he could go, but he just got locked in."
Nolasco picked up five strikeouts and didn’t walk a batter in his 7 2/3 innings. He threw 103 pitches during that span, pounding the zone for 67 strikes. And just one of the seven hits he allowed came after the third inning.
The win for Nolasco and the Twins improved his career record to 100-88 and 5-1 on the season. Minnesota is now a season-high eight games above .500 at 26-18.
It was cause for yet another clubhouse dance party, this time with Nolasco in the middle of it.
"He didn’t want to dance, but I forced him," said Torii Hunter, who’s solely responsible for rigging the clubhouse with the fog machine and laser lights. "He got up there and did some great dance moves. Everybody screamed and yelled. . . . This month of May, he’s 5-0. This guy’s been stepping up big for us."