MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Nolasco hung the four-seam fastball up in the zone, and Royals catcher Salvador Perez made him pay with a line-drive double to right field.
The gate had been opened early, this time in the second inning at Target Field. But unlike his first two starts in a Twins uniform, Nolasco responded rather than regressed.
After all, he’s been through this before during his seven-year major-league career — a couple bad starts here, a slump there, a meatball offering that means extra bases in a game-turning scenario somewhere in between.
But to stick in the majors this long and earn a lucrative contract like the four-year, $49 million one he inked with Minnesota in the offseason requires a move-on mentality.
"You can never count yourself out, no matter how bad you’re doing," Nolasco said. "It’s huge. Sometimes, if you do that, you’re gonna beat yourself before the game even starts."
At the first sign of trouble Saturday, Nolasco didn’t, coaxing a foul-territory pop out from Mike Moustakas to end the potential second-inning threat. The Twins’ No. 1 starter mostly cruised from there, lasting eight innings and allowing just five hits in a second straight Minnesota romp against its American League Central Division foe.
Watching Nolasco pitch isn’t a thing of dexterity, nor beauty. Rather, a simplistic method of efficiency marks the 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander’s craft. When he mixes fastballs and offspeed pitches like he did in Saturday’s 7-1 win, though, he’s awfully hard to figure out, ringing up the occasional punchout among a shower of ground balls and fly outs.
"That’s kind of my game," said Nolasco, who built up a 4.37 career ERA with the Marlins and, last season, the Dodgers. "They can’t hit any ground balls over the fence."
The offensively challenged Royals sure couldn’t Saturday. Working around a quartet of doubles, Nolasco kept Kansas City contained, allowing one earned run while striking out just four.
This is what Minnesota — which had an MLB-worst 5.26 team ERA last season — and its front office were looking for when they made Nolasco the highest-paid free-agent pickup in club history in November.
"He’s new to our organization," said acting manager Terry Steinbach, who filled in a second straight game for Ron Gardenhire while he attended the funeral of Michael Hirschbeck, the son of former umpire John Hirschbeck. "Obviously, we’ve got films of what he can do, but we’re hoping what we saw today, there’s many more of (those) to come."
As Nolasco pointed out postgame, he’s not going to go eight innings deep every time out. But this was much more suitable compared to his first two outings. On Opening Day in Chicago, he gave up 10 hits and five earned runs — two home runs — in six innings of a 5-3 loss to the White Sox. A week later, he lasted just four frames and yielded five earned runs on seven hits at Cleveland.
His first start at Target Field, with 23,963 looking on, went much better.
The Corona, Calif., native worked 1-2-3 frames in the first, second and fourth before Lorenzo Cain doubled home Alex Gordon, who’d led off the fifth with another two-base hit. But by then, Minnesota (5-6) had built a 7-0 lead thanks to home runs by Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer, the second part of a six-run second inning.
Nolasco mitigated the fifth-inning damage by persuading a Nori Aoki ground-out to short, then faced the minimum in the sixth and allowed one more hit the rest of the way.
It was the second consecutive tide-turning start for a rotation that entered the Kansas City series ranked 27th among MLB teams in innings pitched. Kyle Gibson allowed one run on five hits in 6 1/3 innings in a 10-1 win Friday night.
"Gibby did an awesome job yesterday, and . . . (Nolasco) filled up the zone, which he’s had a track record of, like you’ve seen," Dozier said. "It’s a pretty good two starts in a row."
Said Nolasco, in reference to the starters: "We know, as a whole, we’ve got to pick it up. We’ve been the weak link of the team these first couple weeks of the season."
Dozier picked up his fourth home run of the season, sending James Shields’ fourth pitch of the game into the lower left-field deck. The base-reaching second baseman is actually tied for the American League home runs lead, a note he laughed off when asked about it afterward.
Mauer’s three-run blast in the second was his first of the season, giving him RBI in back-to-back games after failing to record one in his first nine games. The longball came after fielding errors by Shields and Moustakas spotted Minnesota three runs.
Ironically, Shields (0-2) struck out the side in the 11-batter half-inning and was an out away from recording a quality start, lasting 5 2/3 innings. But he threw 50 pitches in the second alone.
"It’s extremely uplifting," said Steinbach, who is expected to return to his normal bench and catching coach duties Sunday. "It’s nice to see, especially today, for us to take advantage of some mistakes."
And the Twins’ No. 1 hurler, refreshingly for Twins fandom, didn’t make many himself.
Willingham’s injury appears minor: Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony sounded optimistic when asked about the length of Josh Willingham’s absence from the lineup. The left fielder took a pitch off his hand last Sunday and was officially placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday.
The left fielder underwent an MRI on Saturday, but Antony didn’t expect the results till later that evening or Sunday.
He hopes they don’t merit anything but a minimum-length DL stint. It’s retroactive to April 7, so Willingham could return as soon as April 22 when Minnesota is in Chicago.
"We were playing it day-by-day, hoping not to put him on the DL," Antony said. "And that MRI as we speak is to make sure we’re not missing anything. If that’s clean, then we’ll rest him for a few days and see how it feels, just play it day-by-day."
Minnesota recalled reliever Michael Tonkin from Triple-A Rochester to take Willingham’s roster spot. The 24-year-old right-hander arrived about three hours before Saturday’s 1:10 p.m. start and was in uniform, sporting the No. 59.
Tonkin pitched the final inning Saturday and allowed one hit and no runs on 11 pitches.
His arrival gives the Twins eight bullpen arms and shortens the bench to three players, but Steinbach said that’s not an issue due to catcher/outfielder Chris Herrmann’s versatility. That also allows Minnesota to keep catcher Josmil Pinto at designated hitter, too.
"It gives the manager a little bit of breathing room," Steinbach said. "(Herrmann) can play a good outfield for us, he has some speed, so we don’t hesitate to put him on the base paths if we have a pinch run situation there, and it gives us that left-handed bat off the bench. We’re very comfortable having him there."