MINNEAPOLIS — At first, it seemed more than a month of recuperation had done Ricky Nolasco some good.
Then a familiar face displayed a sliver of his 2012 self.
Former Twins outfielder Josh Willingham, back at Target Field for the first time since being traded Monday to Kansas City, provided the game-turning swing in a 6-5 Royals victory that nudged the American League Central Division leaders closer to the postseason and shoved Minnesota further into the cellar. Willingham’s bases-clearing double erased a 2-0 Twins lead and provided 3/5 of the Royals’ five-run fourth inning — the kind of frame Nolasco’s yielded all too frequently this season, his first in the Twin Cities.
Nolasco returned from a strained right elbow and in his first appearance since July 6 looked masterful in five separate innings. But it was the fourth stanza of his six-inning showing that handed him a dismal line of five earned runs on seven hits with three strikeouts and a walk.
"I’d like to have that one back," Nolasco said of Willingham’s first-pitch rocket down the left-field line.
A pitch here, a startlingly ineffective inning there — that’s characterized most of Nolasco’s showings since signing for four years and $49 million with a fifth-year team option, the most lucrative free-agent contract in Twins history. In his first 18 starts, the Opening-Day starter was 5-7 with a 5.90 ERA.
Then came the injury that kept him out for more than a month. Minnesota (54-66) reinstated him from the disabled list Friday after a two-game rehab stint at Single-A Cedar Rapids.
Nolasco said his body felt fine. In the scoreless first, second, third, fifth and sixth innings, his delivery was, too.
"He had one bad inning," manager Ron Gardenhire said, "but our catcher (Kurt Suzuki) kept saying ‘he’s throwing the ball good.’ He liked the way it was coming out of his hand and you know you’ve got to listen to your catcher."
"We’ve got something to work with there and build off that. His first start back, I’m sure he’s a little disappointed."
Especially when it comes to the top of the fourth.
That’s when he gave up doubles to Willingham and Salvador Perez and a triple to Alcides Escobar. Perez led off the frame by reaching second base, Billy Butler followed up with a single, Nolasco hit Alex Gordon, and then Willingham stepped up to bat for the second time against his former team.
He roped the first pitch he saw, an 83-mph slider that hung over the plate, toward the Twins logo in the right-fielder corner to drive in three runs.
"As a hitter, you want to hit with runners on base," said Willingham, who’s now 3-for-14 in four games with Kansas City. "I knew that was a big spot for us, and I was happy to — this time — come through."
The Royals (67-54) went on to claim a 1 1/2 game lead over Detroit for the Central Division lead, thanks in part to the Tigers’ 7-2 loss against Seattle on Friday. Kansas City now has won 19 of its past 23 games, the best mark in the majors during that time.
In position to make his inaugural playoff appearance, Willingham had a career year here in 2012 before injuries derailed his next two campaigns. With his contract expiring after the season and Minnesota in a selling position for the fourth consecutive year, general manager Terry Ryan sent him to Kansas City for minor league pitcher Jason Adam.
The huge fourth inning bailed out usual Twins nemesis Danny Duffy, who in five previous outings against Minnesota had allowed just two runs in 22 1/3 innings and held it to .171 batting. The Twins doubled that total in the third when Duffy (8-10, 2.60 ERA) overthrew first base on Danny Santana’s perfectly-placed bunt, allowing Eduardo Escobar to score, and on Brian Dozier’s RBI ground-out to take a 2-0 lead.
A two-run rally in the bottom of the ninth brought the Twins back within one, but All-Star closer Derek Holland shut the door for his AL-leading 37th save. Caleb Thielbar, Jared Burton, Brian Duensing and Ryan Pressly all came on in relief after Nolasco’s exit, with Burton allowing the additional run on Escobar’s RBI single in the eighth.
Playing in his first home game since July 1 — also against Kansas City — first baseman Joe Mauer extended his hitting streak to a career-high-tying 16 games with a double down the left-field line in the eighth. Gordon almost made a diving catch at the foul line, but the ball bounced out of his glove upon his impact with the ground.
Kennys Vargas then struck out swinging, and Trevor Plouffe flew out to center — a microcosm of an game played before 32,013 fans in which the Twins went 5-for-19 with runners in scoring position.
"Unfortunately, we couldn’t make up enough ground," said Gardenhire, whose club remains mired in last place in the Central. "Although we scored some runs, we still left some people out there. Other than that, the guys gave an effort at the end. We had a shot, and it didn’t work out."
Buxton doing OK: After colliding with a teammate Wednesday night, Twins prospect Byron Buxton will be sent to Fort Myers, Fla. on Sunday.
There, Minnesota manager for major league administration and baseball research Jack Goin said, Buxton will be evaluated daily by Twins medical staff as he recovers from an apparent concussion. As of Friday, Buxton continued to show concussion-like symptoms but nothing more serious than that, Goin said.
Buxton, widely considered baseball’s top minor leaguer, smashed into Double-A New Britain teammate Mike Kvasnicka when both outfielders dove for a fly ball. Buxton lay motionless and unconscious for roughly 10 minutes after the collision and was taken away in an ambulance. Twins brass initially feared a head or neck injury, but Buxton has yet to display any signs beyond a concussion.
Goin said he hasn’t seen the replay of the nasty hit and plans to avoid watching it at all costs. Gardenhire has, though, and said he was glad to see the marquee prospect, who was playing his first Double-A game after dealing with wrist injuries throughout the year, didn’t sustain any further damage.
"That was scary," said Gardenhire, who was in Houston with the Twins at the time of Buxton’s injury. "I think we’re lucky. I think those two young men were both really lucky they didn’t get hurt worse than they did."