MINNEAPOLIS — Prior to another paltry September contest Saturday night, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called Phil Hughes a "guiding light."
It was a cutesy phrase from a down-home dugout general who isn’t shy to dole out praise but rarely ventures into the realm of maudlin. But after using nine pitchers in a 4 Â½-hour marathon the evening before, the Twins needed a stopgap.
The guy they signed for three years and $24 million back in December delivered it. But his successors, for the third night in a row, weren’t equal to the task.
Minnesota relief gave up five unanswered runs in the final two innings, turning what would’ve been a win against Major League Baseball’s winningest club at present into an 8-5 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Target Field.
"(Hughes) was fantastic," Gardenhire said. "He actually, early in the game, didn’t look like he had his best stuff, but he fought his way through it."
Largely a strength dating back to last season, the Twins’ (61-81) bullpen coughed up a tie or lead in the final two frames for the third outing in a row.
Its collective ERA since Aug. 22 is 6.71, the worst in the majors during that span.
Missing closer Glen Perkins the past two nights because of a strained neck hasn’t helped. But Minnesota relievers can’t float pitches like Fien and Jared Burton did Saturday, Fien said.
Especially against a lineup featuring Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Howie Kendrick.
"Being a reliever, it’s like a rollercoaster," said Fien, who said he wasn’t feeling any after-effects from taking a comebacker off his throwing arm Friday. "You’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs."
Hughes (15-9, 3.55 ERA) missed out on his 16th win despite allowing three runs on seven hits and striking out eight. He worked his way out of early trouble, allowing a run apiece in the first three innings before settling in and clipping through one of baseball’s most potent batting arsenals.
He became gassed in the sixth, he said, but came back for one more frame and finished it off with a 94-mph called strike against Trout, the MVP candidate’s third strikeout of the night.
"He was toast," Gardenhire said.
The backward "K" tied Hughes’ single-season career high with 165, first set in 2012 as a New York Yankee.
"I just dug deep, gave it everything I had," said the hard-throwing righthander, who threw 81 strikes on 103 offerings. "I was able to go out there and rely on my fastball and empty the tank.
"It’s always tough. To win games, you always want a good start, the bullpen to step up and to score a few runs. Unfortunately, for us, the last few games here, one or two things hasn’t been there."
Fien came out for the top of the eighth and promptly gave up a single to Pujols, an RBI triple to Kendrick and a sacrifice fly to Erick Aybar that knotted the score at five. Attempting to close in place of Perkins, Burton yielded the winning run on a two-run double by Pujols, the future Hall of Famer’s 2,500th career hit.
Pujols — who also had a solo shot off Hughes in the third, becoming the 11th player since 1901 to score 1,500 career runs at 34 years of age or younger — came home on Kendrick’s single to right off Anthony Swarzak.
"They become automatic," Gardenhire said. "Those guys have been very, very good, and to see them struggling right now, it’s probably because of the workload."
The Twins bullpen has pitched 459 innings this season, second in the majors.
It might not have been an issue Saturday, save for a strange tingling sensation in Perkins’ neck. The two-time All-Star first noticed it after pitching Thursday, didn’t pitch Friday and underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test Saturday afternoon. The results turned up no structural damage or pinched nerves, but Perkins is still listed as day-to-day.
So are outfielders Danny Santana (left lower back strain from a throw home in the third inning) and Jordan Schafer (bruised ribs after running into the outfield wall Friday night), Gardenhire said.
Parmelee replaced Santana and hit his seventh homer of the year to tie the game at 3 in the third. Eduardo Escobar also homered.
Minnesota’s offense came against a committee of arms following Friday’s 10-inning affair here, a 7-6 Angels win, that saw 17 pitchers take the mound. Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia deployed seven hurlers Saturday, none of them throwing more than two innings. Joe Smith (7-2, 1.98) pitched the eighth and picked up the win, and Huston Street earned the save after coaxing a game-ending double play off Brian Dozier with two men on base.
The 3-hour, 20-minute contest in front of 28,924 spectators seemed short compared to Friday’s drawn-out clash. But it was the Twins’ fifth three-plus-hour game in a row and seventh in their last eight outings.
"I just know within the last two weeks, we’ve played a lot of 3 1/2 or four-hour games," Gardenhire said. "That’s not been the norm. We normally go about our business really quick."
With that in mind, Hughes’ deep showing allowed Minnesota to save rookie Logan Darnell to start Sunday. Had Hughes bowed out early, Gardenhire said, Darnell would’ve been the next available arm.
But that didn’t end up being an issue. The guys behind Hughes did.
"Hopefully," Gardenhire said, "they’ll get back on track and get them out. They’ve been doing it for us all year."