Twins’ Hughes labors in sixth inning, saddled with frustrating loss

Twins starter Phil Hughes kneels behind the mound before delivering to the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning on Tuesday, at Target Field.  

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — For the third time in as many starts, one inning doomed Phil Hughes.

In his season debut, it was the fifth inning. Last week against Oakland, it was the first inning. Thursday, the sixth inning got the best of Hughes.

The new Minnesota Twins right-hander cruised through five scoreless innings Tuesday against Toronto before it all came crashing down in a five-run sixth frame. Four of those runs were charged to Hughes as he was on the hook for the loss in the Twins’ 9-3 defeat.

"So far, three starts, three bad innings," Hughes said after the loss.

After needing 74 pitches to get through five scoreless innings, Hughes simply couldn’t get anyone out in the sixth despite holding a 2-0 lead. He surrendered a leadoff double down the left-field line to Munenori Kawasaki, and followed that up with an RBI single by Jose Bautista for Toronto’s first run of the game.

Adam Lind followed Bautista with a single to center to send Bautista to third. Edwin Encarnacion recorded the Blue Jays’ fourth consecutive hit to open the inning as he singled off Hughes to drive in Bautista and tie the game at 2.

"It looked like the ball was still coming out of his hand, but he sure wasn’t making any pitches," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "They hit I don’t know how many balls in a row right on the screws. He was cruising before that."

The fourth straight hit to start the sixth inning marked the end of Hughes’ day on the mound, and he left two runners on base as he exited in the sixth inning. Lind came home on a groundout by Moises Sierra, and Encarnacion scored on a sacrifice fly to center field. By the time reliever Michael Tonkin cleaned up the mess to end the sixth, Minnesota trailed 5-2.

Blue Jays 9, Twins 3

When Hughes’ line was all said and done, his ERA remained unchanged from his last start at 7.20. In fact, he’s had the same ERA after all three starts, as he’s allowed four earned runs in five innings each of his three times out.

Tuesday’s start was almost the exact opposite of what happened the last time Hughes toed the rubber at Target Field. In his start against Oakland last Wednesday, he surrendered four runs in the first inning and needed 40 pitches to record his first out of the game. But Hughes settled down after that and didn’t allow a run in the next four innings. In his Twins debut against the White Sox, Hughes also allowed four earned runs in five innings, with three of those runs coming in the fifth inning of Minnesota’s 10-9 win.

For whatever reason, Hughes has had one inning per start that has yielded almost all of the damage against him.

"You’ve got to figure out how to stop the bleeding, I know that," Gardenhire said. "Make a pitch and get through those things. He sure wasn’t able to do it there in that (sixth) inning. It’s too bad, because another good outing and he ends up leaving like that."

Hughes said he didn’t feel fatigued by the time the sixth inning rolled around, even though it was the deepest he’d gone into a game so far this year. For the most part, he felt he had good stuff, but location of his pitches was an issue.

That was especially true in that four-run sixth inning. Hughes left several balls over the plate, and Toronto’s batters didn’t miss.

"I kind of lost it there for a minute, and that was it," Hughes said. "I felt good otherwise. . . . Just three guys in a row, I couldn’t do it."

Hughes, who spent seven years with the New York Yankees before signing with the Twins this winter, has now faced the Blue Jays 28 times, the most of any opponent. He entered Tuesday’s start with a career 5-6 record and 4.86 ERA against Toronto.

Thanks to one bad inning, the Blue Jays got the best of Hughes once again Tuesday at Target Field.

"The middle of that order seems like it’s been the same for a while now," Hughes said of Toronto. "We’ve had lot of at-bats against each other. Certainly lots of sequences and things, so you’ve got to switch it up. Trying to make pitches late in the game is what it’s all about. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t do it."

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