MINNEAPOLIS — With two swings of his bat, Sean Rodriguez quashed the seemingly impending pitchers’ duel set to take place at Target Field on Saturday night.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and anyone else who took a look at the matchup before settling into their seats or couches at home could’ve anticipated as much. "The names are there," he said before his team’s second straight setback coming out of the All-Star break.
Those names would be Phil Hughes and David Price. But only one of them held up his end of the equation in front of 36,117 fans.
And it wasn’t the guy in cream and pinstripes trying to nudge his team in the right direction.
"I battled as best I could," Hughes said after being saddled with Minnesota’s 5-1 loss. "I really didn’t have much to work with tonight."
His pitch count (89) in seven innings of work wasn’t bad. Neither were his 89 strikes and five scoreless innings.
But Hughes’ 11 hits yielded were a season high, and two of them — a second-inning two-run home run and a seventh-frame RBI single, both off Rodriguez — blew open an otherwise closely contested affair.
That kept Minnesota (44-52) firmly entrenched at the bottom of the American League Central Division, 10 1/2 games back of first-place Detroit. One-fifth of the 10-game homestand some players labeled season-defining has been futile.
Saturday night, it started with Hughes (10-6, 4.06), who hung up a 1-0 fastball for Rodriguez to crush into the left-field bleachers. James Loney had already roped a two-out RBI single to right, and Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the second.
In the seventh, Rodriguez cranked another 1-0 pitch past the mound to drive in his third run of the night. That made it 5-0 and locked up his third loss in his past five outings.
"It’s tough," said Hughes, whom the Twins signed as a free agent during the offseason. "Coming off the break, you went to get off on the right foot. A couple nights in a row now that our starters don’t do the job."
The defense behind him did its part, turning in five groundball double plays — one off the Twins’ franchise record and their most since Sept. 17, 2006. But the bats weren’t there for a second straight night.
But one of the game’s trickiest lefthanders had plenty to do with that.
Price, who was here earlier this week for the MLB All-Star Game but didn’t pitch, won his career-best fifth consecutive start and extended his league-leading strikeout total to 173 and innings pitched to 155 2/3.
"Price didn’t give us much of a chance," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You’re asking for (Hughes) to match up against that guy over there. "We just couldn’t do anything off that guy."
Said Minnesota third baseman Trevor Plouffe, who went 1-for-4 Saturday: "He’s not a wild pitcher, but he can change locations, make you chase."
Price has been the subject of frequent trade rumors, but they didn’t seem to faze him Saturday.
"I just didn’t’ want the All-Star break to kind of put us into a lull," Price said after yielding just four hits while striking out nine batters in eight innings. "It didn’t do it, or it hasn’t yet, at least."
Indeed, he wasn’t the one who looked rattled Saturday.
"He didn’t have his best stuff; you could see that early," Gardenhire said of Hughes, whose ERA is still the best among a struggling Twins rotation. "I liked the fact that he stayed in there, found a way to get through some more innings."
Mauer watch: Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, on the 15-day disabled list since July 2 with a right oblique strain, did some light field work before Saturday’s game — his first baseball-related activity since the injury.
Mauer still experiences discomfort when sneezing and coughing, Gardenhire said, and has a long way to go on the road to recovery.
"That’s a good sign," general manager Terry Ryan said of Mauer, who played in just 76 games last year due to various ailments, including a season-ending concussion that prompted his move from catcher to first. "He hasn’t swung yet, though. That’ll probably be the next progression.
"It’ll be one of these things that you ask me about Joe, let’s see what he comes in feeling like tomorrow. I’m guessing that’s the right answer."