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Twins losing ground on AL Central foes

In the last nine games, the Twins have backslid, averaging 3.89 runs per contest.

A week and a half ago, the Minnesota Twins were winners of four straight series, seemingly gaining some traction after being stuck in reverse for most of the season. During their brief run of success, the Twins climbed back to within 10 games of .500 by improving to 24-34.

Everything was working — starting pitching, hitting and defense — if only for a short time.

Now, after Thursday's 9-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Minnesota has lost three series in a row and has fallen to an American League-worst 27-41 on the season. Prior to losing the series in Pittsburgh, the Twins lost two of three at home to both the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.

The Twins won Wednesday's game at PNC Park on a Josh Willingham homer to tie the series at 1-1. But Minnesota fell behind early in Thursday's finale and never recovered as it lost yet another series.

In the last nine games, the Twins have averaged 3.89 runs per game, inflated by an 11-run outburst in the series opener against Philadelphia. During its run of four straight series wins, Minnesota was averaging 5.08 runs per game.

Over the past three series, Minnesota has scored two runs or fewer five times in nine games, including Thursday's one-run effort thanks to a complete game by Pittsburgh's James McDonald. The Twins picked up six hits off McDonald but could only scratch across one run, bringing their total number of runs in the three-game series to five.

"You get behind like that, McDonald was throwing the heck out of the ball," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Good fastball, good breaking ball. He kept us off balance. When we get deep in a hole behind a guy like that who's throwing that well, it makes it really tough."

Pitching, especially the rotation, has again reappeared as a weakness for the Twins over the last week and a half. Minnesota's pitchers are giving up an average of six runs a game in the last nine games, a number that was surpassed Thursday. Starter Liam Hendriks gave up six runs (three earned), while reliever Jeff Manship surrendered three more runs on a pair of home runs.

Hendriks is still searching for his first major league win after Thursday's rough outing. He fell to 0-4 with a 7.39 ERA in six starts this year after going 0-2 with a 6.17 ERA in four starts late last season. He's given up at least one home run in each of his six starts this year, including one Thursday to Pittsburgh's Rod Barajas in the sixth inning.

"Liam just couldn't get the ball where he wanted to," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I know we missed a ball behind him, but there was rockets flying everywhere. The ball was being hit really hard. You add onto it an error and then it just puts more pressure on you and you really have no chance in that ball game after a certain amount of runs get scored because the guy on the other side is dominating you. A tough night for us."

Things won't get any easier for Minnesota as it looks to snap its streak of three straight series losses. The Twins head to Cincinnati for a three-game series this weekend against the first-place Reds. Even though Cincinnati has lost three straight, the Reds still have a run differential of +31. By comparison, the Twins' run differential is an MLB-worst -86 after Thursday's 9-1 loss.

After a trip to Cincinnati, the Twins will host a few division foes, the White Sox and Royals. But after falling farther out of the AL Central race after dropping three straight series, Minnesota can't afford to make it four in a row.

Robby Incmikoski contributed to this report.

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