Twins slugger Josh Willingham returns to form in win over Oakland

MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe Josh Willingham should bat sixth more often.

Hitting in the No. 6 spot in the order for the first time in nearly four years, Willingham homered twice — including the go-ahead blast in the eighth inning — to lift Minnesota to a 4-3 victory over the visiting Oakland Athletics. And he did so lower in the order than he’s ever batted in a Twins uniform.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said he moved Willingham down in the order from fourth to sixth because Willingham wasn’t producing like someone batting cleanup. Tuesday, however, he did.

“It wasn’t like I didn’t want to be (batting fourth). It’s more like I wasn’t performing like a cleanup hitter,” Willingham said. “That was it. I don’t care where I hit.”

Willingham’s first of two tape-measure shots came in the second inning. Facing Oakland starter Jarrod Parker, Willingham tattooed a 1-1 slider and sent it 422 feet to the bullpen in left-center field to give the Twins an early 1-0 lead. It was Willingham’s first home run in nearly a month — his last came on Aug. 13, when he homered against Cleveland.

After rookie outfielder Oswaldo Arcia delivered a mammoth blast — estimated at 438 feet — in the sixth inning to bring Minnesota to within 3-2, Willingham one-upped Arcia both in distance and importance of his home run.

With pinch runner Clete Thomas on first base and one out in the eighth inning, Willingham jumped on a 2-0 fastball from A’s reliever Ryan Cook and planted it in the second deck in left field for a 439-foot shot, one foot farther than Arcia’s solo homer.

“We need those guys to get going,” Gardenhire said. “We said that with Willy, we’re going to give him a couple days and put him back. We talked about maybe trying to put him out in left field instead of this DH stuff.”

Willingham had played in just five games this month prior to Tuesday’s start. The 34-year-old Willingham spent his last five games as the team’s designated hitter but returned to the field against his former Oakland club.

“It keeps you in the game,” Willingham said of playing in the outfield. “When you’re not going good at the plate as a DH, you’ve got a lot of time to think about it.”

For someone who  has failed to replicate last year’s numbers at the plate and missed all of July after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee, Willingham needed a pick-me-up like the one he got Tuesday. He entered the game batting just .203, in danger of dipping below the dreaded Mendoza Line.

Two home runs, including the game winner, is a pretty good way to snap out of a funk.

“That was nice to see him get that. He needed to get a smile on his face,” Gardenhire said. “It’s been a battle for him and he doesn’t feel like he’s been helping the team. That was nice to see, and a good win for our ballclub against a good team over there.”

Willingham hit well against the A’s last year after spending the 2011 season with Oakland. In his first season with the Twins in 2012, he ate up Oakland’s pitching by batting .382 with five home runs — the most against any opponent — and 14 RBI.

Tuesday was Minnesota’s first game against the A’s this year. It’s a safe guess to say Willingham is looking forward to facing his old club a few more times.

“Hammer had a hell of a game. He likes playing against the teams he used to play for,” said Twins starting pitcher Liam Hendriks, who was bailed out by Willingham’s two homers. “He had a big night tonight, and hopefully we can continue it this series and kind of play spoiler a little bit.”

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