Twins Sunday: Clete Thomas making big progress

MINNEAPOLIS — Sunday marked the 18th consecutive start for Twins center fielder Clete Thomas, who has filled that spot while Aaron Hicks is on the disabled list. Minnesota didn’t see much of Thomas last year as he played in just 12 games and had 29 plate appearances — including 16 strikeouts.

In his second stint with the Twins, though, Thomas has been filling in admirably for Hicks, not only in center field but in the leadoff spot as well. He hit his third home run of the year, a two-run shot to right field in the fifth inning of Sunday’s 9-8 loss to the Royals. He also drew his eighth walk of the season; by comparison, he did not walk at all in 15 games with the Tigers and Twins in 2012.

“He can run, he can throw, he can field. He can play left, center and right,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said of Thomas this weekend. “The only question about Thomas is his strikeouts, and he’s taken better at-bats. He’s taking swings that were strikes. He’s taking more competitive at-bats versus lefties. He’s certainly working the count better or our manager probably wouldn’t have put him up in the one hole.”

After going 1-for-4 on Sunday, Thomas is now batting .269. He was one of three Twins to hit home runs Sunday, along with Justin Morneau and Trevor Plouffe. But those three homers weren’t enough in the 9-8 loss.

“We hit the ball pretty decent today,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “The ball didn’t look like it was flying early in the game, and then later it looked like it was really flying all over the place.”

It remains to be seen when Hicks will return from his rehab assignment. Sunday marked his sixth game with Triple-A Rochester. Entering Sunday, he was 3-for-19 (.176) with a double and two RBI.

Meanwhile, Thomas has done just fine in place of Hicks. After seeing what Thomas did last year in a limited time with the Twins, though, some may be surprised by what he has been able to do in 2013. A year ago, he homered in his first game with Minnesota after the Twins claimed him off waivers from Detroit.

From there, however, he never really figured things out offensively and spent the rest of the year in the minors.

“It just wasn’t working,” Ryan said of Thomas in 2012. “I think he took it upon himself. He’s got all the skills. He’s a good guy in that clubhouse. You’d like to see a guy like him succeed because it’s all there. It’s just a matter of doing something with that bat that allows us to keep running him out there, and he’s done enough.”

Bottom of the lineup does Twins’ pitching in: The Minnesota Twins allowed 13 hits in Sunday’s 9-8 loss to Kansas City, but it wasn’t necessarily the Royals’ big bats doing the damage against the Twins’ pitchers.

Instead, it was the bottom of Kansas City’s lineup that gave Minnesota fits. Rookie right fielder David Lough, batting eighth on Sunday, went 4-for-4 with three doubles and a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning. One spot later in the order, No. 9 hitter Johnny Giavotella — making his 2013 debut — was 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI.

The Twins held the heart of the Royals’ order in check Sunday but struggled against some of Kansas City’s younger hitters as the 27-year-old Lough and 25-year-old Giavotella combined to drive in five of the Royals’ nine runs.

“They were swinging good,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Lough, we made pitches to him. We thought we kind of figured it out, but he made some adjustments as the game went along.”

Lough, who tied his career high with four hits, doubled in his first three at-bats Sunday. The second scored two runs in the top of the fourth to give the Royals a 4-1 lead. After his third double, Lough came around to score on a single by Alcides Escobar in the sixth inning.

“The first double he got was a good pitch,” said Twins starter Kevin Correia, who gave up five runs in five innings. “I jammed him. He kind of just blooped it out there. The second double he hit off me was a bad pitch. The one thing, I think, if I could have taken back that one pitch, it’s a whole different ball game right there. That was the one bad pitch I think I threw today.”

After the Twins scored three in the bottom of the seventh, Lough gave the Royals the lead again when he hit a solo homer to right field off set-up man Jared Burton. It was the only hit Burton allowed, but it turned out to be a costly one as Kansas City’s No. 8 hitter once again doomed the Twins pitchers.

Morneau climbs Twins home run list: It was a no-doubter when Twins first baseman Justin Morneau hit his fourth home run of the year Sunday in the seventh inning against Kansas City. The left-handed Morneau tattooed a pitch from reliever Tim Collins into the seats in right field for a two-run blast as part of the Twins’ three-run seventh inning.

In doing so, Morneau moved up the Twins home run list by passing Kirby Puckett for fifth all-time with 208. The power has been lacking for Morneau this season, but he’s now hit two in the last 11 days after enduring the longest home run drought of his career.

“He put a charge in that one,” Gardenhire said. “He’s feeling pretty good. He definitely got the head out on that one and bashed it. Hopefully he’ll continue from there. Normally when you score that many runs, you win a ball game. It just wasn’t in the cards today.”

Plouffe extends hitting streak to 12: Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe needed a hit in his last at-bat to extend his hitting streak to 12 games. As he led off the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, he did just that — in dramatic fashion.

Plouffe hit a 2-1 pitch from Royals closer Greg Holland over the fence in center field for his seventh home run of the game. With it, his hitting streak grew to a season-long 12 games, which is the second-longest of his career.

During his current streak, Plouffe is now batting .304 (14-for-46) with two homers and 10 RBI. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Plouffe’s home run was not quite enough as the Twins fell a run short.

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