With each futile swing of the bat, the first stage of Josh Willingham’s comeback from the disabled list grew increasingly disheartening Friday in Chicago.
Luckily for the Twins outfielder, who’d been out for more than a month following surgery for a meniscus tear, the men batting behind him were a little bit sharper.
After Willingham’s swinging strikeout with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, No. 4-hole hitter Justin Morneau stepped in and clobbered a pitch from reliever Nate Jones into the right-field bleachers. The clutch Canadian’s seventh career grand slam turned a two-run deficit into a 5-3 advantage, and Minnesota relievers Brian Duensing, Jared Burton, Casey Fien and Glen Perkins kept it aloft in a doubleheader- and series-opening, 7-5 victory in front of 17,439 at hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.
In a game where every Twins run came courtesy of a long ball, Morneau improved to a major-league best 9-for-12 with the bases loaded this season. He added another shot in the top of the ninth, his team-leading 13th of 2013.
“The ball flies here,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, whose club improved to 50-62. “Fortunately for us, we got some people on base, and then Mornie comes up with a big hit.”
The power display also helped render Willingham’s rough return an afterthought.
Willingham had missed 33 games since July 3, when a surgeon repaired the medial meniscus tear in his left knee. He went just 1-for-9 during a three-game rehab stint in Triple-A Rochester and was reinstated Friday morning.
Batting a career-low .224 going into his five weeks on the disabled list, Willingham has had a hard time seeing pitches consistently along with the bulk of his teammates. Friday, he struck out three times and finished 0-for-4.
“It’s just about getting more at-bats right now,” Gardenhire said of Willingham, not sounding particularly concerned. “His swing looks good, his bat looks quick.”
He wasn’t the Twins’ only multiple strikeout victim.
Leadoff man Brian Dozier also struck out on three occasions, and Joe Mauer and Pedro Florimon were fanned twice each. Minnesota struck out a total of 15 times and batted 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
Highlighted by Morneau’s timely homer, the Twins made sure it didn’t matter.
Five-hole hitter Chris Colabello and No. 6 guy Oswaldo Arcia also contributed blasts, as did Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez and Paul Konerko. Ramirez’s two-run shot to left in the bottom of the fifth off Kyle Gibson gave the White Sox a 3-1 advantage, but Morneau erased it two frames later after Chicago starter John Danks and reliever Donnie Veal combined to walk the bases loaded.
Morneau fouled off three two-strike fastballs before lifting Danks’ two-seamer a few rows into the seats in right center field.
“I think once I got the two strikes, I was just trying to protect,” Morneau said. “It’s a situation where you have to force them to make a play on you; you can’t strike out there. … I got the right part of the bat in the right ballpark, and it carried over.”
Growing Gibson: At this point in a season gone wrong, every time out is a learning experience for rookie starting pitcher Kyle Gibson.
Thursday afternoon in the Windy City represented a small step on the correct trajectory.
The rookie right-hander out of Missouri located better than he has his past few outings and finished one out short of a quality start. He still remains susceptible to yielding game-turning hits, though; for the third time in his last four starts, Gibson (2-3, 6.69 ERA) yielded a pair of home runs.
“Gibby, I liked what he did,” Gardenhire said. “He made a couple mistakes, and they got him both times and put them in the seats. But other than that, I thought he’s not overthrowing the ball, I thought his sinker was moving pretty good, and he gave us a good opportunity.”
Gardenhire yanked Gibson after 5 2/3 innings pitched in which four strikeouts counterbalanced four hits allowed. It was a stark improvement from his previous start, a three-inning debacle against Houston where he coughed up four runs on nine hits.
Duensing earned his fifth victory by virtue of recording a single out. Morneau and Arcia’s insurance home runs proved crucial in the ninth, when closer Glen Perkins yielded two runs on three hits but got Adam Dunn swinging to close out the win.
Like Gibson, Danks (2-9, 4.52 ERA) was effective save for leaving a couple pitches high in the strike zone. He would last six innings, striking out nine while walking five and allowing three earned runs on four hits.
That wasn’t enough to keep Chicago, considered an American League Central contender before this season, from falling to 43-70 and seeing a three-game losing streak snapped.
Switching things up: The White Sox traded outfielder Alex Rios to Texas on Friday and scratched outfielder Dayan Viciedo a little more than one hour before first pitch, causing Gardenhire and Chicago manager Robin Ventura to exchange lineup cards on more than one occasion.
Viciedo cited soreness in his left thumb, and the White Sox dealt Rios for a player to be named and cash considerations.
That left a few unfamiliar faces in the other dugout for Gardenhire to account for.
“I told them, ‘Give us a break,'” Gardenhire joked after his team moved to 7-2 against the White Sox this season. “We’re on a budget.”
Hendriks effective in nightcap: Liam Hendriks was called up for the sole purpose of pitching in the second stanza of Friday’s twinbill.
He did his darndest to make a case for staying longer but was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester immediately following the Twins’ 3-2, extra-inning win.
MLB rules dictate a team can add a 26th man to its active roster for doubleheader purposes, preventing teams from throwing off their starting rotation. Hendriks lasted 6 1/3 innings in his spot start, yielding just two runs on seven hits and striking out three.
Duensing earned his second win of the day in one inning of work, and Arcia’s homer to center field broke a 2-all tie in the 10th to give the Twins (51-62) a doubleheader sweep.
This time, every run from both teams scored via a home run; Chris Herrmann, Ramirez, Chicago’s (43-71) Blake Tekotte and Willingham all contributed solo shots.
Minnesota hit seven home runs to score all 10 of its runs Friday.