MINNEAPOLIS — If the Minnesota Twins are indeed shopping Josh Willingham as a possible trade chip, the veteran outfielder made a good impression Monday night.
Willingham hit a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift Minnesota to a 4-3 victory over the visiting Cleveland Indians. His ninth homer of the season was also his second hit of the game, and it came at a crucial time for the slumping Twins.
After coming out of the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, Monday’s win — and Willingham’s bat — helped stop the bleeding.
"When you lose three in a row, you obviously don’t feel real good about yourself," Willingham said. "We needed a big win."
Sitting at eight games below .500 at this juncture in the season, it appears likely that the Twins will be sellers before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. As was the case last year when Minnesota was in a similar position, Willingham’s name has popped up in trade rumors.
Though he’s 35 years old, Willingham can still provide some power from the right side of the plate, as he demonstrated Monday. His 374-foot homer came on a 3-2 pitch against Indians reliever Bryan Shaw. If there were any contending teams needing an outfielder — or possible designated hitter — watching Monday’s game, they saw what Willingham can provide at the plate.
Two years ago, Willingham had a career year in his first season with the Twins when he hit 35 homers and drove in 110 runs, both of which were career highs. Injuries limited him to 111 games in 2013, during which he hit 14 homers and had 48 RBI.
Monday marked Willingham’s 52nd game of the 2014 season, and the solo homer was his 28th RBI. He also drove in a pair of runs in Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay.
"I feel better. Hopefully I can keep it going and help us win some games. That’s my goal," Willingham said. "I do feel better at the plate. . . . It’s kind of hard to explain. First of all, you’ve got to get pitches to hit. I feel like pitches I was fouling off earlier, I’m hitting a little bit more now. I’m just kind of seeing the ball better, timing’s better. When it’s all working together, it’s a lot better."
Willingham singled in his first at-bat of the night in the bottom of the second and came around to score from first base on a double by catcher Kurt Suzuki, which put the Twins up 2-0. He later drew a walk to lead off the fourth inning but was left stranded at third base.
Following a deep fly ball out to center field that reached the warning track, Willingham broke the 3-all tie with his solo shot to left field. It didn’t clear the fence by much, but it counted just the same.
"I said (Sunday) he put some really nice swings on the ball," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "I thought yesterday he was starting to get the bat head in the right place. That was a nice swing there. He just missed one to center. He hit that ball hard to center field. He was right on it and it just wasn’t carrying tonight. . . . We were all blowing really hard in the dugout for that ball to get out in left field."
Over the course of the next 10 days, rumors will continue to swirl about which players might be on their way out as the trade deadline nears. Willingham has grown used to hearing his name mentioned, but he tends to ignore the rumors.
"I’ve paid seriously zero attention to it," Willingham said. "What I do hear comes from either a teammate or my wife. I don’t pay any attention to it."
Regardless of whether or not Willingham hears the rumors — or gives them any thought — they’ll likely continue to fly between now and July 31.
"I’ve always said, if your name is involved in these things, you should be happy because somebody likes you. Somebody might be thinking about getting you and bringing you over. So honestly, it should be a compliment to guys," Gardenhire said. "I know (Willingham) likes it here. His family’s here, the whole package. I think their thoughts are more towards having to move their families and all those things. . . . He’s been traded before, so it’s not a first for him. They should look at it as a sign of respect.