Clete Thomas gives Twins brief reprieve from leadoff issues

MINNEAPOLIS — Twins manager Ron Gardenhire talked before Tuesday’s game about how Clete Thomas is not the prototypical leadoff hitter. But Minnesota has been left with few options at the top of the lineup, so Thomas has found himself leading off for the past three games.

All season, really, the Twins have struggled to find consistency at the top of the order. Minnesota’s leadoff hitters have batted just .176 with a .229 on-base percentage, both of which are easily the worst in all of baseball.

As it turned out Tuesday, the Twins’ uncharacteristic leadoff hitter played a big part in Minnesota’s 7-5 win over the visiting Chicago White Sox. Thomas drew a two-out walk — just his second walk of the season — and later came around to score the go-ahead run on Ryan Doumit’s two-run double.

“Nothing bigger than that (eighth) inning, taking a walk,” Gardenhire said after the win. “He didn’t get too jumpy there and drew a walk and got on with Joe (Mauer) coming up and (Doumit). Those are your hitters. We want people on in front of them, and that’s what ends up winning the game for us.”

After Brian Dozier flew out to center and Pedro Florimon tapped out to the pitcher, Thomas came up with two outs and a 5-all tie game in the bottom of the eighth. Minnesota led 5-4 in the top of the eighth but setup man Jared Burton allowed a run and needed help from the Twins’ offense in the bottom of the inning.

Thomas, who had just one walk in 36 plate appearances leading up to the ninth inning, drew a five-pitch walk from White Sox reliever Ramon Troncoso. The next batter, Mauer, collected his third hit of the night when he singled to left field off Troncoso, moving Thomas into scoring position at second base.

That’s when Doumit came through with his late-game heroics. Troncoso got ahead of Doumit 0-2, but the Twins catcher jumped on a 94 mph fastball and drove it to the gap in left-center field. Thomas scored easily and Mauer was able to score from first to give Minnesota a 7-5 edge.

“It was nice to be the guy that came up with the big hit,” Doumit said. “Hats off to Joe and Clete for getting on base there in the ninth. It was a good team win.”

Thomas has experience as a leadoff hitter during his career; Tuesday marked his second career start atop a batting order, dating back to his days with the Tigers.

Aside from his key walk in the eighth, Thomas got on base in the first and sixth innings. The first came when he reached on an error by Chicago second baseman Gordon Beckham to lead off the bottom of the first inning. Three pitches later, Thomas crossed home plate on Mauer’s seventh home run of the season, which put the Twins up 2-0. He also singled with two outs in the bottom of the sixth but was stranded on first when Mauer grounded out to end the inning.

The Twins had hoped that rookie center fielder Aaron Hicks would be able to handle the leadoff duties to begin the season, but that experiment lasted just 10 games before he was dropped in the batting order. Including Thomas, Minnesota has used six different players in that top spot through 67 games.

Thomas isn’t the long-term answer in the leadoff spot. It remains to be seen who is. But for as much as the Twins have struggled to get production from the leadoff spot, Tuesday was an exception.

With three hits Tuesday, Mauer raised his average on the season to .327. Despite that, he still has just 23 RBI, a testament to the Twins’ struggles in the leadoff spot.

“There’s an expectation level if you’re going to end up hitting in the leadoff spot,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said before Tuesday’s game. “There are some things we want you to do, and one of them is get on base and score runs. You can’t score runs if you don’t get on. It’s just like anybody else.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter