MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins by no means had Mariners ace Felix Hernandez on the ropes Sunday, but Minnesota indeed landed the first punch.
But King Felix has shown throughout his career that he can survive an early jab. It often takes more than two runs to know him down, as the Twins found out Sunday at Target Field. Despite scoring first, Minnesota went on to lose 5-2 to Hernandez and the Mariners as the Twins failed to sweep Seattle.
Two runs often isn’t enough to topple Hernandez, and it wasn’t Sunday. The former Cy Young winner shut Minnesota down after the Twins’ two-run third inning.
"Felix is a guy who you don’t want him to settle in and get in his rhythm," said Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe, whose third-inning single drove in the only two runs against Hernandez. "It was good to get up. Towards the end there, he kind of got into that rhythm that we talked about."
Plouffe capitalized with two outs after Aaron Hicks drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on an infield single by Danny Santana. The speedy Twins shortstop was originally ruled out on a close play at the plate, but manager Ron Gardenhire challenged the call and the umpires ruled that Santana’s foot beat Hernandez’s to first base.
If not for the overturned call, the inning would have been over when Joe Mauer struck out swinging against Hernandez. But that was just the second out of the third, allowing Plouffe a chance to drive in runs. He did just that by dropping a single to right field to plate Hicks and Santana.
The Twins felt good at that point as they held a 2-0 lead over Hernandez. Even so, they knew they were likely going to have to keep scoring to come away with a win.
"We get a couple runs on Felix, and we couldn’t stop them," Gardenhire said. "He gets tougher when he gets back into the game. We didn’t have too much offensively."
Hernandez was able to complete eight innings, allowing the two runs on seven hits. He fanned five Twins batters and walked just one — Hicks in the third inning. With Sunday’s win, Hernandez is now 7-5 in his career against Minnesota. In his last four outings against the Twins, he’s 3-0 with a 0.79 ERA and pitched at least eight innings in all four of those games.
The Twins never really posed another scoring threat after the third inning. Hernandez only allowed a base runner to get past second base once more through eight innings. That came when Jason Kubel singled to lead off the seventh and advanced to second on a single by Hicks. But Santana grounded into an inning-ending double play as Hernandez kept Seattle’s lead intact.
"We had that 2-0 lead, and unfortunately we couldn’t build on that," Kubel said. "We got to him, got a couple runs so we were thinking at that point, ‘Let’s get some more.’ It’s always tough. He’s going to be tough no matter what. It just didn’t work out today."
Minnesota didn’t do itself any favors in trying to protect that 2-0 lead. Starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco struggled in the middle innings, giving up a run in a laborious fourth inning and two runs in the fifth. The Twins’ bullpen gave up three more runs, allowing Seattle to run away with the 6-2 victory.
On top of that, the Twins had miscues defensively. Nolasco failed to cover first base on a James Jones grounder hit to first baseman Joe Mauer, and that run eventually came around to score in the fifth inning. A Matt Guerrier wild pitch in the ninth inning scored Robinson Cano for the Mariners’ sixth and final run.
Yet despite being unable to crack Hernandez in Sunday’s series finale, the Twins still feel good about the way they’re playing as they embark on a five-game West Coast road trip against San Diego and San Francisco. Minnesota did win the series against the Mariners and has won five of its last seven games.
"That’s our goal is to win series," Plouffe said. "We would have liked to get this last one here, but we’ll take that into the off day and go into San Diego and see what we can do against the National League."