Twins’ Willingham continues trend of big hits

Josh Willingham is going streaking.

With his seventh-inning double in Friday’s 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Willingham has now recorded a hit in each of his first 14 games with Minnesota this season. According to the Twins’ public relations department, it’s the longest hitting streak by a Minnesota player to start a career with the team.

Willingham was signed this offseason by the Twins to a three-year, $21 million contract, and the team’s new left fielder has gotten a hit in every game in a Minnesota uniform thus far. The current 14-game hitting streak is also the longest of Willingham’s nine-year big league career.

The hit that extended Willingham’s hit streak was perhaps the biggest hit of the game Friday, as he came to bat with the bases loaded, two outs and the Twins trailing 4-2 in the seventh. But on a 1-2 pitch from Rays reliever Joel Peralta, Willingham drove a fastball to right-center field that center fielder B.J. Upton couldn’t chase down. The double in the gap scored Alexi Casilla, Denard Span and Jamey Carroll to put the Twins ahead 5-4, which proved to be the final score.

“He’s fun to watch. He’s a very strong young man,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Willingham. “He’s been on the baseball, that’s for sure. There’s a reason we went after him, to drive in some runs and hit the ball in the seats. Up to this point, he’s done pretty much exactly what we were hoping he could do for this offense.”

The big at-bat by Willingham on Friday came one inning after the Rays scored three runs against Twins starter Liam Hendriks to take a 4-2 lead. After Willingham fell behind 0-2 in the count against Peralta, he took the third pitch for a ball before delivering the go-ahead double on the next offering.

“It was important for us to answer,” Willingham said. “He got ahead of me 0-2. I thought I missed a good pitch to hit on the first one. He kind of hung a breaking ball there. But I got down 0-2 and I was just battling. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular. I was just trying to battle and see the ball and try and put the best at-bat I could out there. Luckily, I was able to square that ball up and get a big hit for us.”

The Twins made several offseason acquisitions this past winter, including catcher Ryan Doumit, shortstop Jamey Carroll and starter Jason Marquis. While all have been solid additions so far, Willingham has proved to be the most valuable early on. He leads the Twins in nearly every offensive category. His five home runs are tops on the club, with Justin Morneau close behind with four. In fact, only Curtis Granderson of the Yankees — who hit three on Thursday against the Twins — has more home runs in the American League than Willingham.

Willingham’s 12 RBI are easily a team high. Catcher Joe Mauer is second with nine, including two in Friday’s win against Tampa Bay. Through Friday’s contest, Willingham now has a remarkable on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.099, which places him in the top five of all American League hitters.

It’s early in his Twins career, but Willingham has certainly made a strong first impression.

“It’s nice. You always want to get off to a hot start. That’s the goal,” Willingham said. “Obviously, I want to help the team win. We haven’t been winning as much as we’ve wanted to lately, so it was nice to get this first one today and hopefully come in here and take the series tomorrow.”

Robby Incmikoski contributed to this report.

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