Twins inching closer to top

Reliever Joe Nathan (right) and Joe Mauer congratulate each other after Minnesota got within three games of the AL Central lead. Reliever Joe Nathan (right) and Joe Mauer congratulate each other after Minnesota got within three games of the AL Central lead. (Paul Battaglia/Associated Press)
Associated Press / September 19, 2009

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Michael Cuddyer’s two-run homer was all Brian Duensing needed to beat Detroit and move Minnesota within three games of the AL Central lead, energizing the Twins in a 3-0 victory over the Tigers last night in Minneapolis.

This is the closest the Twins (75-72) have been to first place since Aug. 2. They’re 6-1 at home this year against Detroit.

Duensing gave up two infield singles among just four hits and only one walk over 6 1-3 innings, before yielding to the bullpen to finish Minnesota’s fifth straight victory. Joe Nathan posted his 42nd save, allowing a walk and a double with two outs before finishing a scoreless ninth.

As the Tigers (78-69) have stumbled since Labor Day, failing to get their bats going and take advantage of the assorted problems bothering the Twins and Chicago White Sox, the AL Central has quietly emerged as the one division in baseball this season with an actual pennant chase. Even the wild-card spots in both leagues have been heading toward anticlimactic finishes.

With both the Tigers and Twins fielding much weaker teams than in 2006 when they both made the playoffs and decided the division on the final day, this has been more of a crawl than a race.

The announced crowd of 32,693 likely didn’t care, though, as it stood and loudly cheered Duensing on his way to the dugout with one out in the seventh.

In seven starts, rookie Duensing (4-1) has a 1.70 ERA. The lefthander had flawless defense behind him, too. Jason Kubel, playing right field instead of designated hitter while Cuddyer minds first base for Justin Morneau, made a running catch near the foul line after a leadoff double in the fifth inning. Then shortstop Orlando Cabrera scooted backward and grabbed a tricky pop for the second out.

Rick Porcello (13-9) kept his team in it, but he made a couple of mistakes. Kubel, who is 7 for 8 this season against the 20-year-old righthander, singled with one out in the fourth.

Then Cuddyer crushed a fastball left over the meat of the plate for his 27th home run and a 2-0 lead. Delmon Young’s RBI double two innings later gave the Twins a cushion.

“This is what September’s all about,’’ Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said before the game. “Now we can go out and see on the field. Instead of watching scoreboards we’re watching it right on the field.’’

Phillies 9, Braves 4 - Ryan Howard homered twice, Jimmy Rollins hit a three-run shot, and visiting Philadelphia overcame a shortened start by rookie J.A. Happ to end Atlanta’s seven-game winning streak.

The loss dropped the Braves 8 1/2 games back in the NL East and hurt their fading wild-card chances.

Yankees 2, Mariners 1 - Ichiro Suzuki hit a two-out, two-run homer off New York closer Mariano Rivera for host Seattle.

Diamondbacks 7, Rockies 5 - Gerardo Parra doubled in the go-ahead runs, Brandon Allen and Ryan Roberts homered and last-place Arizona rallied past visiting Colorado, sending the NL wild-card leader to its fifth loss in six games.

Athletics 2, Indians 1 - Brett Anderson pitched six shutout innings and had a career-high 10 strikeouts and Nomar Garciaparra added two hits and an RBI as host Oakland won its fifth straight.

Marlins 4, Reds 3 - John Baker’s RBI single highlighted Florida’s four-run rally in the ninth inning as the Marlins snapped their nine-game losing streak in Cincinnati.

Rays 11, Blue Jays 4 - James Shields won at home for the first time in more than three months, and eight straight Tampa Bay batters reached base to start a six-run third inning to rout Toronto.

Pirates 5, Padres 1 - Charlie Morton allowed one run in seven innings, helping host Pittsburgh win for only the third time in the past 20 games.

Nationals 6, Mets 5 - Ryan Zimmerman hit his 30th homer and Josh Bard drove in three runs as visiting Washington held off free-falling New York.

Royals 11, White Sox 0 - Luke Hochevar pitched a three-hitter for his first career shutout and Miguel Olivo hit a pair of two-run shots and drove in a career-high six runs as visiting Kansas City shut out Chicago.

Brewers 3, Astros 2 - Casey McGehee singled in the go-ahead run in the eighth inning as host Milwaukee sent Houston to its fifth straight loss.

Cardinals 3, Cubs 2 - Matt Holliday homered off Aaron Heilman leading off the bottom of the ninth inning for host St. Louis, reducing its magic number for clinching the NL Central to 6.

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