The last time Josh Willingham found his name in the sixth slot on the lineup card, he launched a pair of grand slams. Four years later, that spot still seems to have the same effect on him.
No wonder he asked for the change.
Moved down two spots in the batting order, Willingham burst out of a prolonged slump by clubbing more than 850 feet worth of home runs on Tuesday, the second blast delivering a 4-3 victory for the Twins over Willingham’s old team, the Oakland Athletics.
“He told me once he got close to .200, he didn’t want to bat fourth anymore,” Gardenhire said of his former cleanup hitter, who had not homered since Aug. 13 and was hitting only .151 since returning from knee surgery last month. “So I moved him down to sixth.”
Brilliant. Not only did Willingham respond with his second two-homer game of the season, but the Twins’ newest cleanup hitter, Oswaldo Arcia, launched a homer of his own, a majestic shot into the upper deck in right-center field that was his first since Aug. 10.
“Maybe I should have done this a long time ago,” Gardenhire said of the new-look lineup.
Well, it’s been a long time since Willingham hit this low. July 27, 2009, in fact, when Willingham was with the Nationals; he crushed a pair of grand slams for an eight-RBI game, meaning his last two games as a No. 6 hitter have produced five hits, four home runs and 11 RBI.
Willingham believes the difference isn’t the batting position, but the fielding position. As the designated hitter for his past five games, Willingham went only 2-for-19, dropping his batting average to .203. But he was back in the outfield on Tuesday.
“It keeps me in the game. When you’re not going good at the plate, and you’re the DH, you’ve got a lot of time to think about it,” he said. As for moving down in the order, “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be [the cleanup hitter]. It’s more like, I wasn’t performing like a cleanup hitter.”
He did in the second inning, when a Jarrod Parker breaking ball that was supposed to dive into the dirt, didn’t. Willingham hammered it 422 feet to center field, the Twins estimate, breaking a 74-at-bat homerless skid.
And with the Twins trailing 3-2 after the American League West-leading A’s took advantage of some Liam Hendriks wildness, Willingham did it again against reliever Ryan Cook, pouncing on a 2-0 fastball. “I literally could not have put it in a better spot for him,” Cook said. “It was supposed to be down and away, and it was right down the middle.”
Only for a second, though. Once Willingham swung, it was on its way to keep left field, a 439-foot shot that completed the Twins’ second comeback victory in as many nights.
“We know he did it our last series here [in 2012], and he did it today,” said Parker, who left with a lead, was not involved in the decision, and thus kept his unbeaten streak alive at 19 consecutive starts. “We’ve got to be smarter, and we’ll probably pitch him a little different. A little more cautious.”
The Twins hope it won’t matter.
“We need [Arcia and Willingham] to get going,” Gardenhire said. The latter “needed to get a smile on his face. It’s been a battle for him, and he doesn’t feel like he’s helping the team. So that was nice to see.”