ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – Phil Hughes’ long-awaited return to the mound Sunday suddenly comes with a greater sense of urgency for the Twins.
Hughes, who hasn’t started a game since last May, will be activated from the disabled list Sunday in time to face Tampa Bay. His task in his first start is to help the Twins avoid being swept in a three-game series by a Rays team that was expected to be among the worst in baseball.
Tampa Bay pounded the Twins 10-1 Saturday, handing them their first series loss of the season after they fell in 10 innings Friday. The Rays, who began Saturday ranked ninth out of 15 AL teams in runs scored, scored a season-high 10 runs on 12 hits, including three home runs. C.J. Cron belted a pair of two-run homers.
Tampa Bay has scored 18 runs in the first two games of this series, doing what they want with a Twins pitching staff that was expected to be one of the strengths of the club. Denard Span has three RBI in both games against his old team. Adeiny Hechavarria is 4-for-6 with three runs scored.
Hughes will have to come right off the DL and make an impact if the Twins want to avoid being swept in a series here for the first time since 2013.
“I think he can,” Twins righthander Kyle Gibson said of Hughes. “Health has been the biggest thing for him the last couple of years. I hope he feels good out there and gets back to pitching and attacking like he can.”
The Twins had won each of Gibson’s previous 11 starts dating to last season, and Saturday his only blemish through six innings was a changeup he didn’t throw down enough that Cron deposited into the left-field seats in the third inning.
But in the seventh, Gibson gave up a one-out triple to Joey Wendle, followed by a run-scoring double to Wilson Ramos. Twins manager Paul Molitor popped out of the dugout to bring in lefthander Gabriel Moya.
It seemed like the right move, with Mallex Smith due up and another lefthanded hitter in Span two batters behind him. But in the minors last season, Moya was tougher on righthanded hitters (.128 batting average) than lefthanded hitters (.221).
Smith singled to left, with Ramos moving to third. The righthanded-hitting Hechavarria grounded out to third — Miguel Sano had a chance to start a double play, but the ball got away from him for a moment, forcing him to throw to first instead.
Span, of course, singled up the middle to drive in two runs. Cron then walloped his second two-run homer, giving the Rays a 7-1 lead. Moya was sent to Class AAA Rochester after the game to make room for Hughes.
“We all know about his ability to get lefthanded hitters out,” Molitor said of Moya. “It will improve with that breaking ball a little more effective. He got ahead of Smith and Span, the two examples tonight, and just couldn’t put them away with two strikes.”
Rays lefthander Blake Snell held the Twins to one run on five hits with six strikeouts over seven innings. Brian Dozier led off the game with a double and scored on Sano’s sacrifice fly, but the Twins then failed to get another runner to third base until the seventh inning. Snell has won his past three starts.
“We obviously had trouble with Snell,” said Molitor, whose team dropped to 2-1 against lefthanded starters this season. “The combination of velocity, and we had trouble laying off of the breaking pitch. Then they broke it open.”