Thanks to HRs, fate is familiar as Rays top Twins again

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2012 - 12:13 AM

Tampa Bay extended Nick Blackburn's rut by scorching him for three quick runs.

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Nick Blackburn has tried studying video from better stretches earlier in his career. He has tried throwing from different spots on the pitching rubber. He has tried changing lockers to change his vibe. He has tried going with a beard and clean-shaven.

But the Twins righthander hasn't been able to escape another season-long rut.

Three batters into Saturday night's game, Blackburn had the Twins in a three-run hole, and with David Price pitching, the Rays knew that lead was in safe hands.

Blackburn settled in and pitched into the seventh inning, but Price and two Tampa Ray relievers held on for a 4-2 victory before an announced sellout crowd of 39,512 at Target Field.

It was the Twins' third consecutive loss, and the mood at the ballpark was similar to Friday, when the Rays jumped on Cole De Vries in building an 8-1 lead by the second inning.

This time, Desmond Jennings lined Blackburn's first pitch for a single, B.J. Upton hit his third pitch for a two-run homer, and Matt Joyce launched his seventh pitch for another homer. Fans had barely settled into their seats, when several began to boo.

"Those first three guys kind of ambushed me," Blackburn said. "I came out, wasn't quite where I wanted to be location-wise, and it pretty much cost us tonight."

Price (15-4) gave up two runs over seven innings. Darin Mastroianni had an RBI infield single in the second inning, and Brian Dozier hit a homer in the fifth. Price is 7-0 with a 1.89 ERA in his past 10 starts.

"I think you saw why that guy is one of the best lefties in the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He was filthy -- inside, outside, backdoor breaking balls, throwing 96-97 miles per hour."

Opponents are batting .225 this year against Price and .334 against Blackburn.

The Rays roughed up Blackburn (4-8) for four runs on 11 hits in his six-plus innings. He gave up two singles to start the seventh inning before Gardenhire went to his bullpen.

"I'll take starts where you give up three, four runs; [Blackburn] battled after that," Gardenhire said. "But I think we know going in, these guys are swinging in the first inning. That's where we have to be better [Sunday]. Shame on us if we let them whack the ball all over the place in the first."

In 2009, the year before the Twins signed him to his four-year, $14 million contract, Blackburn had 21 quality starts -- at least six innings pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed -- in 33 tries. This year, he is 3-for-18 in that category.

Two of those have come since he returned from a two-start stint at Class AAA Rochester, but he is winless since June 22, and his ERA is 7.33.

With Blackburn due $5.5 million in 2013 for the remaining year left on his contract, the righthander keeps getting chances. Meanwhile, Liam Hendriks is 8-2 with a 2.14 ERA at Rochester.

Blackburn had better results in recent starts by sticking almost exclusively to his sinking fastball, so the Rays knew exactly what they were looking for in the first inning. Jennings, Upton and Joyce all hit sinkers to build that lightning-quick lead.

"I knew Jennings was going to swing first pitch; I didn't have a single doubt in my mind," Blackburn said. "But like I said, I just didn't get the pitch [to the right location]."

The Twins have seen that far too many times.

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