DENVER – The Twins’ recent surge has been built through starting pitching. Kevin Correia, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and even Yohan Pino stepped up with strong outings during the four-game series at Seattle, when the Twins won the final three games.
The task to follow the leaders fell to lefthander Kris Johnson on Friday, but the fill-in from Class AAA Rochester for Ricky Nolasco left too many pitches up.
“It’s disappointing,” Johnson said. “They need you to make a start and you can’t even go five innings.”
Johnson was ineffective early, enabling the Rockies to pull away to a 6-2 victory in the first game of a three-game series. Drew Stubbs, Troy Tulowitzki and Brandon Barnes hit home runs for Colorado. The Twins can clinch a winning road trip — their first since the beginning of June — with one victory in this series. Two wins, and they hit the All-Star break with a little gusto.
The Rockies are floundering in the NL West, but they are 24-23 at home, where they are a different team, especially offensively. Tulowitzki, for example, entered Friday batting a whopping .433 at Coors Field.
Opposing pitchers have been punished here, but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire held out hope Johnson could come in, once again, and keep the Twins in the game.
“The ballpark should bode well for him,” Gardenhire said before the game. “He throws the ball down in the zone. The last time he was up here [to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Dodgers on May 1], everything was knee-high, and you have to do that here. If you elevate the ball, it does fly here.”
It was more of the latter. Johnson gave up a two-run homer to Stubbs in the first inning on a fastball he threw inside, but not inside enough.
The teams traded runs in the second inning, with Johnson striking out Charlie Blackmon and Stubbs to leave two runners on, but in the third inning Tulowitzki socked a two-run homer to the opposite field, giving Colorado a 5-1 lead. The pitch to Tulowitzki was supposed to be a sinker but was belt-high.
“The only time it sunk was when it was in the stands,” Gardenhire said.
The last time Johnson was seen in a Twins uniform, he figured out a way to shut out the Dodgers for 4⅓ innings on May 1 despite six walks. The 29-year-old, acquired from Pittsburgh last year, was sent back to Rochester after that, where he continued to pitch well for the Red Wings.
The Twins would have gladly taken 4⅓ shaky shutout innings Friday. Instead, Johnson was rocked for five runs over four innings on eight hits and three strikeouts. In addition to the elevated pitches, Johnson (0-1) let the leadoff hitter get a hit in all four of his innings. Three of them scored.
“That’s not a recipe for success,” Johnson said.
The Twins offense couldn’t bail out Johnson, either. They made Rockies lefthander Jorge De La Rosa throw 62 pitches over the first three innings but they couldn’t get a key hit to put him on the ropes. The Twins were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, both runs scoring on groundouts.
Their best chance for a big inning came in the seventh, when they loaded the bases with two outs, but Tulowitzki went into the hole and made a jaw-dropping jump throw to first to rob Kurt Suzuki and end the inning.
“We got some hits but never really put a lot of pressure on them,” Gardenhire said.
If Johnson gets another chance, it will come after the break, but the club could summon Yohan Pino back from Rochester. Or Nolasco, on the disabled list because of an elbow injury, could be ready.
“I hope so,” Johnson said. “I want to get out there again, that’s for sure.”