KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Miguel Sano, deep in a rookie slump, was just trying to hit a line drive. He hit the equivalent of about five of them instead.
The rookie slugger, benched to let his hamstring and his strike-zone judgment regain their strength amid a 1-for-18 stretch, rocketed a tremendous home run onto the roof of a building beyond the left-field fence Wednesday, a 12th-inning pinch-hit blast that earned the Twins a pennant-fever 3-2 victory over the Royals in Kauffman Stadium.
“It’s a really good win, and you’ve got to savor those,” manager Paul Molitor said after the Twins pulled off a few late-inning escapes to earn a series victory against the defending AL champs. “Miguel had a really good at-bat, and he did what he can do.”
What no Twin has done for more than two years, actually. Sano’s 16th homer this season was the first pinch-hit blast by a Twin since Oswaldo Arcia connected on May 22, 2013, in Atlanta.
“I try to hit a line drive, and the guy throws me a fastball inside,” Sano said of the 3-and-2 pitch from Franklin Morales, Kansas City’s seventh pitcher. “I have a big chance to hit a homer and help my team.”
It helped a lot. Sano’s thunderous full-count blow — he now has six homers on 3-2 counts, second only to Baltimore’s Chris Davis in the majors — gave the Twins a 3-3 split in their gantlet of six consecutive games against first-place teams on the road. They survived Houston and Kansas City without damaging their standing in the wild-card chase; now they head to Chicago with the same 1½ deficit behind Texas that they left Minneapolis with last week.
And they’ll do it with their catcher dinged up but not seriously damaged. Kurt Suzuki, four innings after breaking up Kris Medlen’s no-hitter with a sixth-inning home run of his own, survived a frightening collision with Jarrod Dyson at home plate, with Suzuki’s knee bending the wrong way. He held on to the ball for the game-saving out but had to be helped to the dugout.
“I was a little nervous. That was the first time I’ve been that nervous in a while,” Suzuki said of the 10th-inning play, when he had to jump into the baseline to take a short but high throw from reliever Blaine Boyer, then came down just as Dyson arrived from third. “When I got slid into, there was no pop or anything, but it just hurt really bad.”
“I thought I killed him,” Boyer said, “I really did.”
But Suzuki was diagnosed with a bruised knee, no apparent ligament damage, and he could return quickly. “It’s fine, just a little sore,” he said.
The game was tense all night, in part because Medlen and Twins starter Mike Pelfrey had much to pitch for — namely, their jobs. Medlen is battling for a spot in the Royals’ postseason rotation, and Pelfrey is trying to save his own starting spot, with Phil Hughes’ return growing closer.
Medlen didn’t allow the Twins a hit through the first five innings, until Suzuki disrupted his reverie with a line drive that came down near the Royals’ bullpen, his first home run in a month. Pelfrey had little trouble getting through Kansas City’s lineup twice, but Ben Zobrist triggered one of those 180-degree Pelfrey meltdowns by lining a pitch into the Twins’ bullpen.
It’s too soon to say whether either pitcher accomplished his employment-protection goal, but Pelfrey, perhaps making his final start as a Twin, at least gave his manager something to ponder, albeit in another short start. He left his critical start with a lead, though one the bullpen could not hold in place. Trevor May surrendered a triple to Zobrist that turned into the tying run on a Lorenzo Cain sacrifice fly.
But the Twins kept it tied, stranding a Royal on third base in the ninth, until Sano could rescue them.
“These games, the experience we’re gaining playing in some of these atmospheres on the road, finding ways to hang in there,” it’s extraordinarily valuable, Molitor said. “Guys’ pulse rates get up there more than they’re used to, and you’ve got to find a way to perform in those situations.”