By Dave Campbell
July 29, 2015
Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) smiles after scoring and hitting a four run single against the Minnesota Twins in the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Minneapolis. Pirates left fielder Jaff Decker (14) and first baseman Travis Ishikawa (30) also scored on the play and accompany him back to the dugout. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have the best record in the majors since mid-May.
Maybe they'll get a little late July boost at the trade deadline.
Andrew McCutchen hit a home run and turned an RBI single into race around the bases while Minnesota made two errors in a five-run sixth inning, helping Francisco Liriano and the Pirates beat the Twins 10-4 Wednesday for a two-game sweep.
After losing five of their first six games out of the All-Star break, the Pirates have won five of their last six games to tighten their grip on the NL's first wild-card spot.
''You play well, these games continue to bring attention to areas that you might want to think about improving,'' manager Clint Hurdle said, adding: ''Playing well, though, lets you know you can get some things done with what you've got.''
Jung Ho Kang homered for the second straight day for the Pirates, after going deep for the go-ahead run in the ninth the night before. McCutchen's two-run, two-strike, two-out drive off Ervin Santana (2-1) in the fifth inning tied the game at 3, and the Twins unraveled in the sixth.
One run scored on a wild pitch. Then Santana walked two straight batters. Starling Marte hit a sacrifice fly, and McCutchen hit a sharp single that bounced in front of right fielder Eddie Rosario. The ball skipped past him to the warning track, allowing another run to score and McCutchen to reach third.
The slow-rolling relay throw scooted underneath Eduardo Nunez's glove for another error that allowed McCutchen to score, but not before he collided with Nunez. The contact was hard enough to knock them both to the ground and cue the blooper-tape soundtrack.
''Definitely a foul, 15-yard penalty, roughing the passer, automatic first down,'' McCutchen said, alluding to his high school football days in Fort Meade, Florida.
Liriano (7-6) improved to 3-0 in his last six starts despite allowing 10 hits in 5 2-3 innings. He was charged with three runs, two earned, and struck out four in his fourth career appearance against the Twins, his team from 2005-12.
''Frankie was in a fistfight all day,'' Hurdle said.
Said Liriano: ''Just one of those days. It was tough. You have to go out there and battle and at least give a chance to win to your team. That's what I tried to do.''
The Twins, who started the day with a two-game lead for the second AL wild card, lost their fourth straight game and fell to 3-8 after the All-Star break.
''I don't think we've played a clean game for a while,'' manager Paul Molitor said.
Santana, who was charged with eight runs, six of them earned, committed an error, too. He struck out three with eight hits and four walks in 5 2-3 innings.
''It's just that time of the year, I guess, where teams start to go into slumps and things just aren't going our way,'' Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks said.
THE FOE WAS FAMILIAR
Liriano and Santana, lifelong friends from the Dominican Republic, were set up for quite the matchup. Liriano was 5-2 with a 2.10 ERA and 84 strikeouts over 73 innings in his previous 11 turns. Santana pitched 15 2-3 scoreless innings in winning his last two starts. The duel never materialized, though, and Liriano naturally downplayed the significance of pitching against his pal.
''Whether it's my friend or not, when I cross the line, it's just getting outs,'' he said.
Pittsburgh: RF Gregory Polanco was removed in the fourth inning due to discomfort in his left knee, with Jaff Decker replacing him. Hurdle said he thought Polanco might have aggravated the injury the night before tracking a fly ball. ''Rather than push it, we got him out right away,'' Hurdle said.
Minnesota: CF Byron Buxton will take batting practice Thursday for the first time since he was placed on the DL with a sprained left thumb, but he is still several weeks away from returning.
Pittsburgh starts a four-game series Thursday in Cincinnati, with A.J. Burnett (8-4, 2.68 ERA) pitching for the Pirates. He's 6-1 in his last seven turns on the road. David Holmberg will make his major league debut on the mound for the Reds.
Minnesota stays home for a four-game series against Seattle, with Phil Hughes (9-6, 3.93 ERA) pitching Thursday for the Twins opposite J.A. Happ of the Mariners. The Twins have won five straight starts by Hughes at home, with the right-hander posting a 2.11 ERA in 34 innings with 32 hits and just one walk allowed.