Twins maintain half-game lead

Twins maintain half-game lead

MINNEAPOLIS -- The critics have been waiting all season for the Twins' clutch hitting to disappear.

And at the time they needed it most, it did in a 4-2 loss to the Royals on Saturday afternoon at the Metrodome.

"It's definitely disappointing," outfielder Denard Span said. "We had opportunities, we had our chances. They just beat us at our own game today, they really did. They capitalized on some opportunities with guys in scoring position. That was the difference. We didn't."

A victory in the contest would have ensured the Twins of at least a half-game lead over the White Sox in the American League Central race heading into Sunday's regular-season finale.

Instead, the Twins stumbled for the second straight day against the Royals and had to wait for the results of the White Sox-Indians game taking place at U.S. Cellular Field later that night.

"A very tough loss, and now we just have to wait and put it in somebody else's hands, which is very disappointing," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

It wasn't the situation they were hoping for, but if the Twins end up winning the division, they will likely have the Indians to thank. Cleveland pulled off yet another victory over Chicago on Saturday night to keep Minnesota's lead in the division at a half-game.

But that likely only made Saturday's loss more difficult for Minnesota. That's because, unlike in the previous night's 8-1 loss to the Royals where the Twins struggled to do anything offensively, the club had plenty of chances this time. They just couldn't convert.

The Twins entered the game with a Major League-leading .308 batting average with runners in scoring position. But on Saturday, they went just 3-for-13 (.231) in those situations.

Minnesota also grounded into four double plays on Saturday -- all of them coming in big situations.

The first of those came when the Twins had tagged Royals starter Gil Meche for a run in the second inning. Following Brendan Harris' RBI double to center, Minnesota had runners on first and third with only one out. That's when Carlos Gomez came to the plate and grounded into just his seventh double play of the season.

After taking a 2-0 lead against Meche in the third on Joe Mauer's sacrifice fly, the Twins once again couldn't add to it. This time, Jason Kubel grounded into a double play with runners on first and second and just one out.

Those missed chances left the Twins unable to build a solid lead for left-hander Glen Perkins, who recovered from a string of disappointing starts to allow just one run over his five innings.

"It's tough, it's frustrating," Harris said. "We had so much adrenaline going, and now it's kind of a letdown after the game."

No one was immune to the double-play troubles on Saturday, including the Twins' two stalwarts in the middle of the order -- Mauer and Justin Morneau. And it was Morneau's double play that came at perhaps the biggest point in the game.

The Royals tied the game at 2 in the sixth on a series of bloop hits off right-hander Boof Bonser. But the Twins were able to get out of a bases-loaded, no outs situation in that inning without any more damage. And even when Kansas City took a 4-2 lead in the top of the seventh on a bloop single by Ryan Shealy into shallow right field just out of the reach of Morneau, Minnesota had a chance to tie the game in the seventh.

Morneau came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out to face left-hander John Bale, who replaced Meche after the starter allowed the first two runners in the inning to reach base. On the first pitch from Bale, Morneau grounded into a 6-4-3 double play.

"I got the pitch I was looking for with the bases loaded, a fastball pretty much right down the middle," Morneau said. "I hit the top of it, right at the shortstop -- with my speed, that's a double play."

The inability to deliver in that situation caused Morneau to break his bat on the field, something that isn't seen often from the first baseman. While Mauer's double play in an attempted ninth-inning rally was a blip in a hot-hitting spell for the catcher, the same cannot be said of Morneau.

Saturday's 1-for-5 performance extended a streak of troubles for Morneau, who is hitting just .171 over his past nine games. And even more glaring is the fact that during that stretch, the first baseman has driven in just one run.

"He's trying as hard as he possibly can," Gardenhire said. "We need to pick him up every once in a while, too."

"I just take it game by game," Morneau said of his recent spell. "Obviously, I'd like to be driving in runs, but it goes in stretches."

It was tough to drop the first game of the series against the Royals on Friday, and the Twins' clubhouse was undeniably quiet following this latest loss. The players were left to head home without knowing exactly where they stood heading into Sunday's regular-season finale.

Could they handle watching their opponent on television later that night to discover their fate?

"I'm not watching anything," Carlos Gomez said. "I watch my team. I don't have to watch anybody else. We have to take care of business here, not watch the other guys."

With Chicago's loss on Saturday, the Twins could clinch the division with a win and another White Sox loss on Sunday. If the day's events don't follow that plan, Chicago will be forced to finish off their regular season on Monday with a rainout makeup against Detroit. The result of that contest would determine whether a one-game tiebreaker at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday would be necessary.

So, while the Twins were unaware of their scenario heading into Sunday, they had one clear mission -- pick up a victory and at least keep their playoff hopes alive.

"The first thing we have to do is win that ballgame tomorrow, and then we'll see what happens," Morneau said. "It's one of those things where we've had some chances in these games, and we just haven't gotten it done. Today was a ballgame we definitely could have won -- just one big hit away, and we didn't get it."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.