"He's a good hitter," Indians manager Manny Acta said of Willingham. "He's been a good productive hitter for years now."
The Indians had not been in last place this late in a season since Sept. 24, 2010. The fall to fifth has been swift and steady for the Tribe, which has gone 11-39 over its past 50 games. Cleveland was in third and sat 3 1/2 games out of first place prior to that stretch. Now, the Indians are 20 1/2 back of the AL Central-leading White Sox.
That Willingham played the role of villain -- on this night and plenty of others throughout this season -- seemed fitting. The Indians (61-88) pursued the left fielder over the winter, but were only interested in a two-year contract. Minnesota came calling with a three-year offer worth $21 million, convincing Willingham to head to the Twin Cities.
"He's really been a bright spot this season," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's been out there pretty much every day and has driven the ball for us, gotten big RBIs. Kind of what we hoped for when we signed him."
Willingham's 4-for-5 showing on Wednesday night gave him 35 home runs and 110 RBIs on the year. Against the Indians, the left fielder has pounded out four homers with 19 RBIs. Willingham joins Harmon Killebrew (1966) as the only Twins hitter in their history to have at least 25 doubles, 35 homers and 110 RBIs in a single season.
Willingham's 35 long balls are the most for a Minnesota hitter since Killebrew clubbed 41 in 1970.
"Being in that kind of company is kind of cool," Willingham said.
Cleveland has rotated 10 players in left field this season, and that group has combined to hit .213 with 10 home runs, 19 doubles and 48 RBIs. The list includes Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon, Ezequiel Carrera, Aaron Cunningham, Jason Donald, Russ Canzler, Brent Lillibridge, Thomas Neal, Vinny Rottino and Carlos Santana.
Santana -- Cleveland's regular catcher -- made an emergency appearance. Duncan, Damon and Cunningham were each designated for assignment at various points in the second half. Donald and Lillibridge are infielders by trade. Carrera, Canzler, Neal and Rottino spent the bulk of the season in the Minors.
Rottino was the latest Tribesman run out to left, and he did what he could to be a catalyst for Cleveland's offense.
"We like Vinny," Acta said. "We like what he brings. He's very versatile and plays hard. He does all those little things that help you win games. Things that you can't teach."
Against Twins right-hander Liam Hendriks, Rottino drew a leadoff walk in the third and promptly stole second base. After sprinting to third on a groundout to shortstop from Shin-Soo Choo, Rottino scored on a base hit from Jason Kipnis. Rottino also doubled and scored on a single from Kipnis in the eighth.
Michael Brantley added a run-scoring single in the eighth inning.
Asdrubal Cabrera provided the Indians' only other breakthrough against Hendriks, launching a solo home run in the first inning. Hendriks (1-8) ended a winless drought of 17 career starts, however, by holding the Tribe to two runs on two hits over six innings of work.
Indians right-hander Zach McAllister (5-8) took the loss after surrendering four runs on eight hits in 4 1/3 innings against the Twins (62-87). Joe Mauer and Willingham connected for consecutive run-scoring singles off McAllister in the third inning to erase Cleveland's early 1-0 lead. Willingam later added a two-run homer off McAllister in the fifth and an RBI single in the sixth.
"Just look at their numbers," McAllister said. "They have guys that hit homers, that drive in runs and can hit for average. That's a good lineup right there. You can put them with anybody you're facing. That's a good lineup."
Willingham has undeniably made Minnesota's lineup better.
"He's done it in the past," Acta said. "In Florida and in D.C. and last year in Oakland. He didn't have that type of protection last year, and he still put up pretty good numbers. He's a very good hitter and a professional on the field. He's been a tough out. No doubt."