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Blackburn helps Twins gain on idle Tigers

Blackburn helps Twins gain on idle Tigers

CHICAGO -- Throughout the season's first half, the Twins were accustomed to seeing consistently solid starts from Nick Blackburn to the point where he was considered the de facto rotation ace.

Those outings have not come as frequently for Blackburn in the second half, but on a night when the Twins really needed a big performance, he delivered one.

Blackburn held the White Sox scoreless over seven innings Monday, helping the Twins to a 7-0 victory at U.S. Cellular Field that pulled them within 2 1/2 games of Detroit in the American League Central race. The Tigers were idle on Monday in their final off-day of the season.

Pitching in the ballpark where he perhaps made his biggest impression on the Twins with his performance in game No. 163 last season, Blackburn scattered eight hits over his seven innings and struck out six while not issuing a walk.

"It always starts with your starting pitcher," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "[Blackburn] threw the ball really, really well. His sinker was diving pretty hard and he had a good changeup. [It was] a really nice performance by him."

Having posted an 8-4 record before the All-Star break, Blackburn is now 3-7 in 13 second-half starts. He entered Monday's outing with a 6.91 second-half ERA, but there have been signs recently that things have been starting to turn around.

Blackburn has now won three of his past five starts to improve to 11-11 and has pitched into the seventh inning in four of them.

So what has been the difference?

Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson has been working with Blackburn on a mechanical adjustment to get him standing more upright on the mound. The two also have been talking about getting Blackburn to mix in all of his pitches more effectively to get the type of results he saw Monday.

"I was throwing all my pitches for strikes tonight," Blackburn said. "That's a key for me to get off-balanced swings, and that's basically it. When things are working like that for me, it always goes well."

The success against the White Sox is nothing new for Blackburn, either. He's now 4-1 with a 2.12 ERA in five starts against Chicago this season.

"He's a good pitcher," White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham said. "He has good stuff. He kept us off-balance. The one good thing he did do is he didn't string any hits together. We couldn't get a hit after a hit, and that's what killed us today."

If there was any time for Blackburn to find his form once again, now is it. With every contest critical as Minnesota chases Detroit, the club definitely needs to have peformances like this from Blackburn, who's expected to take the mound in the opener of a four-game series in Detroit next Monday.

But in addition to seeing Blackburn stay on track, the Twins also need to keep showing the kind of intensity over their final 12 contests that they had in this win.

Gardenhire said it was an energy that radiated from shortstop Orlando Cabrera even before the game started.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm in the dugout. He was really fired up," Gardenhire said. "I mean really fired up. It was good to see. He was hooting and hollering before the first pitch and went from there."

"I just saw everybody was too quiet in the beginning of the game," Cabrera said. "I want everybody to know that if we play with a lot of intensity, good things are going to happen to us. "

Cabrera carried his excitement onto the field, scoring three runs and driving in two to help carry the offensive load. The shortstop tripled in the first and then scored on a passed ball. He reached on a throwing error in the fifth and scored on Michael Cuddyer's RBI single. Cabrera then drove in a run in both the sixth and eighth innings to help ensure the win.

Nick Punto also played a big part in Minnesota putting runs on the board, reaching base four times while going 2-for-2 with two walks, two RBIs and two runs scored.

It was not an offensive slaughter for the Twins, but the club managed to slowly tack on runs over the course of the game. They managed to score three runs on four hits off White Sox rookie starter Daniel Hudson over his five innings, although only one was earned.

One of the biggest positives for Minnesota is that things have appeared to be coming together at the right time. Although the Twins still face quite a challenge to make the postseason with 12 regular-season games left to play, the team is just focused on the fact hope remains.

"It's not been an easy road," Gardenhire said. "Our goal is to hang close. We want to catch them. We've got some pretty tough guys out there in the clubhouse and we want to catch [the Tigers]. You have to grind it out and keep playing."

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

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