Early runs back starter Baker against Tigers

Early runs back starter Baker against Tigers

MINNEAPOLIS -- For most teams, losing the No. 3 hitter in the lineup even for a short period is a significant blow. But for the Twins, losing Joe Mauer means going without a three-time American League batting champion, one of the best defensive catchers in the game and also a catcher who helps guide its pitching staff on a daily basis.

Yet the Twins haven't seemed to miss a beat with Mauer out, as he was for a third consecutive game on Monday night due to a deep bone bruise on his left heel.

Playing behind the plate in place of Mauer, Wilson Ramos delivered three hits for the Twins -- including two doubles -- as Minnesota's offense once again got to Tigers starter Max Scherzer in a 10-4 victory over Detroit in the series opener at Target Field.

"He's a nice young player and he's off to a really, really good start, which is always needed offensively," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's picked us up big time offensively where you lose the best hitter in the game, in this league for sure.

"And you've got a young man stepping up and driving the baseball like he's doing. He's also calling a good ballgame and working with our pitchers, too. We're throwing a lot on his shoulders and he's handling it well."

The Twins entered Monday's contest against the Tigers holding a half-game lead over Detroit in the AL Central. It's still very early in the season to be looking at the standings, but considering the recent history of these two clubs, every game between them will undoubtedly play a factor in the division race at the end of the year.

The two teams squared off in Minnesota for the first time since that epic Game 163 battle last October and this time at a new venue. But on this night, the Twins didn't have to battle nearly as hard as that 12-inning drama-filled tiebreaker thanks to some big hits from the Twins' improved lineup and a strong seven-inning effort by starter Scott Baker.

The Twins proved last week in Detroit that they could figure out Scherzer. And in the second time they faced him, they once again got off to an early lead as they tallied seven runs over the first two innings.

It was a four-run first inning for the Twins that included an RBI single from Jim Thome and a three-run homer by Michael Cuddyer, who became the first Twins player to hit a homer into the second deck, thanks to his 411-foot shot into the left-field bleachers. They then added three more runs in the second, two of which scored on Denard Span's triple to right field, to take a 7-0 lead.

"You can't dig a hole like that against anybody, let alone a team like this," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.

Minnesota had tagged Scherzer for six runs over 3 2/3 innings in a contest at Detroit last Wednesday to help them get off to a 6-1 lead. But they were unable to hold onto that five-run advantage as a rough pitching night allowed the Tigers to score 10 unanswered runs and hand the Twins a loss.

Baker had been on the mound for the Twins on that night, but unlike that previous start when he helped squander a big lead, this time Baker was able to effectively shut down the Tigers offense. He held them to just three runs on seven hits over seven innings.

Coming off two disappointing outings in which he had allowed a total of 11 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings, Baker turned things around in this start. He cruised through his first three innings, retiring seven of eight batters in one stretch. And even when the Tigers managed to get some runs off Baker in the middle of his outing, he was able to adjust and limit the damage.

"I think part of the game plan was to stay aggressive and protect the strike zone," Baker said. "It's never an easy thing pitching against a team two times in a row. As a starting pitcher, that's one of the least favorite things. These guys are good hitters. They don't chase a lot of pitches out of the zone. So you have to find some way to get them out in the zone. Basically it was throwing it over, making good first pitches and I was able to do that."

Even when the Tigers started to nick away at Baker, tallying a total of three runs off the starter between the fourth and fifth innings, the Twins responded with more runs of their own against Scherzer.

This time they added three runs in the fifth to extend their lead back to seven, 10-3. J.J. Hardy hit an RBI single, Ramos added an RBI double and Nick Punto drove in a run with a sac fly.

In back-to-back starts against the Twins, Scherzer pitched a total of eight innings while allowing 16 earned runs and 18 hits, including three home runs.

"Obviously, they're in first place and obviously we're chasing them," Scherzer said. "It's early in the season. We can still win the division and everything like that. More important at this point to me with this team, we were on a winning streak and I want to go out there and at least give the team a chance to win and keep it going. That's probably the most frustrating thing to walk away from tonight."

The Twins managed to snap Detroit's five-game winning streak thanks to a strong offensive night and another hot hitting performance from Ramos. After struggling at Triple-A Rochester where he was hitting .179 so far this season, Ramos is now 7-for-9 at the Major League level and three of those have been doubles.

So is the ball looking pretty big to Ramos right now at the plate?

"Right now? Yep," Ramos said with a smile.

Ramos' bat has been a significant boost for a Twins lineup that has the depth this season to get by for short stints without Mauer. But there is no doubt that teams can always use another good hitter like Ramos.

"He's obviously a very talented guy," Leyland said. "We had very good reports on him. He's a very top-prospect type guy that's strong. He's caught some bigger games over in Venezuela and stuff. He's obviously a very good-looking player."

Ramos is currently hitting .777 and after the contest, Gardenhire was greeted by a reporters' question that started by saying that Ramos won't hit that impressive number all season.

"How do you know?" Gardenhire cracked. "He's swinging really good right now. Let's just leave him alone and hope he does it forever."

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