Late-Inning Run Goes Against Twins This Time

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 Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves needed a run in the ninth inning so they turned to Brooks Conrad for the squeeze bunt.

In his final season in the dugout, Cox is still managing that National League style to the end.

Conrad filled in capably for Chipper Jones on Saturday night, making two tricky plays at third base and driving in two runs for the Braves in a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins.

The squeeze by Conrad provided a fitting finish to another crisp, close game between these interleague foes.

“That’s National League baseball at its finest,” Braves starting pitcher Derek Lowe said.

Conrad also hit an RBI double. Cox put him in the lineup about a half-hour before the game for Jones, who missed five games last week with inflammation in his right ring finger and had the injury flare up.

Matt Guerrier (1-2) walked Gregor Blanco on four straight fastballs with one out in the Atlanta ninth, the majors-leading 292nd walk drawn by the Braves this year. Then Martin Prado’s perfect execution of a hit-and-run single put runners at the corners. Jose Mijares entered the game, and Conrad dropped down a textbook bunt that the Twins reliever picked up and bobbled but had no play.

“It was a tough pitch, too, but Conrad can do it,” Cox said. “We’ve got to try to win somehow. Brooksie, I know, is going to get the sign. There’s no problem there. … You just have to guess.”

Conrad has only 45 at-bats in 40 games this year. He twice made difficult off-balance throws to get the Twins on grounders down the line, and his two-out double against Nick Blackburn in the fifth put the Braves ahead 2-1.

“That’s part of this role. You have to be ready when they call on you,” he said.

Billy Wagner got the save in the bottom of the inning, his 11th in 13 attempts this season after stranding a runner at first base, the eighth of the night for the Twins.

Buoyed by a strikeout-caught-stealing double play to end the sixth after Joe Mauer’s RBI double tied the game at 2, Lowe lasted one out into the eighth but took his first no-decision. The Twins loaded the bases, but Jason Kubel — a career .400 hitter with the bags full — struck out against the fourth pitcher of the inning, Jonny Venters (2-0).

“We missed a couple of executing situations, and they got ‘em,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

The Twins held their annual charity auction and autograph party at Target Field on a gray, wet afternoon, with some fans arriving before sunrise to stake a place in line for the most popular players.

The weather didn’t get any better for the game, which started on time despite persistent rain, but the crowd of 40,001 still streamed in for the team’s 29th straight sellout.

More people used the standing-room space around the lower concourse than usual to stay dry, but the number of ponchos and umbrellas spotted in the seats proved yet again this state’s appetite for outdoor baseball after nearly three decades at the Metrodome.

Fresh from Francisco Liriano’s 11-strikeout masterpiece on Friday, the Twins looked to Blackburn to build on that — and get back on track after two bad turns to begin the month. The right-hander went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA in five May starts, but his first two June appearances were ugly with five runs and 10 hits apiece and only 19 outs — none swinging.

Blackburn left a changeup for Melky Cabrera to drive into the right-field seats, and the back-to-back doubles later in the fifth by Prado and Conrad were hit especially hard. But Blackburn finished seven innings with only two runs across and struck out a season-high five, giving him 22 for the year. The epitome of a pitch-to-contact sinkerballer, Blackburn’s strikeout rate — roughly one per two innings for his career — was about one per four innings entering the game.

He mixed in his curveball well and refined his fluid motion to the plate.

“I think the mechanics are just where they should be right now, and hopefully they can stay that way,” Blackburn said, adding: “It’s usually quite a battle to get ‘em back.”

Game notes
This is Atlanta’s third visit to Minnesota, but in 14 years of interleague play the Twins have never traveled to Turner Field. … Blanco was in the starting lineup for the first time this season. … Twins 2B Orlando Hudson tested his sore left wrist by swinging in the batting cage before the game and told Gardenhire he’ll be ready to come off the DL on Tuesday.

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