While Twins slugger Jim Thome was clubbing his way up the home run chart, Matt Joyce was sitting on the Rays’ bench, just waiting for his shot to do something special.
His chance finally came with the game tied in the eighth inning and Joyce stole some thunder from one of the best power hitters to ever play the game.
Joyce’s pinch-hit grand slam capped a seven-run eighth inning, rallying Tampa Bay to an 8-6 victory over Minnesota on Saturday and spoiling a big day for Thome.
“I was ready from the fifth on,” Joyce said. “I was on red alert, defcon 5. I had taken some swings in the cage and I was just ready for whenever I was needed.”
Thome homered twice to move past Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew into 10th place on the career list. Francisco Liriano struck out 10 and allowed just one run in seven innings, but Minnesota’s normally reliable bullpen couldn’t hold a 4-1 lead in the eighth.
Thome has 574 home runs, but it was Joyce’s first in more than a year that proved the difference.
In a new ballpark that has played so big all season, Joyce became the fifth player to hit one out to center field.
“There’s not a lot of balls that go out in that area,” Joyce said. “I was yelling ‘Go! Go!’ at the ball as I was running the bases.”
The Twins scored twice in the ninth on a double by Thome and a single by Denard Span, but Rafael Soriano got Orlando Hudson to ground out for his 20th save in 21 chances.
Carl Crawford had two hits and two RBIs, one of them a single off Jose Mijares in the eighth that cut the lead to 4-2.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire went to Matt Guerrier (1-4) for the fifth time in seven days, and his first two pitches were an RBI single by Evan Longoria and a double by Willy Aybar that tied the game at 4.
Joyce carried a .158 average to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. But his first home run since June 2, 2009, just cleared the wall in center field to complete the comeback.
“I didn’t think it was a home run,” Guerrier said. “We haven’t seen many balls go out in center. I definitely think other times guys have hit balls better, but it went out. What are you going to say?”
It was a major disappointment for the largest crowd in Target Field history, which spent the first seven innings giving Thome standing ovations for his achievement.
“I talked to Jim quite a bit when I was in spring training,” Killebrew said from Arizona after Thome’s first homer. “I told him, ‘Don’t feel bad if you pass me up, because I passed up a lot of guys in my career.”’
Thome hit solo homers in the second and fourth to pass Killebrew, one of the most beloved players in Twins history. Thome drew a curtain call from 40,852 fans after the second homer and a congratulatory message from “The Killer.”
“That’s something that will go down in my book as one of the better moments in my career,” said Thome, who met Killebrew for the first time in spring training this year. “He’s a legend and a legendary person, too. That’s what makes it even better.”
Liriano dominated for seven innings, striking out every Rays hitter at least once. Gardenhire decided to send Alex Burnett out to start the eighth with Liriano’s pitch count at 103 on a steamy day, and the bullpen with the lowest ERA in the AL faltered badly.
Burnett and Mijares could not get an out before a gassed Guerrier, who had a 1.93 ERA before Saturday, gave up the deciding runs.
“Our bullpen’s been very good. Today it just didn’t work out. No matter who I went to it seemed to be the wrong move,” Gardenhire said. “I’ll take that one on myself.”
B.J. Upton went 0 for 3 with a walk in his return to the starting lineup after four days off because of a quadriceps injury. It was his first start since a confrontation with Longoria in the Rays’ dugout on Sunday.
Randy Choate (1-2) pitched one inning for the win. Tampa Bay starter Wade Davis had another rough outing, giving up four runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings.
Joe Mauer had three hits to get his average back above .300 and Justin Morneau hit a two-run homer for the Twins.
NOTES: Longoria had two hits and an RBI. … Twins SS J.J. Hardy (wrist) was activated from the disabled list and had two hits, a double and a single. … Killebrew recently held a charity golf tournament in Arizona for his granddaughter, Caitlyn Mae White. The 9-year-old was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy with WPW Syndrom in May and will need a heart transplant if medication does not work. Those who want to help Killebrew’s granddaughter can send donations to The Caitlyn May White Trust, c/o Megan Aubrey, Trustee, 6748 N. Double Eagle Lane, Meridian, ID, 83646.