Minnesota’s up-and-coming third baseman couldn’t have expected to do this well, though.
Valencia’s one-out single in the 10th inning drove in Michael Cuddyer from second base and gave the Twins a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night.
Valencia is batting .332 with 16 doubles, two homers and 24 RBI in 208 at-bats, one of a handful of first-year players thrust into action this season.
“We need ‘em. That’s for sure. Especially now, with all the injuries we’ve had to endure in the past two months,” Cuddyer said. “For him to come up and fill in nicely is huge.”
The Twins kept their four-game lead over Chicago in the AL Central, improving to 7-1 against the Tigers at Target Field, despite nine strikeouts and only four hits allowed in a career-high nine innings by Detroit starter Max Scherzer.
With the hard-throwing Ryan Perry (2-5) pitching, Cuddyer singled to start the inning and stole second base while Delmon Young struck out. Then Valencia, whose single in the fifth helped the Twins score their first run against Scherzer, smacked a single to center on a 3-2 count that was deep enough for Cuddyer to score standing up just before the throw from Austin Jackson.
“I knew I’d be able to play up here obviously, but to do this well it’s pretty surreal,” Valencia said. “I’m just happy the way it’s going right now.”
Jon Rauch (3-1) pitched a perfect 10th for the victory that should’ve gone to Francisco Liriano, who kept up his strong second half with seven shutout innings by powerfully and masterfully working his way out of men-on situations in the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh.
He’s 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA in nine starts after the All-Star break. Extra rest he’s been given between turns recently has clearly helped.
“I feel way better,” Liriano said.
The second half hasn’t been as much fun for Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who hasn’t had a winning record in games after the All-Star break since his World Series championship season with Florida in 1997. Leyland lamented some of the mistakes by a handful of youngsters playing more because of various injuries.
“They press a little bit,” he said. “We’ve got them throughout the lineup and that’s going to happen, but we have to just keep grinding it. They’ll learn at some point in their careers.”
Lately at least, the pitching staff has picked it up for the Tigers.
In their last 12 games, the starters have a 1.81 ERA and a 7-1 record with 11 quality starts of six innings or more and three earned runs or less. The Tigers are 7-5 in that stretch.
Young doubled for the Twins’ first hit and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jose Morales in the fifth inning against Scherzer, who has allowed one run or less in six of his last seven starts with just two given up in the other one.
“He’s got a tremendous mound presence right now,” Leyland said. “He’s one of the better pitchers in the league.”
Scherzer finished strong, getting Valencia on a weak pop out to second and striking out Morales and Jason Repko in the perfect eighth. In the ninth, after pinch-hitter Jim Thome’s sharp single, Scherzer retired Joe Mauer on a fly to left with nobody warming up in the bullpen until Perry readied for the 10th.
“It was one of the best games I’ve thrown in the big leagues, and it doesn’t feel right,” Scherzer said. “We didn’t win. I’m so tied to how this team does.”
Liriano was just as impressive, striking out Gerald Laird, with the fans on their feet, to finish the seventh with one on.
Jackson started the eighth with a single against Jesse Crain, but Will Rhymes popped up his bunt attempt and Randy Flores came in to strike out pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn. Matt Guerrier walked Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta’s single to left field tied the game.
That was only the second earned run charged to Crain in his last 35 appearances. Guerrier, however, had a 5.27 ERA in August.
Scherzer is 1-6 with a 5.46 ERA in 11 starts against division opponents. He’s 9-3 with a 2.13 ERA in 15 starts against other teams.
The Twins finished August with 18 wins, most in the league and their highest total in one month since Sept. 2006.
Tigers reliever Bobby Seay, on the DL all season, will have surgery on his left shoulder in two weeks.
Valencia is batting .432 with nine doubles in 88 at-bats at Target Field.