MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota Twins' starter Nick Blackburn knew the Tampa Bay Rays were going to be swinging early.
With his location off, he couldn't stop the aggressive Tampa Bay hitters.
Desmond Jennings singled on the first pitch of the game. B.J. Upton homered two pitches later and Matt Joyce followed with a solo homer after just six Blackburn pitches and Minnesota lost its third straight game, 4-2 against the Rays on Saturday night.
"Those first three guys kind of ambushed me," Blackburn said. "Came out, wasn't quite where I wanted to be location-wise and it pretty much cost us tonight."
Upton hit two home runs off Blackburn (4-8), who allowed a season-high 11 hits. Brian Dozier homered and Justin Morneau had two hits for the Twins, but Tampa Bay's David Price countered with his 15th victory of the season to pull into a tie for the major league lead.
Joel Peralta pitched a scoreless eighth inning for Tampa Bay. Fernando Rodney faced the heart of the Twins lineup and recorded a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his 35th save in 36 opportunities.
Blackburn only needed to look back one night to see the Rays would be swinging early. On Friday, Jennings led off with a double and a Joyce homer staked Tampa Bay to a 2-0 lead on the way to a 12-6 win.
"I knew Jennings was going to swing at the first pitch," Blackburn said. "I didn't have a single doubt in my mind. But like I said, I just didn't get the pitch there. To me, to start off a game I want to go with my strength and obviously my strength is typically my sinker. I'm thinking right there if I just execute the pitch, get him to ground out first pitch of the game and get an out would be nice. But, like I said, didn't get it there. Same thing with Upton and Joyce too."
Blackburn's sinker hasn't been working often this season. He was optioned to the minors after giving up six runs in four innings to Detroit on July 3, which saw his ERA bloat to an 8.10 mark. With Triple-A Rochester, he went 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA to get another chance in Minnesota, but it has been much of the same since his promotion.
Despite allowing four runs on 11 hits Saturday in six innings, his ERA dropped to 7.33. He has given up 19 runs in 30 innings since being recalled.
"They've got very aggressive hitters," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I said all along, if he's throwing that sinker in and down, we should get a lot of ground balls tonight. He did as the game went along, but it didn't happen in the first inning and there's your ballgame."
While Blackburn settled down, he was again unable to pitch deep into the game. He has gotten through the seventh inning only once in 18 starts this season.
The only time the Twins threatened against Price (15-4) was in the second when they strung together three hits to start the inning. Josh Willingham scored on Darin Mastroianni's infield single, but Price induced Dozier to ground into a double play, and got Drew Butera to ground out to end the inning. Dozier cut the Twins' deficit to 4-2 in the fifth with his sixth homer of the season.
The Twins had a chance to cut into Tampa Bay's lead in the seventh after Morneau and Mastroianni singled. But Price, who struck out five and didn't walk a batter, answered by striking out Dozier and Ryan Doumit to end the inning. Price, who moved into a share of the major league lead in victories with Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, hasn't lost since June 13. He is 7-0 with a 2.10 ERA in that span.
Ben Zobrist went 3-for-4 for the Rays, who have won 10 of 13 and kept pace in the AL East and AL wild card races.
"I think we know going in these guys are swinging early in the first inning," Gardenhire said." That's where we have to be better tomorrow. If we go back out there tomorrow, shame on us if we got and let them whack the ball in the first inning all over the place. We've got to make better pitches early. Living proof two nights in a row."
NOTES: Twins OF Denard Span wasn't in the lineup. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he wanted to give Span a day off, but Price's success against left-handed hitters was also a factor. ... With their eighth sellout of the year, the Twins passed the 2 million mark in attendance. ... RH James Shields (10-7, 4.08 ERA) will start Sunday for the Rays. He has given up only one run and five hits over his past two starts. Minnesota will counter with Scott Diamond (10-5, 2.91 ERA), its most consistent pitcher recently.