Miller's sparkling season takes a hit

MINNEAPOLIS -- The only thing left to be decided, or so it seemed, was how the Boston Red Sox were going to finish off a comeback win over the Minnesota Twins, who can beat the Sox in Fort Myers when the games don’t count but had lost eight of their past nine to Boston here in Target Field, including the past six in a row.

Instead? "It’s a shame," Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said after it was over, an 8-6 Twins win coming on a two-out, walk-off home run by Chris Parmelee in the ninth off Andrew Miller, "that it ended the way it did."

The Sox had made a distant memory of a 5-1 Twins lead after two innings. David Ortiz continued his undeclared vendetta against the team that let him go with two home runs and two run-scoring singles, the first time in his career he’d ever had four hits that produced runs in a nine-inning game.

With two out and nobody on in the seventh, six straight Sox batters reached safely against three Twins relievers to forge a 6-6 tie, Jonny Gomes fouling off four straight full-count pitches before he was nearly hit in the noggin with ball four to force in the tying run.

And after walking the leadoff man in the eighth, Sox reliever Junichi Tazawa pulled off the first successful pickoff of his career, nailing Danny Santana with a snap throw to first.

Yes, the Sox could have seized the lead in the seventh, when Pierzynski, at bat with the bases still loaded, was looking for a full-count fastball over the plate but instead got a pitch inside he couldn’t handle.

"About sums up my night," he said. "I had a bad day."

His day included three K’s and a double play.

And yes, they wasted Shane Victorino’s single in the ninth, when Twins closer Glen Perkins struck out Ortiz and Mike Napoli, but all that meant was they’d have to work a little overtime for this win. Or so it seemed.

Miller, his fastball boasting even more life than it has had in the past couple of weeks, struck out the first two batters in the ninth, and was one hitter away from sending the game into extra innings when Kurt Suzuki rolled a single just out of the reach of diving third baseman Will Middlebrooks.

That brought up Parmelee, the left-handed hitting first baseman-outfielder who has tried to stick with the Twins for the past three years but was outrighted in March, meaning the Twins had dropped him off their 40-man roster. A hot run in Triple-A had persuaded the Twins to buy his contract back last week, but in Miller he was facing a left-hander who had allowed left-handed hitters only two hits in 21 at-bats all season and hadn’t given up a home run to anyone.

Parmelee swung through a first-pitch fastball, and Miller’s confidence soared.

"I felt after the first swing I could beat him with velocity," Miller said. "I guess he felt I was going to do the same thing. He was ready for it."

Miller came back with another fastball, this one clocked at a blistering 96 mph. But it was down and in, right into Parmelee’s swing path. There was little doubt of the outcome as the ball soared into the cool Minnesota night. Parmelee had his first home run of 2014, the Twins had their first walk-off win, Miller had his first home run allowed and his first loss, and the Sox were back to running in place at .500.

"It happens," Miller said. "I didn’t get beat because I walked a guy or fell behind a guy. I still have to make a better pitch there. I threw what he could hit at the time."

To see a ball leaving the park against Miller, who had faced 66 batters without being taken deep before Parmelee, was almost as shocking as seeing Jose Bautista and Yunel Escobar connect off Koji Uehara. You know it’s bound to happen, but not the way Miller had been dealing so far this season.

Everything you could want from a late-inning reliever, the 6-foot-7 left-hander had delivered, with his power fastball/slider mix:

• He was getting both left-handed and right-handed hitters out, holding lefties to a .095 average (2-for-21), righties to a .194 average (7-for-36) entering play Tuesday.

• He was keeping the ball in the ballpark.

• He was striking out batters at a ferocious rate, averaging 12.9 K’s per nine innings, including 14 in his past 6 2/3 innings.

• He was stranding runners. Of the nine he has inherited, none have scored.

• And he was not walking batters. None in his past 13 appearances spanning 12 2/3 innings, only four overall in 16 2/3 innings. His walk rate per nine innings of 2.3 is less than half the 5.0 walk rate he posted last season.

"I feel good," he said the other day. "I feel like I’m throwing strikes, and I feel like any time I’m throwing strikes I’ll take my chances.

"Usually I get myself in trouble either with bad counts or free passes. Since I’ve become a reliever it’s pretty easy to see I’ve done well when I’ve gotten the ball over the plate. I’ll take that."

What has made a significant difference this season, he said, has been his ability to throw a first-pitch strike. He came into Tuesday night’s game against the Twins throwing a first-pitch strike 65.1 percent of the time, by far the best percentage of his career. He also has been lockdown against the first batter he faces, allowing two hits and walking two in 18 plate appearances while striking out nine.

"If you build a reputation that you’re throwing strikes and getting the ball over the plate, guys have to swing," he said. "And if you come in and throw a first-pitch strike or get the first guy, which is the biggest thing [when you’re] a reliever, guys are going to swing the bats, especially at that point in the game. In that situation, I like my chances.

"I feel like I’ve consistently gotten better since I got to this organization. I reached a low point, started fresh and really turned the corner. I’m not stagnant. I’m getting better every time out, and hopefully I can keep that going."

And so he has, until Tuesday night. He was asked whether Parmelee should have been looking for a slider on the second pitch.

"The guessing game is not as difficult as a guy with a changeup or two different breaking balls or a cutter," Miller said. "I don’t know if he said he was sitting on it, but the way he hit that fastball, if I’d thrown a slider it would either have been a swing-and-miss or a take.

"Obviously, I wish I’d thrown a slider. I wish I’d thrown anything else. My thought process clearly was wrong. I threw it down right where he can hit the ball, so I put it on a tee for him. He just had to be ready for it."

He was. And the Sox had once again fallen short in fashioning their first three-game winning streak of the season.

"Nobody is going to get through a season without hiccups," Miller said. "You just try to keep them as short as you can. Obviously it didn’t go the way I wanted to, but I’m not going be in the outfield looking for mechanical fixes or throwing in the bullpen or anything.

"It’s funny. He hit the fastball. That’s the most zip I’ve had on my fastball the last couple of weeks. I felt I had a little extra, but it came back and bit me. I’ll move on. I’ll survive."