Cuddyer's two-run homer enough as Twins gain ground on Tigers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brian Duensing left the mound to a rousing ovation for his performance that helped push Minnesota within three games of Detroit for the AL Central lead.

Showing his age, Duensing wasn't sure about protocol. Tip his cap to acknowledge the crowd or just keep walking?

That was the only sign of his rookie status, though. He pitched with the poise of a seasoned pro.

Michael Cuddyer's two-run homer was all Duensing needed, energizing the Twins in a 3-0 victory over the Tigers on Friday night.

"He wasn't scared of any of those guys," Cuddyer said. "He went out there, pounded the strike zone. That was huge, and hopefully he can continue to be huge for us."

This is the closest the Twins (75-72) have been to first place since Aug. 2. They're 6-1 at home this year against Detroit.

"He kept us off balance, move the ball around, went in and out," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Was he overpowering? No. Did he show great stuff? No. But he showed good stuff, and he showed tremendous pitchability."

Duensing gave up two infield singles among just four hits and only one walk over 6 1/3 innings, before yielding to the bullpen to finish Minnesota's fifth straight victory. Joe Nathan posted his 42nd save, allowing a walk and a double with two outs before finishing a scoreless ninth.

"We haven't hit a lot this year, really to be honest with you," Leyland said. "But it's time for the stars to shine."

As the Tigers (78-69) have stumbled since Labor Day, failing to get their bats going and take advantage of the assorted problems bothering the Twins and Chicago White Sox, the AL Central has quietly emerged as the one division in baseball this season with an actual pennant chase. Even the wild-card spots in both leagues have been heading toward anticlimactic endings.

These teams play twice more this weekend and four times in Detroit during the final week of the season, though, so it could be quite the finish.

"Fun baseball," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said. "We don't think about it. We take it one game at a time. We do well, the outcome will be where we want it to be."

The Twins believe the same.

"We're pitching well. We're getting hits when we need 'em, big hits when we need 'em, and we're not making mistakes," Cuddyer said. "That's what we've been accustomed to over the years, and that's what we're going to have to continue to do to continue to climb."

Rick Porcello (13-9) pitched well for the Tigers over six innings, but he made a couple of mistakes. Kubel, who is 7-for-8 this season against the 20-year-old right-hander, singled with one out in the fourth.

Then Cuddyer crushed a fastball left over the meat of the plate for his 27th home run and a 2-0 lead. Delmon Young's RBI double two innings later gave the Twins a cushion.

The AL Central has been more of a crawl than a race, but the announced crowd of 32,693 wasn't worried about that. Duensing provided plenty to cheer for.

"Fans, thanks. I appreciate it. That was awesome," Duensing said, explaining to reporters his uncertainty about whether to tip his hat during the ovation on his way off the mound. "Hopefully they keep coming out. We've got some big games coming up."

In seven starts, Duensing -- his overall record is 4-1 -- has not lost and has a 1.70 ERA. He has been a heaven-sent addition to an injury-ravaged rotation.

The left-hander had flawless defense behind him, too. Kubel, playing right field instead of designated hitter while Cuddyer minds first base for Justin Morneau, made a running catch near the foul line after a leadoff double in the fifth. Then shortstop Orlando Cabrera scooted backward and grabbed a tricky pop-up for the second out.

Duensing, who credited catcher Joe Mauer for keeping him calm and calling the right pitches, was most proud of keeping the Tigers scoreless that inning right after Cuddyer's big hit.

Game notes
Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp was "pleasantly surprised" with Nate Robertson's latest bullpen session, according to Leyland. Robertson hasn't pitched since last Friday because of a groin problem, but he will start Sunday with Jarrod Washburn fighting a knee injury. The Tigers don't play Monday, so rookie Eddie Bonine will be skipped. ... Gardenhire plans to use third C Jose Morales as the regular DH, unless Mauer needs a break. Morales is 9-for-20 since his latest recall from the minors.