MINNEAPOLIS -- The bases were loaded in the ninth inning against sputtering New York Mets closer Edwin Diaz, and the Minnesota Twins had their most experienced hitter at the plate in Nelson Cruz for a classic power-versus-power matchup.
So many of these tense moments have favored the first-place Twins this season, and the ballpark was alive with anticipation. This one went to the hard-throwing Diaz and the Mets, though, thanks in part to an early edge courtesy of Michael Conforto.
Conforto went 4 for 4 and drove in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the fifth inning , and Diaz retired Cruz on a full-count foul popup to preserve a 3-2 victory by the Mets on Tuesday night.
"All I wanted to do was elevate my fastball there to get him out," Diaz said through a translator after escaping for his 21st save in 25 attempts.
Luis Arraez entered as a pinch-hitter for injured Jonathan Schoop and turned an 0-2 count into a walk. Singles by Mitch Garver and Marwin Gonzalez dialed up the pressure on Diaz, who has allowed 25 hits, 17 runs and six walks over his last 14 1/3 innings. But Cruz's foul ball on the seventh straight fastball of his at-bat, all recorded at 98 or 99 mph, was well within the range of third baseman Todd Frazier to make a basket catch in front of the dugout.
"I don't think I'd say I enjoy it, because we lost, but definitely we can take some positives," Cruz said. "We got the game where we want to be, and unfortunately I wasn't able to come through."
Conforto was just 6 for 49 over his last 14 games. He made the defensive play of the night, too, a graceful leaping grab at the top of the wall in left-center to end the third with a runner on and take away an extra-base hit from Cruz. Schoop led off that inning against Steven Matz with a home run.
With Matz on a pitch limit, the Mets bullpen backed up the highlight reel created by Conforto with one hit allowed over the first four of five scoreless innings. Luis Avilan (2-0) picked up the victory.
"That says a lot. You knew they weren't going to make every inning easy on you," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said.
Matz, who made two relief appearances the week before the All-Star break, started for the first time since June 29. He finished four innings in 68 pitches, after an RBI groundout by Max Kepler tied the game following a single by Eddie Rosario and a double by C.J. Cron to start the frame. Rosario and Cron both returned from the injured list before the game, a boost for this Twins team that saw its AL Central lead over Cleveland shrink to five games, the smallest since May 19.
The Mets are in no such race, buried in the NL East amid a tumultuous season, but this three-time zone, 10-game road trip to begin the second half is at least off to a solid start. Their streak of 11 straight road games with a home run ended, but they boosted their NL-worst road record to 20-32 with their third straight win.
"We're hoping to build on that," Conforto said.
MOMENTUM FOR MIKE
Michael Pineda (6-5) allowed exactly one earned run for the fifth time in his last six starts, but a sloppy opening inning by the Twins put the hulking right-hander in an early hole. Robinson Cano put the Mets on the board with a sacrifice fly that scored Jeff McNeil, after a passed ball by Jason Castro put runners at second and third. Conforto then came home on a fielding error committed at second base by Schoop, who tried to backhand a two-out grounder up the middle but bobbled it .
Pineda finished six innings for the third straight turn, allowing six hits without a walk, but his wild pitch in the fifth allowed Amed Rosario to advance after a double. Conforto poked a single through the hole between third base and shortstop, putting the Mets in front. Pineda anxiously watched the ninth inning unfold from the clubhouse, where Minnesota's comeback bid came up just short.
"My heart is jumping a little bit, because it's a lot of emotion in the game," Pineda said.
Mets: RHP Jacob Rhame, sent down in April after receiving a two-game suspension from MLB for throwing near the head of Philadelphia slugger Rhys Hoskins, was brought back up from Triple-A Syracuse to fill RHP Zack Wheeler's roster spot. Wheeler, one of the team's top trade candidates with the deadline two weeks away, went on the 10-day injured list Monday because of shoulder trouble. He said he wasn't sure how many starts he would miss.
Twins: Schoop was removed after a long talk with manager Rocco Baldelli and athletic trainer Masamichi Abe, after he swung and missed at strike two and clutched his left side in discomfort.
"You don't want to come out, but they see something different," Schoop said.
Mets: LHP Jason Vargas (3-5, 4.23 ERA) starts the two-game series finale on Wednesday afternoon. He's 0-2 with a 5.33 ERA in his last five turns.
Twins: LHP Martin Perez (8-3, 4.26 ERA) takes the mound in the matinee, his first start in 12 days because of the rotation reset during the All-Star break.
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