ST. PETERSBURG -- Carl Pavano was mixing his pitches, racking up six strikeouts through five scoreless innings. The defense was slick, recording inning-ending double plays in the fourth and fifth. The bats hadn't come around against Rays starter James Shields, but all in all, things were going well for the Twins through five innings Saturday night.
Then came the sixth inning.
The inning included just one bad pitch and a few defensive miscues, but that was all it took for the Rays to beat the Twins, 4-1, before a crowd of 31,774 at Tropicana Field.
The home half of the sixth inning started with Pavano striking out Ben Zobrist for his seventh punchout of the night. He walked Carlos Pena, and Evan Longoria rapped a single to left field.
Then Luke Scott came to the plate and flied out to Denard Span in center field. Pena was tagging up, and Span thought he could make the aggressive play by throwing out the Rays' first baseman at third base. It wasn't in time, and Longoria's equally aggressive baserunning landed him at second base, putting two men in scoring position with one out.
"I don't want to say caught in the moment, but I feel like I can throw him out," Span said. "In hindsight, when he was safe, then I look back and say, 'You know what? I probably should've thrown it to second.' Because they both tagged up. But I feel like I've got to have confidence in myself a little bit and be a little aggressive to try to get us out of that inning, because you don't know what's going to happen next."
What happened next was an intentional walk to Matt Joyce that loaded the bases for B.J. Upton. Pavano left a pitch up that Upton jam-shotted into shallow center field to score two runs. Span once again threw to third, with a decent shot to catch Joyce, but the ball bounced off Joyce and to the wall, allowing a third run to score. Upton slid into second base with the game-changing hit.
"I just told myself go up there and relax, get a good pitch to hit. Don't try to do too much," Upton said. "You put the ball in play, you never know what will happen. Obviously, you kind of saw that."
It's easy to look back and say what could have happened if Span had made the first throw to second base instead of third. There would have been runners on the corners and a double-play possibility, and Pavano wouldn't have had to intentionally walk Joyce.
"We just throw the ball into second base and not try to do too much and we would've been fine there. I would have liked to see us do that, but it didn't work out," Gardenhire said. "We failed to turn a double play a couple times. Those things will beat you up."
"I'm just thinking that I can throw that guy out. That's the bottom line," Span said. "The safe route is to throw it to second. I want to be aggressive, man. I feel like if I don't believe I can throw him out, I don't need to be out in center field."
With the way Shields was pitching, every run was valuable. The Rays' Opening Day starter worked eight-plus innings, allowing one run on five hits and two walks while striking out seven. Coming off a season in which he threw 11 complete games, Shields has worked eight innings or more 18 times in his last 34 starts, the most in the Majors dating back to April 19 of last year.
"We faced a very, very good pitcher out there tonight. He was really, really good," Gardenhire said of Shields. "Carl went toe-to-toe there with him, then finally cracked."
Pavano exited after throwing 110 pitches in six innings. He gave up three runs (two earned) on seven hits, two walks (one intentional) and one hit batsman while striking out seven. His seven punchouts were his most since April 14 last year. The last time he struck out seven against someone other than the Rays was May 6, 2010, against the Orioles.
The Rays tacked on another run in the seventh, when Alex Burnett caught a few tough breaks. He gave up a single to Jennings, then Carroll couldn't make the grab on a grounder at second to force out Jennings. Burnett loaded the bases by hitting Pena, and Jennings scored when Valencia failed to field Longoria's grounder to third base. Brian Duensing got out of the inning by inducing a 4-6-3 double play.
The Twins got a rally going in the ninth, with Josh Willingham opening the inning with a single and Justin Morneau following with a double to knock Shields out of the game. Willingham scored on Ryan Doumit's sacrifice fly, but Rays reliever Fernando Rodney got out of the jam.
"We were in it until the end. We had opportunities," Pavano said. "We played a good baseball game."