(Sports Network) - A 17-win June and solid play since the All-Star break has the Twins thinking they can still make a run at the American League Central title.
A four-game set against the Detroit Tigers, with Justin Verlander set to start the opener, may not help their chances, but at least the Twins might be catching the Cy Young candidate at the right time.
Verlander looks to rebound from his worst start in nearly two months and pitch the Tigers to a 10th straight victory over the Twins tonight at Target Field.
The Twins found themselves 16 1/2 games back of first place on June 1, but have trimmed that deficit all the way down to five games back of the first- place Tigers and Indians. Minnesota has won six of its last nine games overall, taking the final two contests of a four-game set with Cleveland.
Alexi Casilla helped the Twins split the series, posting three hits and two runs scored in Wednesday's 7-5 victory. Tsuyoshi Nishioka provided the final margin with a two-run single in the eighth inning, while Joe Mauer upped his season average to .297 with a pair of hits.
With manager Ron Gardenhire leaving the game early because of a viral infection, starter Nick Blackburn yielded four runs -- one earned -- over six innings, while Joe Nathan locked down his sixth save of the season despite allowing a solo homer in the ninth.
"Today was the best I've felt in a long time," Blackburn said after the game. "Today was nice and easy, I felt like I did back a couple weeks ago ... it was a good time to be out there, just to have that feeling again."
Minnesota's victory allowed Detroit to stay in a tie for the top spot in the division after a 7-5 loss to Oakland on Wednesday night that gave it a split of the two-game set.
Victor Martinez drove in two runs and Magglio Ordonez added three hits and an RBI for the Tigers, who had won six of nine and saw reliever David Purcey set up a four-run seventh inning for the Athletics by walking all three batters he faced to begin the frame. All three runners came around to score in the inning.
"Well, the old saying [is] 'walks kill,' that just can't happen. It's that simple," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "When you do that, you get burnt and that's exactly what happened. We let one get away that we should have won."
Detroit is expected to have Wilson Betemit available tonight after acquiring the infielder from the Royals on Wednesday for a pair of minor league players. Betemit, who hit .281 in 57 games with Kansas City, is expected to help the Tigers at third base, where Brandon Inge has struggled to a .177 average in 70 games.
Inge, who was sidelined three weeks in June with mononucleosis, is just 4- for-54 in 18 games since returning from the disabled list and is expected to be designated for assignment today. He'll report to Triple-A Toledo if he clears waivers.
"Everyone goes through some rough patches in their career," Inge added. "This one is definitely one of them, but I'm a big believer everything happens for a reason."
Verlander is coming off a rough patch of his own as he lost for the second time in three starts on Friday versus the White Sox. The righty allowed five runs -- four earned -- on seven hits over six innings, striking out six in his worst outing since allowing six runs versus the Rays on May 24.
Verlander, who had pitched to a 0.75 earned run average in his previous nine starts, is 12-5 with a 2.29 ERA in 21 starts, but wasn't discouraged by the outing afterwards. It is hard to blame him given that he leads the AL with 153 strikeouts, is tied for second in wins and is third in ERA.
"We're not worried about what happened today," Verlander said. "I didn't have the best stuff."
The 28-year-old faces the Twins for the first time this year and is 7-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 18 career meetings with them. He'll look to extend Detroit's series winning streak over Minnesota, which includes five victories this season and nine in a row dating back to last season.
Carl Pavano will look to get the Twins their first win over the Tigers since Sept. 1 and is coming off a no-decision versus the Royals on Saturday. The veteran right-hander gave up three runs on six hits over seven innings of his club's 4-3 victory, going at least seven innings for the 10th time in his last 11 starts.
Pavano is 6-6 with a 4.08 ERA in 19 starts this year, including a 2.90 ERA in eight games at home. The 35-year-old is 5-2 with a 3.79 ERA in nine career starts versus Detroit.