Morneau's hot bat helps Twins earn split with A's

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Justin Morneau feels a lot better this year than he did in 2007 even though he heads into September about as sore as he was at this point last season. The difference? Minnesota's place in the standings.

Morneau homered and drove in four runs, Scott Baker won for only the second time since the All-Star break and the Twins beat the Oakland Athletics 12-4 Sunday to earn a split of the four-game series and keep pace with front-running Chicago in the AL Central.

"Every little thing helps now," Morneau said. "Last year my body probably felt the same but you go out there and [see] we're a half-game back, it seems to feel pretty good pretty quick. You feel those aches and pains a lot more when you're 10 games back than when you're a half-game back."

Alexi Casilla also homered and drove in three runs while Nick Punto added two hits, including an infield single that sparked the Twins' five-run sixth inning.

Minnesota, which missed a chance to move into first when closer Joe Nathan's throwing error in the ninth led to a 3-2 loss Saturday, remained a half-game back of the White Sox, who beat Boston 4-2.

Morneau had an RBI single in the first then hit a three-run homer off Oakland starter Greg Smith in the sixth. The Twins' first baseman, who is batting .379 over his last 16 games, became the ninth Twins player since 1961 to reach 500 RBIs for his career.

The milestone came on Morneau's home run to right field. The ball bounced off a set of steps and into the hands of a young fan, who later agreed to hand over the souvenir in exchange for a bat.

"When [Morneau's] swinging, he's knocking in runs," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "When we get men in scoring position he does a pretty good job of driving them in. That's his job and he knows that."

The offensive outburst was a welcome sight for Baker, the hard-luck right-hander who hadn't got much support from his teammates since the All-Star break. In his previous eight starts he was 1-2 with five no-decisions despite leaving with the lead three times.

There was little doubt about the outcome when Baker left this time.

Baker (8-4) allowed an RBI double to Jack Hannahan but kept the A's quiet otherwise, scattering six hits over six innings to improve to 3-0 in three career starts against Oakland.

"I don't know what it is but recently I've been having trouble with a bigger lead," Baker said. "To be able to go out there after we scored five runs and put up a couple zeros was great for me. I feel like we have all the tools, the elements that we need to be a playoff team. It basically comes down to getting them going at the same time."

The A's didn't offer much resistance, going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before getting three runs in the eighth off reliever Eddie Guardado.

Oakland has gone 37 consecutive games without scoring more than six runs, the longest streak by an AL team since 1988 when Milwaukee had a string of 40 straight games.

Smith (6-14) lasted just five innings and gave up seven hits and a career-high eight runs. The 14 losses are tied with four other pitchers for most in the AL and are the most by an A's pitcher since Tom Candiotti went 11-16 in 1998.

"The big homers just cost him," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "The middle of their lineup, back to back, is as good as there is in baseball."

Smith was the sixth straight lefty the Twins faced on their current road trip, a trend that continues Tuesday in Toronto when the Twins are scheduled to go against David Purcey. That will make Minnesota the first team since the 1991 New York Mets to face seven consecutive left-handers.

Baker was staked an early 3-1 lead behind Casilla's two-run homer off Smith in the second. Minnesota padded the lead in the sixth when the first five batters reached base and scored.

The Twins added a pair of unearned runs in the eighth on a fielding error by A's first baseman Daric Barton, and two more in the ninth. It's the second time in three games Minnesota scored 12 runs.

Oakland rookie outfielder Aaron Cunningham, who was called up from the minors Saturday, started in left field and had two hits, including a two-run single in the eighth.

Game notes
Cunningham is the 10th player to make his major league debut for the A's this season. ... Smith was called for a balk in the sixth, his first of the season. Smith leads the majors with 15 pickoffs. ... Oakland RHP Sean Gallagher threw 35 pitches in a simulated game and may start this week for Triple-A Sacramento. Gallagher has been on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue since Aug. 21. ... The A's hope RHP Justin Duchscherer, out with a strained hip, will be available to start when Oakland plays a doubleheader in Baltimore next Saturday.