Twins' pen shuts down White Sox as Twins shrink first place gap to ½ game

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins have been chasing the Chicago White Sox most of the season in a tight AL Central race.

Well, it's come down to the final week, and the young Twins are busy showing the White Sox how to thrive in the clutch.

Nick Blackburn fought through five innings and the maligned Minnesota bullpen didn't flinch, pitching the Twins past Mark Buehrle and the White Sox 3-2 on Wednesday night to pull within a half-game of first-place Chicago.

"It was just a big mind boost for me," said Blackburn, who acknowledged overthinking his struggles during a recent slump. "I just tried to convince myself to make a pitch and not try to press and overthrow anything."

Making up for Javier Vazquez's flop in a 9-3 loss the night before, Buehrle (14-12) gave the Sox the big game performance they needed after he fell behind 3-1 in the second inning. He didn't have much help, though, beyond a homer and two RBIs by Ken Griffey Jr.

Buehrle got plenty of Twins to chase pitches out of the strike zone, but that didn't faze them.

"I think we probably got a little too aggressive at times, but I told our guys to play," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Play the game and have some fun."

Blackburn (11-10) gave up eight hits and two walks, but he was tough enough when it counted to hold the lead. Craig Breslow, Boof Bonser and Jose Mijares followed, and Joe Nathan handled the ninth for his 39th save of the season and 200th of his career.

"You couldn't ask for anything better than that," Blackburn said. "They came in, did their job and got those guys out. No drama. It was great."

Minnesota improved to 7-1 against Chicago at the Metrodome this year, thanks in big part to those relievers -- who are a big reason, ironically, why the Twins are still behind the White Sox and not comfortably in front. The margin between these teams has been no bigger than 2½ games since July 27.

"They're tough customers," Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen said. "No doubt about that. We got to play hard to beat them."

The fans, who lost much of their faith in this bullpen, were treated to a playoff-style succession of scoreless innings -- with just one hit and one walk.

"I think I had the toughest inning out of us all," said Nathan, who watched Carlos Gomez track down A.J. Pierzynski's drive to left-center with a nice running catch. "It was nice to finish one out. We know we've had some tough stretches."

Buehrle retired 13 of the last 15 batters he faced. After hitting three homers on Tuesday, the Twins went back to what they're used to -- getting the ball on the ground and racing around the bases.

"They're a pain," Buehrle said.

League batting leader Joe Mauer rolled over on one in each of the first two innings, but he was fast enough to beat the relay throws and keep those bouncers to second from turning into double plays. Denard Span drove in a run with single, too, and Gomez kept the rally alive with a perfectly placed bunt down the first base line.

Guillen tried to give his lineup a lift by bumping the slumping Pierzynski to the eighth spot, sending Dewayne Wise to the leadoff slot and moving Orlando Cabrera down to No. 2.

"You've got to fight," Guillen said. "Keep fighting. Don't feel sorry for yourself."

The Sox hit three straight singles to load the bases with two outs after Griffey got a run in with a groundout in the second. But Wise struck out on a fastball from Blackburn.

With runners on first and third following Griffey's homer in the fourth, Juan Uribe sent a chopper to third base and Alexei Ramirez broke for home and was caught in a rundown. Wise popped up the next pitch to third, ending the inning.

"You know what? We win tomorrow and these first two games don't even matter," Pierzynski said, adding: "I don't see a lack of life. I see us battling trying to get hits. No one is giving anything up."

Game notes
Gomez gave Minnesota 64 bunt hits this year. The next closest team in the majors coming into Wednesday's games was Cincinnati with 33. The all-time record was set in 1992 by Los Angeles with 72. ... Chicago's Carlos Quentin, still tied for the AL home run lead with 36, will be re-evaluated Friday. He's been increasing the range of motion in his broken right wrist, but his return for any of the regular season or perhaps the playoffs remains in question. ... Gardenhire kept Jason Kubel -- who had two homers and a triple on Tuesday -- as his DH after initially penciling in Michael Cuddyer. Gardenhire said Cuddyer's once-broken left foot is close to being strong enough to allow him to play RF again. ... Guillen indicated he'll consider using Vazquez to start on short rest again on Saturday against Cleveland.