Vazquez can't answer challenge as Twins cut ChiSox's lead to 1½ games

MINNEAPOLIS -- Javier Vazquez has been fighting the label of big-game flopper for his entire career.

That fight will only intensify after falling flat in his latest chance with the ball in his hands and a lot on the line.

Two days after Ozzie Guillen said Vazquez hasn't been a big-game pitcher during his career, the White Sox right-hander lasted just four innings in a 9-3 loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night that pulled the Twins within 1½ games in the AL Central race.

Vazquez (12-15) gave up five runs and seven hits, including a two-run homer and a triple to Jason Kubel, whose Twins practically need a sweep to position themselves for a fifth division title in seven years.

"I know Javy is a good pitcher," Guillen said. "You don't pitch that many innings and strike out 200 batters and not be a good pitcher. We didn't help him out much today."

The only bright spot for the White Sox was Ken Griffey Jr. passing Sammy Sosa for sole possession of fifth place on the career list with his 610th home run, a two-run shot off Matt Guerrier in the ninth.

Kubel went 3-for-4 with two homers in the game, going back-to-back with Delmon Young off Boone Logan in the seventh to put the game out of reach and start this crucial three-game series in emphatic fashion.

"If we lost tonight, that's almost the season right there," Kubel said. "It's one we really needed to have and it just sets up the rest of the series and gives us extra confidence after tonight."

Scott Baker (10-4) gave up one run and five hits in seven innings, easily outshining Vazquez, whose ability to come through in pressure situations has been questioned for 10 years, most recently on Sunday by his own manager.

"I don't read the newspapers," Vazquez said when asked about Guillen's comments. "I don't read the papers or anything."

Guillen said before the game Tuesday that he was trying to light a fire under Vazquez, urging him to pitch with an edge and attitude that is needed to succeed in meaningful games.

"He's one of my friends," Guillen said. "I just want Javy to be aggressive."

After he was staked to a 1-0 lead in the second inning, Vazquez walked Justin Morneau to start the bottom half and then gave up the two-run shot to Kubel that nearly hit the suites high above the baggie in right field.

The Twins added three more in a fourth inning started by Kubel's triple past a diving Griffey in center field. Young had a double down the right field line, and Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez had RBI singles to make it 5-1.

"He was behind in the count a bunch," Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "He made a mistake to Kubel and after that he never got in a rhythm."

Baker finished an impressive outing with a flourish, retiring the last seven hitters he faced, one on a line drive back to the mound off the bat of Alexei Ramirez. The ball hit Baker's glove and squirted out, but the lanky right-hander lunged forward and grabbed it with his bare hand to record the out.

"One of these two teams is going home and we don't want it to be us," Morneau said. "We'll do whatever we can to stop it."

Now things get even more interesting in a surprising division race that has been tight for two months, albeit between two teams that were projected to duke it out for third place behind Detroit and Cleveland when the season began.

"We cannot feel like we lost the pennant race," Guillen said. "We're still in first place. We can't forget about that. We got to keep fighting like we've been fighting all year long."

Game notes
Gomez stole his 32nd base, the highest total by a Twin since Otis Nixon's 37 in 1998. ... So much for matchups: Guillen brought lefty Clayton Richard in to start the fifth and face lefties Joe Mauer and Morneau. Mauer singled and Morneau followed with an RBI-double, his 47th on the season to set a new team record. Later in the inning, lefty Brian Buscher's sacrifice fly made it 7-1. ... White Sox RF Jermaine Dye hit a pop fly off the roof in the ninth, but it landed in foul territory and was ruled a foul ball.