Byrd boosts Rangers past Twins

Byrd boosts Rangers past Twins

MINNEAPOLIS -- The defining moment in the Rangers' 5-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday came in the bottom of the first inning.

Kameron Loe retired the first two batters he faced but gave up a two-out walk to Joe Mauer and a single to Torii Hunter, putting runners on first and second. That brought up Justin Morneau, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, who entered the game fourth in the league with 91 RBIs.

Morneau is also a left-handed hitter, and lefty swingers came into the game hitting .328 off Loe. Morneau was 5-for-8 with two home runs against him.

So how did Loe, a diehard sinkerball pitcher, attack Morneau?

He threw him two curveballs. Morneau took the first one for a strike and then hit a routine fly ball to left field.

"I knew I had to mix it up on him," Loe said. "Before, when I got him with runners in scoring position, I would go fastball away and he would pound fastball away. I knew I had to mix it up and keep him off-balance so he didn't zone me up."

Said Morneau: "I was taking the first pitch anyway. He threw the same one on the second pitch. I should have hit it. It was right down the middle. But I missed it. I hit two home runs on his fastball last time, so I didn't expect him to come out throwing fastballs. I was thinking more changeup, but it was still a good pitch to hit. It was frustrating."

That at-bat resounded the rest of the night and Loe, going five innings, combined with relievers Mike Wood, Frank Francisco and Joaquin Benoit to throw the Rangers' fifth shutout of the season. Marlon Byrd, bouncing back from a rough game on Friday, provided most of the offense with a two-run home run and a two-run single.

"It's a different feeling from last night," said Byrd, who committed a costly 10th-inning error on Friday, as well as going hitless with runners in scoring position. "I said last night, 'I have to come through with runners in scoring position and put some runs on the board,' and tonight I did."

The pitching did the rest and Loe had no trouble with the bad back that forced him on the disabled list. He allowed three hits and five walks but held the Twins to 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

It all came back to the at-bat with Morneau and being willing to throw something other than his sinker.

That's what the Rangers need to see from Loe as they go down the stretch and look at candidates for the 2008 rotation. They need to see Loe reduce his dependence on the sinkerball and show more confidence in his offspeed pitches. There have been times when he has done that and times when he gets away from it.

It's his security blanket, and he's learning that he can't hold tight to it all the time.

"There are some growing pains I have to deal with," Loe said. "It's a work in progress, but I'm getting more confident. But one of the things you have to do to be a complete pitcher is use your other pitches. Nobody throws one pitch in this game and gets away with it."

The sinker is still a big pitch for him, and 10 of his 15 outs came on ground balls. But the Twins weren't sitting on the sinker, and that showed in the fifth inning when they got the first two batters on base with an infield hit and a walk.

Loe came back to strike out Nick Punto, get Joe Mauer on a grounder to first and strike out Hunter. He did so mainly with the sinker and was able to do so because he had been effective with the curveball and the changeup earlier in the game.

"You just can't pound the sinker because when you're not pounding the sinker in the strike zone, hitters will lay off it," manager Ron Washington said. "Then you have to throw [straight fastballs] and the hitters will pound it. He's learning."

Loe also helped his defense by working quickly, and he was rewarded with sharp defense behind him. Most impressive was a double play that got Loe out of a first-and-third jam in the fourth.

Tommy Watkins hit a sharp grounder that shortstop Michael Young made a sprawling, backhanded stop of, then spun completely around and fired to second baseman Ian Kinsler to begin the double play.

"That was awesome," Washington said. "Those guys were sharp tonight. The whole team played well, but the inner defense in the infield was great."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.