MLB Insiders: Minnesota Twins

The Pirates open a three-game series with the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night at PNC Park. Right-hander Kevin Correia will be on the hill for the Bucs. The Twins will toss lefty Scott Diamond.

Pedro Alvarez has been a very streaky hitter. The Pittsburgh Pirates hope his latest outburst can continue for a while.

He'll look to stay hot Tuesday night as Pittsburgh opens a three-game home series against the Minnesota Twins.

Alvarez is coming off a big weekend, homering twice in back-to-back wins over Cleveland. After driving in three runs Saturday, Alvarez had a career-high six RBIs in a 9-5 victory Sunday with three-run homers in the fourth and fifth innings.

The third baseman went 5 for 8 in those two games after his average had dipped to .189 following a hitless series opener.

However, it's not the first time Alvarez has seemed poised to turn things around. After opening the season in a 2-for-30 slump, he batted .395 with five homers and 13 RBIs over the next 12 games. He would hit .106 without a homer in his next 15.

Alvarez also had consecutive two-homer games in July 2010 during his rookie season but followed with a 4-for-39 slump without a home run.

Despite his inconsistency this year, Alvarez leads Pittsburgh with 12 homers and is second behind Andrew McCutchen with 34 RBIs.

The Pirates (34-31) will go for a season-high fifth straight home win when they face the Twins, who snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4, 15-inning win over Milwaukee on Sunday.

Minnesota (26-39) could be without Joe Mauer after he left Sunday with a bruised right quadriceps. Mauer is hitting .406 with nine RBIs in his last nine games.

The Twins will hand the ball to Scott Diamond (5-2, 2.13 ERA).

The rookie left-hander allowed four runs on a pair of homers in six innings of a 6-1 loss to Philadelphia on Thursday. He hadn't allowed an earned run over his previous two starts, which had lowered his ERA to 1.61.

Diamond, making his first appearance against the Pirates, is aware of his role to help ease the pressure on a bullpen which pitched 32 innings in six games last week. Minnesota's relievers threw nine scoreless innings Sunday.

He'll be opposed by Kevin Correia (2-6, 4.43), who is 0-6 with a 7.82 ERA in his last nine games at PNC Park.

Three of his four starts there this season have been quality outings, but he's winless there since beating Baltimore on June 22, 2011.

The right-hander struggled against the Orioles on Wednesday, giving up five runs and a season-high 10 hits in six innings of a 7-1 loss.

Pittsburgh has lost five of six against Minnesota, last facing the Twins in 2009.

One of GM Terry Ryan's major projects this spring was the bullpen, which checked in dead last in the majors last season, 30th of 30 teams in ERA (4.51) and 29th in walks-plus-hits-per-inning-pitched ratio (1.46). It was a major reason the team did a swan dive in the AL Central, going from first to last while losing 99 games.

Though much has gone wrong for Minnesota, which enters Tuesday's game at Pittsburgh last in the Central, the bullpen has been one of the few bright spots, and never was it brighter than while pitching nine scoreless innings in a 5-4, 15-inning victory over the Brewers on Sunday at Target Field.

After starter Nick Blackburn gave up four earned runs in six innings, Alex Burnett, Jared Burton, Brian Duensing, Jeff Gray, Glen Perkins and Anthony Swarzak held the Brewers scoreless on six hits and three walks.

That raised the bullpen's collective workload to 236 2/3 innings pitched this season, second only to Kansas City's 254 in all of baseball. The bullpen's WHIP of 1.18 ranks fifth, with only 69 walks all season. And though the ERA is 3.61, technically among the bottom half of the majors at No. 16, it's light years beyond the starters' 6.06, second worst among the 30 teams.

"It's awesome," left-hander Glen Perkins said of the bullpen's improvement. Perkins emerged as the team's setup man in 2011, one of the season's few bright spots. He pitched two innings Sunday and lowered his ERA to 3.14. In 28 2/3 innings, Perkins has fanned 36.

"We struggled last year, and we saw going into this year that it was one of our weaknesses," Perkins said. "We talked in spring training and early this season about guys stepping up, that (management will) throw guys at the wall and see who sticks, and we talked about last year, how not a lot of guys stuck. There are some guys sticking this year, and it's good to see."

Perkins, 29, hadn't thrown two full innings in more than a year, since April 28, 2011. He gave up two hits but stranded the go-ahead run at third.

"It wasn't pretty," he said, "but I got through it."

Notes, Quotes

RHP Jeff Gray signed as a six-year minor league free agent last winter and was one of several fairly anonymous faces brought in to bolster what had been baseball's worst bullpen in 2011. After a fairly anonymous spring, he made the major league roster and has stuck. With 27 appearances, he's three off his career high set last season between the White Sox and Mariners.

His 4.60 ERA is the highest of the team's relievers, but his 29 1/3 innings rank fourth. On Sunday, Gray pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and two walks in the 12th, 13th and 14th of a 5-4, 15-inning victory over the Brewers at Target Field.

He hadn't thrown three innings since he tossed four on May 29, 2011.

"Jeff Gray, he was the player of the game, in my opinion," said Alex Burnett, one of six Twins relievers who combined to hold the Brewers scoreless for nine innings.

Manager Ron Gardenhire agreed.

"Gray was unbelievable," he said. "Player of the game as far as I'm concerned."

RF Ben Revere never hit under .300 in the minor leagues in five-plus seasons, but he struggled to adjust to the majors as a rookie in 2011, batting .267 in his first real major league experience, 117 games.

Now, however, he's starting to look like the hitter he has always been. Entering Tuesday's game at Pittsburgh, Revere is batting .328 with nine RBI and 19 runs in 32 games. He only has four walks, but he also has struck out just eight times and has an on-base percentage befitting his No. 2 spot in the order, .353.

Most young players wait for a hitting coach to figure out the flaw in their swing; Revere figured it out himself by watching film: "I had my hands kind of low."

So in his last stay with Class AAA Rochester, he worked with hitting coach Tom Brunansky on keeping his hands up while in his stance.

"(Brunansky) had seen me coming up, so I talked to him one-on-one and finally I told him about keeping my hands up, and he said, 'We'll work on that,'" Revere said. "I took it into a game and had a pretty good one that night, so I just kept carrying it through."

RHP Nick Blackburn has been better since returning from a trip to the disabled list caused by a quadriceps injury in late May, but he not much better. He was 1-4 with an 8.37 ERA when he was hurt, and he's 2-0 with a 5.63 ERA since his return, though the Twins are 3-0 in his starts.

He got a no-decision in Sunday's 5-4, 15-inning loss to Milwaukee, giving up four earned runs in six innings. He allowed one of his runs on two first-inning hits. Blackburn has given up 14 runs in the first innings of 10 starts, and opponents are batting .420 (21-for-50) off him in the first inning.

C Joe Mauer is questionable for Tuesday's game at Pittsburgh after taking a knee to the thigh Sunday in a home-plate collision with Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks. Mauer left the game after his RBI single in the seventh tied the game 4-4; Minnesota won 5-4 in 15 innings.

He had entered Sunday's game nursing a sore hamstring but joked after the collision, "I really didn't feel the hamstring too bad."

Before leaving, Mauer went 3-for-4 to raise his batting average in interleague games to .475 (19-for-40).

By The Numbers: 5—Sellouts in 35 games at Target Field this season. In 2011, the Twins sold out 59 of 81 home games.

Quote To Note: "Coming in hard, it's part of the game." —C Joe Mauer, on his home-plate collision with Milwaukee 2B Rickie Weeks, which took him out of Sunday's 5-4 victory in the seventh inning and could keep him out when the Twins play at Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

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