MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Pelfrey pitched into the sixth inning in his Minnesota debut, Josh Willingham and Trevor Plouffe hit home runs and the Twins took the season-opening series from the Detroit Tigers with an 8-2 victory Thursday.
Pelfrey (1-0) did not allow an earned run, taking the mound less than a year after Tommy John surgery. The former New York Mets first-round draft pick was given a 3-2 lead when Willingham and Plouffe went deep against Tigers starter Rick Porcello (0-1).
Four relievers kept the Twins in front for four innings, until they broke the game open with a five-run eighth against Brayan Villarreal. Tigers relievers gave up 10 runs over 10 innings in these three games.
Miguel Cabrera got another RBI, his fourth of the year, but the Tigers had another quiet afternoon at the plate.
The Tigers loaded the bases in the seventh. Austin Jackson doubled, Detroit’s first extra-base hit in 21 innings since Torii Hunter’s double in the third inning of the opener. Cabrera was walked intentionally to load them. But Prince Fielder struck out on a checked swing and Victor Martinez popped out to end the threat.
In the eighth, Andy Dirks drew a leadoff walk. But Jhonny Peralta struck out and Alex Avila grounded into a double play to finish that inning.
The 6-foot-7 Pelfrey was a fixture in the Mets’ rotation for four-plus seasons until the elbow problem popped up. He made three starts last year before undergoing the ligament replacement procedure, which has historically required between 12 to 18 months from which to recover. But Pelfrey reduced that average turnaround time on this now-famous surgery by just a little bit.
Dr. James Andrews performed the operation last May 1 in Gulf Breeze, Fla., making Pelfrey’s comeback a little more than 11 months. The right-hander gave up two unearned runs, five hits and two walks in 5 1-3 innings, with one strikeout. He trailed 2-0 before the Twins found their power stroke, but even those runs weren’t his fault.
Jackson’s infield single to start the game could’ve been ruled an error when first baseman Justin Morneau shuffled left and bobbled the ball with the speedy leadoff man charging up the line. Jackson stole second, took third when catcher Joe Mauer’s throw skipped past the base and scored on Hunter’s ground out.
In the third inning, Hunter reached second when another grounder led to shortstop Pedro Florimon’s throwing error. He scored on Cabrera’s sharp single.
Starting pitching is supposed to be Minnesota’s biggest weakness, the primary reason why the Twins lost 195 games the last two years. But Vance Worley, Kevin Correia and Pelfrey allowed five earned runs in 18 1-3 innings in this series, a 2.45 ERA.
Porcello has been a durable if unspectacular part of Detroit’s rotation the last four seasons, striking out a career-high 107 batters in 2012, but April has never been his best month. The right-hander didn’t pitch badly, yielding six hits and two walks in 5 1-3 innings while striking out two. But he gave up the lead in the third when Mauer’s two-out single was followed by Willingham’s tying two-run shot into the seats in left-center.
In the fourth, Plouffe hit one even higher and further that clanked off the facade of the second deck above the same spot in the ballpark. Willingham and Plouffe were the top two power hitters for the Twins last year, with 35 and 24 home runs respectively.
NOTES: In Porcello’s previous nine starts against the Twins, he was 5-1 with a 3.35 ERA. ... The Tigers have their home opener on Friday afternoon against the New York Yankees, with RH Doug Fister scheduled to pitch against RH Ivan Nova. ... The Twins are the opponent for Baltimore’s home opener on Friday, with RH Liam Hendriks taking the mound against Orioles RH Jake Arrieta.