Yanks’ trip smoothing out after ‘rocky’ start

After the disappointment of getting swept in a two-game series at Denver, the Yankees are on the verge of trumping that with a four-game sweep at Minneapolis. They are three-quarters of the way there with very impressive victories over the Twins heading into a Father’s Day finale Sunday with Nathan Eovaldi opposing Minnesota’s Ervin Santana.

Friday night, the Yankees struck early with four first-inning runs on the way to an 8-2 victory behind Masahiro Tanaka (4-2), who was sharp as a tack (one run, seven hits, no walks, five strikeouts) over eight innings. Carlos Beltran, who missed both games against the Rockies, whacked a two-run home run in that first inning to stop a 0-for-12 slump.

Beltran added another two-run homer at a more clutch moment Saturday. The opposite-field blow to left off righthander Kevin Jepsen tied the score with one down in the eighth inning. The Yankees continued their comeback against the Twins’ ragged bullpen with three runs in the ninth, then had to hold their breath somewhat when Aroldis Chapman gave up back-to-back homers to Eduardo Escobar and pinch hitter Kurt Suzuki to survive, 7-6.

Give Suzuki credit. He fouled off four consecutive 102-mph fastballs from Chapman before connecting on yet another 102-mph heater. But most of the credit Saturday went to the Yankees, who had fallen into a 4-0 hole against Twins starter Ricky Nolasco, who had a four-hit shutout working through six innings.

Leading off the seventh, Beltran got one of his rare leg hits these days with a dribbler to the left side on which Eduardo Nunez could not make a bare-handed play. Alex Rodriguez, who had a three-homer game at Target Field in late July last year, followed with a drive to right off a 1-2 fastball for his eighth home run of the season and career No. 695.

The Yankees got two more hits that inning but pushed across no more runs. With one out in the eighth, another infield single, this time by Brett Gardner, preceded a home run, Beltran’s 18th of the season. Gardner had been hitless in his previous 14 at-bats and was 1-for-15 on the trip.

Lefthander Fernando Abad, who was having a fine season out of the bullpen until the Yankees came to town, got the last out of the eighth, which turned out to be the only one he would get in the game. He began the ninth with a walk to Chase Headley. You could always hear the uh-oh coming out of Twins manager Paul Molitor’s mouth in the dugout.

Didi Gregorius, who has broken a 1-1 score with a three-run home run off a first-pitch fastball from Abad Thursday night, dropped down a beauty of a bunt for a single. After a Juan Centeno passed ball advanced the runners, Rob Refsnyder was walked intentionally to load the bases.

Righthander Ryan Pressly came on and struck out pinch hitter Starlin Castro but fell into a full count with Jacoby Ellsbury and had to come in with a fastball which Ellsbury knocked into right-center for a two-run single. A wild pitch by Pressly moved crucial as it turned out. It moved Refsnyder to third from where he scored on a fly ball by Gardner. That run proved vital when Chapman gave up the two homers after he had struck out the first two batters.

So it was a shaky 13th save for Chapman that preserved the winning decision for Andrew Miller (4-0), who had shut down Minnesota with two strikeouts in the eighth. Anthony Swarzak also played a big part in the game with a 1 2/3 hitless innings of two-strikeout relief.

The Yankees’ late rallies took Michael Pineda off the hook. The righthander had another of his weird games where he was overpowering (nine strikeouts) but unable to pick up key third outs of innings. Three of the Twins’ four runs off Pineda in 5 1/3 innings were scored after two were out on an RBI single by Escobar in the second and a two-run homer by Korean slugger Byung Ho Park in the fourth. An error by Pineda in the sixth led to a run on a sacrifice fly by Park.

With 55 hits, including a dozen Saturday, the Yankees are averaging 11 hits per game on the trip. Beltran and Gregorius had three hits apiece Saturday. Beltran has homered in six of his past 13 games, eight of 19 and 13 of 36. Gregorius has had a huge trip with 10-for-20 (.500), two homers, six runs and nine RBI. The bunt single off Abad increased Didi’s batting average against left-handed pitching to .383 in 60 at-bats. He is hitting .287 overall.

Headley, who could not get off the Interstate for the first two months, has his average up to .260 while batting .471 in 17 at-bats on the trip and .417 in his seven-game hitting streak. Now if only the Yankees could get Brian McCann re-started. The catcher took an 0-for-4 collar Saturday, is hitless in his past 12 at-bats and in a 4-for-32 (.125) rut that has shrunken his season average to .207.

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