NEW YORK -- The pitch sailed out of David Robertson's right hand and the Yankees' closer instantly knew that he was going to be in trouble. Big league hitters don't often miss cookies down the middle, and Josh Willingham certainly didn't this time.
Willingham teed off on a fat fastball for a game-tying home run, and Robertson also served up a go-ahead RBI double to Brian Dozier, stumbling in a disastrous ninth inning as the Twins rallied for a 7-2 victory on Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
"It was a bad day," Robertson said. "I fell behind on hitters, I couldn't make pitches with my curveball, I was just missing with my fastball, a little off or a little down. I wasn't consistent today, and it cost us a lot of runs or a chance to even come back in this ballgame."
Robertson had converted all but one of his first 13 save opportunities this season, but this time, he walked three (one intentionally) and left with the bases loaded. Eduardo Nunez greeted Matt Daley with a two-run double, and Oswaldo Arcia punched a two-run single off Matt Thornton as the Twins sent 10 men to the plate in a six-run inning.
"Whenever Robertson goes back out there, I'm sure he'll do the job," said Dellin Betances, who struck out five in two dominant innings of relief. "He's been doing it for a while now and that's the guy we want out there."
Until Robertson's stumble, it looked like the Yankees were going to squeak out a victory on the backs of their relievers, despite managing just three hits in eight innings against former Yankee Phil Hughes. All of those hits came in quick succession in the fourth inning, producing two runs.
In that frame, Brett Gardner notched the Yankees' first hit with a leadoff triple and scored on a Derek Jeter single, which was followed by a Jacoby Ellsbury single. A walk to Brian McCann loaded the bases and Ichiro Suzuki lifted a sacrifice fly, but Hughes recovered and retired the last 15 batters he faced.
"We had the bases loaded and nobody out, and we only came away with one run," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Those are the situations we really need to capitalize on, and we weren't able to do that today."
Minnesota's rally boosted Hughes to his sixth victory of the year, and the Yanks credited Hughes with being much crisper than he was in being booed to a 4-14 record and a 5.19 ERA last year.
"I don't think it means more than any other start," Hughes said. "This game can be pretty cruel sometimes and I went through that last year, so I never take any wins for granted. I try to view this as another win and a positive outing to keep it rolling."
The Yankees know that it's not just that Hughes stayed out of long counts and has tinkered with his cutter; they must ponder how to spark their sluggish offense. They managed just six runs in the series against the Twins and were largely silenced in the first two games by struggling hurlers Ricky Nolasco and Kevin Correia.
"At times, runs have been tough for us," Girardi said. "We do have some injuries, but you can't make excuses. You still need to find a way to get it done. We need to get some guys going who were expected to be big-production guys."
Rookie Chase Whitley worked five solid innings in his fourth big league start and Yankee Stadium debut, navigating Minnesota's lineup around a run on five hits before handing the game over to the bullpen.
"I think I'm getting stronger each and every outing," Whitley said. "Hopefully, it carries over, but I'm just going to pitch when they tell me to pitch."
The Twins' only run off the 24-year-old Whitley came in the third inning, as Trevor Plouffe punched a two-out single that drove home Aaron Hicks. A converted reliever, Whitley walked none and struck out six in an 83-pitch outing.
"We pushed him beyond five innings the last time and it was the sixth that he got in trouble," Girardi said, referring to a May 26 no-decision in St. Louis. "This guy has not been a starter his whole career, so we're just kind of going on what we see. We figured it was time to get him out."
The Twins were shut down by the pecking order of the Yankees' bullpen, particularly Betances, who was again dominant. In two perfect innings of relief, Betances struck out the side in the sixth and fanned two more batters in the seventh.
"Guys up here hit fastballs, so now I'm trying to mix up my pitches and give them a different look," said Betances, who has struck out 26 and walked none in his last 10 appearances. "I think that's helped me."
Adam Warren pitched a scoreless eighth inning before Robertson stumbled in the ninth. Robertson threw 27 pitches in locking down Saturday's save, but he downplayed the suggestion that working in back-to-back games was responsible for the loss.
"I'm itching to get back out there," Robertson said. "I want to prove that I can still do this. A bad day's a bad day. There's going to be a good day coming up next."