MINNEAPOLIS -- Consider it a small stepping stone for Twins right-hander Ricky Nolasco.
He wasn't at his best in his return from the 15-day disabled list against the Royals on Friday night, but he came out of his start feeling healthy and was pleased with the crispness of his stuff and his improved velocity.
Ultimately, though, Nolasco suffered through a rough fourth inning, keyed by a three-run double from former Twins slugger Josh Willingham that helped lead the red-hot Royals to a 6-5 win at Target Field.
Nolasco, making his first start since July 6 after dealing with a right elbow strain, was hurt by a five-run fourth. The right-hander went six frames, giving up five runs on seven hits and a walk with three strikeouts to fall to 5-8 with a 5.99 ERA on the year.
"He had the one bad inning," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Our catcher kept saying the ball was coming out of his hand good. So you have to listen to your catcher. So we have something to build off of here in his first start back. But I'm sure he's a little disappointed."
Nolasco was on a pitch-count limit after making two rehab starts, throwing 81 pitches with 48 going for strikes. He also showed better fastball velocity in his return, as it averaged between 90-92 mph after his fastball averaged 90 mph through his first 18 starts of the year, per Fangraphs.com.
"I thought I made some good pitches," Nolasco said. "It was just a little unfortunate the balls found holes. The main one was the one to Willingham. I'd like to have that one back. It was a fat pitch and I hung it. That's what good hitters do. They make you pay in RBI situations."
Nolasco added that he believes he can build off the start, and he's feeling much better than before he went on the DL with the elbow injury.
"It's tough to explain, but it's night and day for me," Nolasco said. "It feels good."
Nolasco was simply hurt by a shaky fourth inning that saw the Royals load the bases with none out. Willingham, playing in his first game against his former team since being traded on Monday, came through with a three-run double down the left-field line to give the Royals a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"I knew it was going to be a little strange playing against your former team, but it is what it is," Willingham said. "I was just happy to help us win a game tonight. Always as a hitter, you want to hit with runners on base and I knew that was a big spot for us, and I was just happy to come through."
Mike Moustakas followed with a single before Alcides Escobar laced a two-run triple aided by a bad route taken by center fielder Danny Santana.
"Santana kind of misplayed one in center there and let it get through," Gardenhire said. "He took a different route on it."
The five-run rally came after the Twins scored twice against left-hander Danny Duffy in the third. Eduardo Escobar and Jordan Schafer led off with singles before Santana laid down a sacrifice bunt that was mishandled by Duffy.
Duffy's throw to first base sailed high for an error, allowing Escobar to score and Schafer to reach third, and Santana to get to second. Brian Dozier plated Schafer with an RBI groundout, but Santana ended up stranded at second.
The Twins scored again in the third on double play hit into by Oswaldo Arcia. But it was all they could muster against Duffy, who gave up three runs (two earned) on six hits over 5 1/3 innings to get the win.
Kansas City also added an insurance run in the eighth on a bloop RBI single from Escobar with two outs.
The Twins made it close in the ninth against closer Greg Holland, scoring twice with Arcia doubling home a run and scoring on an RBI groundout from Chris Parmelee. But it wasn't enough, as Minnesota went just 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position in the loss.
"Unfortunately, we couldn't make up enough ground," Gardenhire said. "I don't think we did very well with runners in scoring position. We scored some runs, but we left some people out there. The guys gave it an effort at the end and gave us a shot, but it didn't work out."