MINNEAPOLIS -- A.J. Burnett's fastball was out of control. His curveball wasn't working. His changeup was ineffective.
Burnett won his third straight start, and Brett Gardner's two-run single helped the Yankees build an early lead and beat the Twins 4-3 on Wednesday.
"It was a mental grind out there," said Burnett, who walked four, gave up seven hits and threw three wild pitches while only striking out two.
Joe Mauer drove in runs for the Twins with a double and a homer and became eligible for the AL batting race, a competition in which he now officially holds a big lead, but Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera kept up some recently strong work by the bullpen over the last three weeks. They preserved the Yankees' sixth victory over Minnesota in as many games this season, giving them 17 wins in their last 23 meetings.
"No one likes to lose to the Yankees," Twins outfielder Denard Span said. "It is a tough one to swallow when you're in the game the whole way, you lose by one."
Burnett (8-4) got the first out of the seventh inning, before left-hander Phil Coke gave up Mauer's 15th homer. Coke and Hughes each recorded an out to finish the seventh, and Rivera relieved with two outs in the eighth to notch his 22nd save. In their last 22 games, Yankees relievers are 4-1 with only 14 earned runs allowed.
"It seems like every team we've got a tight lead, we do our jobs down there," Hughes said. "You look at any winning team, and they have that."
Good starting pitching is even more important, which Burnett has helped solidify in his first season in pinstripes.
Span moved from second to third and from third to home on two of Burnett's 95 mph fastballs that went zipping past catcher Jorge Posada. Mauer just missed a home run on the next pitch, the ball bouncing back from the top of the left-field wall, and his RBI double brought the Twins within 3-2.
Burnett leads the majors with 13 wild pitches this year, one shy of his career high established in 2002 with the Marlins. There's an upside to all those hard-to-handle hurls, though: They're hard to hit, too.
Michael Cuddyer struck out with the bases loaded to finish the fifth inning on two straight half-swings, the last on a curveball that broke and hit the dirt. Span also struck out to the end sixth with two runners on.
"You've got to figure out a way to get through it," Burnett said.
Manager Joe Girardi was proud, calling it one of the right-hander's "tougher" performances of the season.
"Pitchers mature. They learn how to pitch, and they learn how to be smarter with their stuff," Girardi said.
Posada and pitching coach Dave Eiland made a handful of trips to the mound.
"It seemed like when we went out there and tried to settle him down, he got better," Posada said.
Some silly self talk helped, too.
"If y'all could read my mind out there on the mound, y'all would crack up," Burnett said.
Twins rookie Anthony Swarzak (2-3), back up from the minors after a decent debut in May and June, was moved up one day in the rotation when Glen Perkins woke up sick. Swarzak gave up three runs in the second inning and Alex Rodriguez's RBI single with one out in the fifth before leaving. The rookie allowed eight hits and failed to record a strikeout for the first time in six major league starts.
Before Rodriguez's hit, Justin Morneau nearly made a long, running catch of Rodriguez's foul ball, but it popped out of the first baseman's glove in the New York bullpen.
"We're competing with them, but we've got to beat them," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's the same story: We're one hit away in almost every ball game."
- Posada had two hits, including his 327th career double that tied him with Tony Lazzeri for 10th place on the team's all-time list.
- Mauer now has 264 plate appearances, just enough to be eligible for the AL batting race he's won twice already. He's hitting .388 -- well ahead of Ichiro Suzuki (.356).
- Gardenhire said Perkins could be pushed back in the rotation as far as Saturday. Francisco Liriano will start Thursday, and Nick Blackburn could move up to Friday.