Nearly two months of pursuit could culminate Friday when Cleveland sends All-Star MVP Shane Bieber to the mound opposite Twins rookie Devin Smeltzer.
Cleveland now is that close.
The Twins roared to an 11½-game lead in the AL Central in June. That lead is now down to one game as the Indians held off the late-charging Twins 7-5 on Thursday night, the game ending on Eddie Rosario’s fly out to left field with the bases loaded and most of the announced crowd of 32,517 at Target Field on its feet.
“They play good right now,” Rosario said. “I think it’s a good series to fight, to the first place in the division. [Thursday] is a bad day for the Twins. Another day [Friday].”
Indians righthander Mike Clevinger dominated, holding the Twins to two runs on three hits and one walk over seven innings, striking out nine. Kyle Gibson became the latest Twins starter to put his team in a hole, walking a career-high six batters. And the Twins lost designated hitter Nelson Cruz when he took a mighty swing at a Clevinger pitch in the fourth inning and strained his left wrist. Cruz, with 14 home runs in his previous 17 games, is day to day.
Cleveland, meanwhile, watched the Twins rule the division early and have slowly reeled them in, going 28-9 over their past 37 games and 40-16 over their past 56. Clevinger (7-2) fired 97-mile-per-hour fastballs by a Twins team that failed to hit a home run for only the 20th time in 115 games.
“That was important,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said of Clevinger. “That offense over there, we know what they can do. Thank goodness there wasn’t more innings because they keep coming at you. We knew that. That was two teams that wanted to win really bad.”
For the third consecutive game, a Twins starter had a disastrous outing — Minnesota has never led in those games — and depended on the offense to claw its way back into the game. Thursday it was Gibson, who has been under the weather since the end of their recent road trip but didn’t use it as an excuse.
When he wasn’t nibbling at the corners, he was flat out missing the plate and falling behind hitters. He threw first-pitch balls to eight of the first 14 batters he faced (and only 42 strikes in his 85-pitch, 4⅓-inning stint), and the Indians took advantage, scoring a run in the second and three in the fourth. Gibson opened the fourth by missing the plate with eight of his first nine pitches. That lit the fuse for an inning in which Jose Ramirez delivered an RBI single and Jason Kipnis added a two-run double.
“It’s a frustrating night to leave that early and to put the team in that kind of hole,” said Gibson (11-5).
The Twins scored twice in the fourth, but Gibson loaded the bases in the fifth before he was removed. Zack Littell entered and gave up a two-run double to Ramirez, putting the Twins in a 6-2 hole.
The Twins scored three runs in the eighth, but Brad Hand retired Marwin Gonzalez with two on, and Cleveland added an insurance run on Tyler Naquin’s homer in the ninth off Trevor May. The Twins loaded the bases off Hand with two out in the bottom of the inning, but the All-Star from Chaska retired Eddie Rosario for his 29th save.
But the issue is that Martin Perez, All-Star Jose Berrios and Gibson have combined for an 11.25 ERA on 24 hits and 12 walks. That’s more than a leak, that’s a gusher. And it threatens to wipe out the Twins’ lead in the division.
“I think we’re in a little bit of a rut, just starting pitching-wise,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s just a little run of pitching not going your way and you’re not throwing the ball the way you want to. That is going to happen. We are playing against some pretty good teams as well and they make you pay when you are not on your game.”