Back to the AL Central, and step on it!

While the Twins spent a week sizing themselves up against playoff-caliber teams, the Cleveland Indians kept increasing the tension level about whether they’ll even get there.

Minnesota’s week of preposterously competitive and riveting baseball came to a close with a 10-7 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday night, and the realization that their once-hefty division lead over Cleveland is now a scant two games. But there’s good news on the horizon: The Twins’ 61 remaining games include 33 against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers, and the schedule immediately eases up. The Twins departed after the game on a weeklong road trip to Chicago and Miami, a couple of rivals several notches below the Yankees, owners of MLB’s best record.

“If you don’t go out there and continually bring it to them, it’s probably not going to work out well for you,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said of the Yankees, who won the season series against the Twins for the 13th consecutive season. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw them playing late into the playoffs.”

He’s more confident now, even after being outscored 30-27 over three games, that his own team can beat the Yankees — who own a 10-game postseason winning streak against Minnesota — when it matters.

“We’ve had several series in a row [against] teams you could see playing in the playoffs. We competed very well against these teams, and our guys all know we can compete and beat all these teams,” Baldelli said. “Maybe we weren’t clicking in every way, but we’re still going out there and competing well. If you can go out there against the Athletics and Yankees — they were great ballgames against evenly matched teams. I would bet on our guys against teams like that.”

Well, they’ll probably need more pitching, having surrendered 30 runs over three games to the Yankees machine. But maybe they discovered an answer for that, too.

Devin Smeltzer, who debuted earlier this season with six shutout innings, defanged the Yankee attack over five impressive innings in relief. The rookie lefthander allowed five hits, one run and struck out four while not issuing a walk.

“What does he do? He just comes in against one of the better teams you’re going to play against, one of the better lineups, and just went right through them,” Baldelli said. “He attacked ’em. He confidently went about his business regardless of who he was facing.”

Smeltzer’s lone mistake was an understandable one: a fastball that Edwin Encarnacion lifted into the bullpens in the ninth inning. It was Encarnacion’s 17th home run at Target Field, tying him with Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez as the most by a visiting player.

 

Too bad the Twins couldn’t turn Smeltzer’s performance into a victory, though. Jake Odorizzi suffered through one of the worst starts of his career, allowing 10 hits — seven of them for extra bases — and nine runs in only four innings. Odorizzi retired the first three Yankees in order, then gave up 10 hits and two walks to the next 21 batters.

“It was obviously not a day where he was himself,” Baldelli said. “It felt like he probably wasn’t commanding the ball the way he wanted to. When he did make a pretty good pitch, he just didn’t get the results he wanted to.”

The Twins, though, continued on their power binge, blasting three more home runs from Eddie Rosario, Marwin Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz all connecting.

The MLB record for home runs in a season is held by last year’s Yankees, who bashed 269. That mark is endangered this season by the Twins, who remain on pace to eclipse 300 in late September. The two teams put on a power show this week that lives up to those lofty numbers: Minnesota hit a dozen home runs during the three games, while the Yankees settled for a measly eight.

But the Yankees supplemented their homer show with two-base hits, 14 of them in all. Didi Gregorius went 8-for-10 in the final two games of the series and drove in 10 runs, three of them Wednesday.