The last time Cleveland was in town to face the Twins, it was for the season's opening series and with a very different roster.
Injuries, replacements and turnover have been a constant for manager Terry Francona’s club, the roster featuring different players month to month. The rotation has battled injuries, while the lineup is little like it was that first game of 2019.
Regardless, the changes have been for the better, according to Francona. And with the Indians facing the first-place Twins, the manager said his team’s looking at it one game at a time.
“It’s OK because we’re getting better,” Francona said of the changes. “We’re not sending guys away. Some of the guys we knew from spring training, some of the guys we traded for because we wanted them. I think it was by necessity.
The Indians entered the four-game series starting Thursday just two games behind the Twins. But it was a long road for them to get that close.
Cleveland, winner of the AL Central the past three years, was again gunning for the playoffs this year, tabbed as the division favorite. But the Indians stumbled out of the gate. The division gap grew to 11½ games in early June as the Twins soared.
During Cleveland’s three-year reign atop the division, the Indians never battled through a close playoff race. Even in 2017, when the Twins earned a wild-card berth, the Indians ran away with the division. Cleveland was 102-60 — a 17-game advantage over the second-place Twins — powered by a 22-game winning streak.
So despite an actual race this year, All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor said the games don’t change — there’s just a little more scoreboard watching.
“It’s fun,” Lindor said of the playoff race. “We play for October every year. When it comes down to the last two months of the year, it makes it even better.”
The Indians starting rotation — expected to be a strength — has seen the bulk of the team’s changes, with injuries and other issues popping up. Two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, sidelined since May by a broken forearm, pitched three innings in a rehab start Thursday. Trevor Bauer, a 2018 All-Star, was shipped to Cincinnati on July 30. Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia in June, though he’s progressing toward a return.
And still, the Indians have one of the best ERAs in the AL. Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger, who pitched seven strong innings Thursday, have pitched well in leading the staff.
“We’re a different team now than before,” Francona said. “We’ve gotten some guys back healthy. We’ve made some trades.”
The offense has been more middle of the pack, but the Indians still boast bats like Lindor and Carlos Santana and added sluggers Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes in the Bauer trade.
Cleveland has improved from a middling team to a playoff contender while overhauling significant parts of its roster. Now the Indians are nipping at the Twins’ heels.
“Every year we deal with adversity,” Lindor said. “That’s part of the grind. … We all love it. We all understand that something’s going to happen and this is how you deal with it.”