CLEVELAND – The Twins put playoff tickets on sale Thursday. They basically guaranteed their value on Saturday.
No, the American League Central championship, the first in nine years for Minnesota, isn’t in the Twins’ possession yet, but it’s probably time to go shopping for champagne. Without a starting pitcher available to pitch, facing the league’s hottest pitcher and with a lineup still held together with bandages and gauze, the Twins marched into Progressive Field for a doubleheader and marched out with a stranglehold on the title the Indians have owned for three seasons.
Jorge Polanco hit a two-run homer off Mike Clevinger and made a diving catch at shortstop to preserve an improbable bullpen shutout in Game 1, a tense 2-0 victory, and Miguel Sano sealed a Minnesota comeback with his first career grand slam in Game 2, a rousing 9-5 win. The back-to-back successes fattened Minnesota’s division lead to 5½ games, reduced their magic number to single digits with more than two weeks to finish the countdown, and practically notarized Twins’ first division championship in nine years.
And the euphoria in the Twins’ clubhouse? Practically nonexistent. Rocco Baldelli and his crew were as businesslike as ever, insisting that while sweeping a doubleheader from Cleveland was heartening, there’s nothing to celebrate until the magic number is zero.
“We’re not thinking about division championships. We’re thinking only about playing the game to win,” Sano said after helping to secure win No. 91, against only 57 losses. “And then at the end of the year, we’ll see the [scoreboard] if we clinch.”
“We have a long way to go,” Baldelli echoed. “We’ll get ready to play [Sunday], we’ll start there again. And that won’t change.”
Still, even the stoic manager had to concede that Saturday’s sweep changes a few things. For one thing, he pushed back Jose Berrios’ scheduled Sunday start to Monday, giving the staff ace an extra day of rest that he hopes might help him come October. Randy Dobnak will start against Shane Bieber, a not-so-subtle indication of how confident the Twins now feel.
“They were big games. They were important games. It was a lot of fun,” Baldelli said. “Guys were locked in the entire game and intensity was high.”
Particularly Polanco, who won the first game with his bat — by hitting a two-run homer to provide the game’s only runs and snap Clevinger’s personal 10-game winning streak — and in the field, by snagging Carlos Santana’s scorching line drive with the bases loaded, saving at least two runs.
The homer made up for the one Polanco hit on Friday night, which didn’t count once the game was washed out by rain.
“Rarely do the baseball gods kind of shine upon people like that,” Baldelli said with a smile.
Clevinger wasn’t smiling, though. Asked afterward whether he was surprised by Polanco’s homer, the 28-year-old righthander cracked, “I mean, after last year, are you surprised?” The remark was an apparent reference to Polanco’s 80-game suspension in 2018 for failing a steroids test.
Perhaps using it as motivation, Polanco then proceeded to add three more hits in Game 2, driving in the tying run with a double off the wall.
“He’s come through with moment after moment in these late-in-the-year games,” Baldelli said. “Big players show up and do big things in these games. Polo has been tremendous for us all year long.”
The Twins’ bullpen has, too, of late, but never more than in that first game. Five relievers divvied up the nine innings in historic fashion, throwing the first all-bullpen shutout in Twins’ history and the first shutout in which no Twins pitcher threw more than three innings. Devin Smeltzer escaped a bases-loaded jam during his opening three innings. Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey and Sergio Romo each allowed a stray baserunner but never a run, and Taylor Rogers got the final five outs, four of them by strikeout, for his 26th save.
The second game was a more traditional Twins’ victory — meaning, homer-homer-homer. Eddie Rosario gave the Twins an early lead with a two-run first-inning shot, and when the Twins fell behind, 5-2, Nelson Cruz triggered a comeback by golfing an 0-2 slider into the front row of the left field seats with Polanco on base, his 397th career home run.
And after Polanco tied the score 5-5 in the eighth inning, Sano came to bat with the bases loaded. Nick Goody was summoned to pitch to him, a bad mistake: Sano clobbered Goody’s first pitch more than 420 feet to left field, the first grand slam of his career. It also made a winner, for the first time, of rookie Brusdar Graterol, who pitched two easy innings and threw a fastball 101.9 mph, the fastest ever recorded by a Twin.