It didn’t seem possible a month ago, but the Cleveland Indians have reeled in the Twins enough to make things interesting in the American League Central.
The Twins’ lead, once 11 ½ games, is down to 5 ½ as they prepare to face the Indians at Progressive Field in a three-game series that begins Friday.
Cleveland, benefiting from a soft spot in its schedule, has won six straight games and 21 of its past 29 — confirming everything All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor felt about his team despite its slow start.
“Make sure you write this down,” he said when asked if he was worried a month ago. “Baseballs are round but they come in a square box, so anything can happen. You know what I mean? Anything can happen. We knew that.”
A mind-bending statement, indeed. But Lindor is right about how a club’s fortunes can change.
The Indians’ Opening Day starting outfield consisted of Tyler Naquin, Leonys Martin and Jake Bauers. Jose Ramirez started out poorly. Lindor began the season on the injured list. The Indians looked too offensively challenged to even benefit from being backed by a strong pitching staff.
On June 2, the Indians were 29-30 while the Twins were 40-18. The division race looked over.
But reports of Cleveland’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Lindor returned to the lineup and resumed doing Lindor things. Carlos Santana, brought back after the club traded Edwin Encarnacion during the offseason, bashed his way to the All-Star Game.
Another All-Star, closer Brad Hand, has led a better-than-expected bullpen. Catcher Roberto Perez is having a career year, with 16 home runs at the break.
And despite Corey Kluber (broken ulnar bone) and Carlos Carrasco (leukemia) being out for an extended time, the Indians started rolling.
“I’ve felt good about this team since Day 1,” Lindor said. “It’s just a matter of guys believing in themselves, and it seems like we’re getting hot at the right time now.”
The Twins have had no choice but to take notice.
“They are probably becoming the team that everybody thought they were going to be,” righthander Kyle Gibson said, “and their early struggles put them where they are now.”
The Twins threatened to walk away with the division before hitting a 9-10 skid right before the All-Star break, as eight players landed on the injured list. Cleveland went 14-5 during that same stretch.
So here they are, two division rivals with 13 games left between them and less than half a season to play them. The teams have split six games so far, each winning two of three games in their home ballpark.
Schedule favors Twins
Cleveland has benefited from a stretch of games against Detroit, Kansas City, Baltimore and Cincinnati. After the Twins series, they have 14 games against Detroit, Kansas City and Toronto.
Then the schedule turns on the Indians in August, when they finish a series against Houston, then have a run against the Rangers, Twins, Red Sox, and Yankees — all teams with records over .500.
After Aug. 18, the Twins have series with three teams with winning records the rest of the season — the Red Sox, Nationals and Indians (twice). Of the Twins’ final 38 games, 26 are against the White Sox, Royals and Tigers. Minnesota will be in position to finish strongly, but Cleveland is full of confidence.
Hand, who is from Chaska, has been joking with his friends back home about winning a pennant battle against a team he rooted for as child.
“Obviously, growing up in Minnesota, I was a Twins fan as a kid. So it would be a lot of fun,” Hand said. “I have friends back there who are Twins fans, so every time we play them, I want to beat them. That makes it fun. And being in a race with them, that would be special.”
The Twins, eyeing a special season, are trying to find their early season form. Some familiar faces should help, as outfielder Eddie Rosario, out with a sprained ankle, and righthander Jake Odorizzi (blister in right middle finger) will return to action during the series.
Other than C.J. Cron, who’s out until at least next week because of a sore right thumb, the Twins will be as healthy as they have been in three weeks. They are looking to distance themselves from their worst stretch of baseball all season and remain on course for their first division championship since 2010. And they’ll look to restore the cushy lead over the Indians while doing so.
“I just want to bury every team we play,” catcher Mitch Garver said. “I don’t want any close games. I want to just continue this and keep forward and having a winning season and be part of something special at the end of the year.”
Star Tribune staff writer Phil Miller contributed to this report.