Bon voyage, Twins. Farewell, pennant race. Minnesota hopes to see the two of you together again in a couple of weeks.
If not, if 11 days of commuting down the Atlantic seaboard separates the Twins from the wild-card chase like tourists from their luggage, well, at least Minnesota had these last few days to savor, deep into August, the renewal of what was once an annual custom: The postseason hunt.
The team’s charter left on the longest road trip of the season after Sunday’s 4-1 victory over Cleveland, carrying a team newly energized by a successful homestand, and optimistic that it can survive the terrors of summer travel.
“It’s a long one, but it helped to be home,” Joe Mauer said. “I think we put that last trip behind us.”
That might have been the week’s biggest accomplishment, because after being outscored 60-27 the last time they left the state, the Twins came home gasping for pennant-race oxygen. They got it by going 4-2 in Target Field and winning a pair of series from Texas and Cleveland, and while manager Paul Molitor gently groused that they should have won five games instead of four, they depart for New York, Baltimore and Tampa Bay — two teams with better records than the Twins, and one just a game worse — with only 1 ½ games separating them from the Orioles and Angels, who are tied for the final playoff position that was the Twins’ for more than two months.
“It’s two series wins in a row, and before that, we hadn’t had one in a while,” said Trevor Plouffe, whose eighth-inning home run provided a little cushion for Twins closer Glen Perkins. “We’re confident. Happy with the homestand. But that’s over.”
Tommy Milone finished it off by proving that perhaps a midseason breather isn’t a bad way to refresh a pitcher, allowing one run over five innings in his first start since July 31.
“The competitor side of me wanted to keep pitching, but it’s better to take care of the things that are there to take care of,” Milone said after his 76-pitch outing. “A little break probably isn’t a bad thing, but I’m glad to be back so I can contribute.”
He hadn’t been doing that as well before he went on the disabled list because of a sore elbow; Milone allowed at least four runs in each of his three previous starts, but he returned rejuvenated, striking out three, including Yan Gomes on a 2-2 curveball in the dirt that rescued him from bases-loaded danger in the fifth inning.
“It’s huge to get out of that inning, get through five [innings] only giving up one run,” Milone said. “I took from [Tyler] Duffey’s start yesterday, all but one of his strikeouts were breaking balls down in the zone, so I kept that in the back of my mind. They’re an aggressive team with two strikes.”
Kurt Suzuki was aggressive with two strikes, too, and by doing so, spoiled one of the season’s flukier statistics: Indians starter Carlos Carrasco had not surrendered any of the 12 leads he had been handed all season. But after Cleveland took a 1-0 lead on Abraham Almonte’s sacrifice fly in the second inning, Suzuki seized it back by lining a two-strike, two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the inning.
Milone and four relievers protected that lead, which grew to three runs after Plouffe’s solo home run and a perfect squeeze bunt by Eduardo Nunez. That bunt scored Eddie Rosario, who reached third base by missing a home run by about 10 inches, then turning the ricochet into his ninth triple of the season, the same number Tony Oliva had in 1964 and until now, the most ever by a Twins rookie.
Now they head to New York, plunging directly into that AL East pennant race that turned them into collateral damage two weeks ago in Toronto. They take with them the knowledge that they actually have won their past two series in Yankee Stadium, and that — as their 59-58 record proves — it might not take an especially prolonged streak of winning to remain in this race. If they survive the next 11 days intact, the pennant race should carry into football season.
“It’s a nice way to finish the brief homestand, to get back on a little better solid ground,” Molitor said. “We’ve got a tough trip coming up, playing three good teams. So we’ve just got to keep fighting.”