When Joe Ryan turned his head to watch the flight of Josh Naylor's soaring fly ball to right field in the seventh inning, it was the only time he didn't look in complete control Sunday.
Ryan, locked in a pitcher's duel with Cleveland's Triston McKenzie for most of the afternoon at Target Field, faced the minimum number of batters until he issued a seven-pitch walk to José Ramírez with two outs in the seventh.
Two pitches later and Ryan's outing came to an abrupt end. Naylor hit an RBI double off the top of the right field wall to deliver the game's first run, and the Twins couldn't rally late in a 2-1 loss to the Guardians in their series finale.
The Twins, who stranded runners on the corners in the bottom of the ninth inning, split the four-game weekend series and remain 3½ games ahead of last year's division winner.
"We didn't have that many competitive at-bats today overall," said manager Rocco Baldelli after the Twins mustered five hits and struck out 16 times.
As well as Ryan pitched — he gave up two hits and one walk in 6⅔ innings — McKenzie was a little better. McKenzie, the 25-year-old righthander who was sidelined for the first two months of the season because of a teres major strain, struck out 10 in five scoreless innings in his season debut.
It was the second time the Twins lost a game this season when their pitchers allowed three or fewer hits. They have never lost three such games in a season in club history.
"I hadn't really seen a slider like his before," Kyle Farmer said of McKenzie. "That's the best I've seen him in a while."
Ryan, who cruised through his first six innings in 71 pitches, received a visit from pitching coach Pete Maki after he walked Ramírez — Ryan's first three-ball count — and ended a streak of 13 consecutive batters retired. Reliever Caleb Thielbar was available for a potential left-on-left matchup with the lefthanded-hitting Naylor, but Ryan had allowed only two baserunners to that point.
Naylor pulled an 89-mile-per-hour fastball to the top of the right field wall, easily scoring Ramírez. Andrés Giménez followed with an RBI triple to center field off Thielbar.
"What edged me to leave [Ryan] in there was he really was so efficiently getting out after out after out in this game," Baldelli said. "He loses one hitter deep in a count. I wanted to give him a chance to keep going with the way that he was pitching."
Facing a Guardians lineup that features little power and the lowest strikeout rate in the American League, Ryan simply pounded the strike zone. He fired a first-pitch strike to 16 of his 22 batters. He had a stretch where he recorded 10 outs on 19 pitches via an eight-pitch fourth inning, an eight-pitch fifth inning and a 10-pitch sixth inning.
Ramírez even offered a subtle nod of respect toward Ryan during his seventh-inning walk. With a full count, Ramírez called time when Ryan's pitch clock was set to expire.
"I thought it was pretty cool that he did that," Ryan said, "whether it was intentional or not."
Willi Castro hit a solo homer in the eighth inning, but the Twins stranded a runner on third base in the final two innings.
Royce Lewis, attempting to engineer another comeback, hurt himself when he tried to beat out a ground ball to third base to end the eighth inning, flipping over Guardians first baseman Gabriel Arías and landing on his head. Lewis walked off the field to an ovation and subsequent testing showed he did not suffer a concussion.
Ryan Jeffers drew a two-out walk in the ninth inning and Farmer followed with a single before Castro struck out on a slider in the dirt against Emmanuel Clase. The Twins' 16 strikeouts matched their season high.