CLEVELAND – Four hours before their latest biggest series of the year was scheduled to begin Monday, the Twins were dealt a blow.
But like so many times this season, they adjusted and kept winning.
Tommy Milone stepped in for ailing Phil Hughes and tamed the Indians lineup while keeping the Twins steered toward the playoffs.
The offense jumped on Corey Kluber early. Milone pitched into the sixth inning. The bullpen got the final 10 outs. And the Twins made an emergency start look like no big deal and wove to a 4-2 victory over Cleveland at Progressive Field.
The Twins didn’t gain ground in the chase for the AL’s second wild card, though, with the two teams right in front of them winning late Monday. Houston won 3-2 at Seattle to retain the position, and the Los Angeles Angels earned a 5-4 walk-off victory over Oakland to stay a half-game behind the Astros and a game in front of the Twins.
Milone (9-5) made his first start since Sept. 17 against the Angels, when he couldn’t hold a five-run lead and reported shoulder fatigue afterward. He sure looked fresh Monday, giving up two earned runs over 5⅔ innings on four hits and no walks with four strikeouts. He jumped at the chance to prove himself after Hughes told head trainer Dave Preumer on Monday morning that his condition had worsened.
“We all knew ahead of time, and it wasn’t out of the question that [Hughes] might not be able to start,” Milone said. “So I came in not expecting to, but in the back of my mind be prepared if that situation was going to happen.”
Milone said he felt normal as he warmed up before the game, and that he had his good command.
Milone threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 21 batters he faced, and getting ahead in the count allowed him to be unpredictable. He settled down the second time through the Indians order, retiring all nine batters he faced to keep the momentum on the Twins’ side.
“We made a statement not just to throw all fastballs for first-pitch strikes,” catcher Chris Herrmann said. “We threw a lot of changeups and a lot of curveballs. I thought he did a real good job of keeping guys off balance.”
Twins hitters had a plan as well: Attack Kluber (8-16) early in the count. And try to score in the first inning, since last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner entered Monday with a 5.10 ERA in that frame.
With two outs, Joe Mauer swung at the first pitch and powered a double off the center-field wall. Miguel Sano followed with a shot just to the left of where Mauer’s hit for another double and a 1-0 Twins lead.
Trevor Plouffe got a 1-1 sinker that was up in the strike zone and belted it an estimated 425 feet into the left-field stands. The Twins led 3-0.
“You let a guy like that get ahead, with his offspeed pitches, is tough,” Plouffe said after his 22nd home run. “We know he likes to get ahead. I thought we were pretty aggressive early in the game.”
Cleveland got a run back in the bottom of the inning when Francisco Lindor, making a strong case for AL Rookie of the Year, hit a home run to left.
Brian Dozier added a sacrifice fly in the fourth to make it 4-1, and Jason Kipnis tripled and scored on a groundout in the sixth to get Cleveland within 4-2. Milone retired one more batter before Molitor went to his bullpen, and Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, Glen Perkins and Kevin Jepsen took it from there.
Fien and Perkins both rebounded after blowing a lead on Friday at Detroit, with each giving up a single but pitching out of trouble. Perkins struck out Kipnis and Lindor on three pitches and then retired Michael Brantley on a grounder after a leadoff single in the eighth inning. Jepsen notched his 14th save.
But there’s no happy ending Monday without a good beginning, and Milone stepped in for Hughes with ease.
“My hat goes off to him, getting a late notice and being able to pick us up this late in the season, facing Kluber, after not pitching for a while,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “I probably couldn’t have imagined him getting to the sixth, but he was feeling good and the shoulder was fine.”