Tensions ran high among the most online of Minnesota Twins fans coming out of the All-Star break. A division lead that peaked at 11 games as late as June 15 was whittled down to 5.5, and three games loomed against the Cleveland Indians — a team renowned for their pitching with their AL ERA-leading bullpen fully rested and their rotation lined up.
It’s not unusual and frankly not unforgivable for Twins fans — and Minnesota sports fans in general — to inch toward the panic button when things start going sideways, and people didn’t have to look far and wide to find that on Twitter, Facebook and discussion boards across the web. After all, these fans had four days during the All-Star break to stew, ponder and turn themselves inside out with concern over the potential six-game swing at stake.
Those fears were calmed as the Twins did something they’ve done quite frequently in recent weeks — win the first two games but drop the third with a sweep at stake. It’s happened three times in the last month — against the Indians, Rangers and Rays.
There were a few key takeaways from the series. One was that the Twins didn’t flinch one bit when facing the best Cleveland had to offer. We can now confirm that Max Kepler owns Trevor Bauer, but more seriously, the Twins won game one in come-from-behind fashion against Cleveland’s strong bullpen. The Twins won game two on the strength of a strong start from Jake Odorizzi, and nearly won game three — again in come-from-behind fashion — before an 0-2 hanger from Trevor May was promptly deposited in the stands by Carlos Santana.
With the trade deadline looming, the Twins bullpen — for the most part — showed it can weather the storm until inevitable additions are made. The offense is nearly impossible to keep down for all nine innings, and the rotation did a fine job as well, as the Twins allowed just nine runs total over the entire series.
The upshot is that even after Cleveland’s win over Detroit on Monday night, the Twins hold a six-game lead with 70 games to play. Fangraphs gives the Twins an 89.6 percent chance to win the division and a 96.9 percent chance to make the playoffs. Cleveland, meanwhile, has the remaining 10.4 percent share of winning the division, a 37.1 percent chance of winning the Wild Card and an overall chance of 47.5 percent of playing into October.
None of this is written in ink, of course, but things don’t get any easier for Cleveland. They’re still without Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco in the near term, and with just one trade deadline this season — July 31, but no waiver period — the Indians will have to fast-track some of the decisions they’d been hoping to push to the offseason, like what to do with Bauer, who would draw considerable trade interest if Cleveland publicly made him available.
Bauer has another year of control before he’s eligible to hit free agency.
It’s unclear if trading Bauer would be waving the white flag on this season. It’s possible he wouldn’t start the Wild Card game even if the Tribe get there, and as Chris from Cleveland noted on a recent episode of Midwest Swing, it’s hard to envision Bauer as a long-term part of the plan for the Indians with his insistence that he’ll only ever sign one-year deals when he hits the market.
But trading Bauer without the returns of Kluber and Carrasco being imminent — and still likely won’t be when decision time comes in a little over two weeks — is a weird dynamic. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber is a fine 1-2 punch, but it’s an even better 3-4 or 4-5 punch when everyone is healthy, and having them at the front leaves the Indians rotation perilously thin for the dog days of summer, when the Wild Card chase is bound to heat up.
That’s the trouble with chasing the Wild Card. First of all, it’s only a one-game playoff. Secondly, it’s hard to make much headway because with so many teams in the running, chances are at least a few of them will win on a nightly basis. Chasing the Twins is one thing; chasing perhaps 3-to-5 teams outside of the division is a completely different beast.
It’s hard to know what a sweep at the hands of the Indians would have signaled. It would have pared the lead down to 3.5 games, and the Cubs — who lead the NL Central by 2.5 games — still have a 67.2 percent chance of winning the division.
So maybe it would have sliced 20 percent of the team’s odds. We’re just spitballing.
But it would have given Cleveland all the more reason to push their chips just a bit further in for this season. A 3.5-game deficit with their pre-deadline schedule — 14 games against Kansas City, Detroit and Toronto before finally facing Houston at home on July 30 — would have left the Twins ripe for the picking.
The Twins, meanwhile, have a bit tougher of a road before the deadline, asa they’ll play seven games against playoff contenders in the Yankees and A’s in addition to the Mets at home and the White Sox and Marlins on the road. When things get tough again for the Indians — i.e. facing Houston — it’ll be at home right before the deadline.
Would Cleveland have pushed their chips in to make one last run at the division for this season? Might they still? It’s hard to say. But the first time they closed the gap by five games, it took them more than three weeks.
They don’t have three weeks to spare right now.
It’s going to be a hell of a race, but it’s way more fun to watch in the rear-view mirror — that’s for sure.