The Minnesota Twins opened the second half with a thrilling, come-from-behind win over the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Friday night, 5-3. The win — Minnesota’s 29th on the road this season — pushed the lead back to 6 1/2 games for the Twins, who already have more away victories in 2019 than they did in all of 2018.
Nelson Cruz opened the scoring with a home run to center field — the first earned run against Mike Clevinger at home this season — but Kyle Gibson spun his wheels in the fourth inning, culminating with allowing a home run to Carlos Santana and a two-run single by Roberto Perez which turned a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 deficit in the span of 25 pitches.
The Twins weren’t going to go down without a fight, and left runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth before breaking through in the seventh with three runs to take a 4-3 lead. Mitch Garver added a home run in the eighth for an insurance run, and the Twins started the second half off with a bang, taking a 4-3 lead in the season series with Cleveland with 12 more meetings still to come.
Here’s what we saw from our vantage point
1. A simple hustle play by Max Kepler proved very important
The Twins opened the seventh with Jose Ramirez making a terrific play on a liner to third off the bat of Luis Arraez. Sano hit a grounder that pitcher Nick Goody could not corral on the third-base line, and Ehire Adrianza followed with a walk. After Byron Buxton drove a fly ball to the warning track in right-center to move Sano to third, it looked like Goody escaped the inning with no damage after his error as Max Kepler hit a grounder to short for the third out.
Francisco Lindor ranged to his left and threw Kepler out on the other side of second base, as first-base umpire Gabe Morales ruled that the throw beat Kepler to the base despite the outfielder’s plea to the contrary with a “safe” hand signal as he streaked down the right-field line.
The Twins challenged and the call was overturned, and instead of the third out of the inning, Kepler had a run-scoring single to pull the Twins within one run, 3-2.
On the second pitch of the subsequent at-bat, All-Star Jorge Polanco pasted a ball over the head of Oscar Mercado in center for an RBI double, with Kepler streaking home and sliding face-first ahead just ahead of the relay for the second run to give the Twins a 4-3 lead.
2. The Twins went toe-to-toe, strength vs. strength with the Indians — and prevailed
Clevinger was absolutely brilliant for the Indians, but wasn’t long for the game as he only faced one batter in the sixth inning — a Polanco walk — before manager Terry Francona lifted him. Clevinger hadn’t pitched in nine days, and had racked up 92 pitches in his five-plus innings of work with six strikeouts on a fastball touching the high-90s with a dizzying array of secondary pitches.
The Indians bullpen, long thought to be the Achilles heel of the team before the season started, was called to protect a 3-1 lead. Cleveland entered play on Friday with the best bullpen ERA in the American League, but the prolific Twins offense kept knocking until the door finally opened in the seventh inning.
The Twins wasted no time putting pressure on the Cleveland bullpen, either. After Polanco walked, reliever Adam Cimber erased him on a fielder’s choice off the bat of Cruz before hitting Marwin Gonzalez with a pitch. The sidewinding righty prevailed, however, as he induced an around-the-horn double play off the bat of Garver to close out the inning.
The Twins broke through in the seventh and eighth innings with runs, and even had put two runners in scoring position with nobody out before Clevinger wriggled out of the jam to preserve the lead in his final inning of work as well. The third time was the charm, as the Twins pushed across three runs against the strong, but unproven Indians bullpen in the seventh inning.
3. The Twins bullpen ruled the day — or night
Gibson was strong through his first three innings of work, but couldn’t get out of the fourth as the righty racked up 30-plus pitches and recorded just two outs before Trevor May was called on to retire Lindor to end the inning.
The Twins bullpen faced just one over the minimum the rest of the way, as May, Zack Littell, Ryne Harper and Taylor Rogers combined for 5.1 innings of scoreless relief with seven strikeouts, one walk and just two hits allowed — one of which was erased on a double play.
Littell has been especially impressive since returning from Rochester, as he’s tossed 8.0 innings of scoreless relief with seven strikeouts and an OPS against of .649.
The bullpen has been a weird mix of unheralded success stories — Harper, Littell and Mike Morin — and a bit of production from those expected to be productive, like May and Rogers, and it’s hard to argue against fortifying the bunch more as the month draws to a close, but for one night in Cleveland, it was the Twins bullpen who shined more brightly than the group who came in leading the AL in ERA.
That shouldn’t be ignored.