The Minnesota Twins seemed to be in the driver’s seat for the AL Central just a few weeks ago. On May 27, the team held a comfortable 5-game lead in the division over the Chicago White Sox and a 7.5-game lead over the Cleveland Guardians.
However, the race for the Central tightened up in recent weeks thanks to Cleveland’s streaky run. The Guardians have played out of their minds, winning 15 of their last 21 coming into this week’s action. The two teams are now tied for the division lead after the Twins went into the series holding onto a one-game lead.
Minnesota and Cleveland have already begun their three-game set at Target Field. A series between two top divisional teams in June doesn’t typically hold much weight. The playoffs aren’t directly on the line, and there’s no guarantee that whoever wins the series will go on to win the division. But these games matter a great deal for each team. Last night’s 6-5 loss in 11 innings with multiple lead changes felt like a playoff atmosphere on the first day of summer.
It’s not just these three games that are important. It’s that the Twins and Guardians will face each other in eight of their 11 games. Current standings don’t show much separation between the two, so a solid stretch by either team could slingshot them to grab hold of the division with the All-Star Break around the corner. Outside of a White Sox resurgence, this season feels like it’s going to be a two-team race between the Twins and the Guardians.
Cleveland has built a reputation over the last few years on their pitching, and they lean on them for their success. That trend has continued this season with a 3.57 team ERA that’s sixth-best in all of baseball, compared to Minnesota’s 3.85 team ERA, which is ranked 13th in the league. Shane Bieber headlines the starting rotation. The 2020 Cy Young winner has a 3.00 ERA and a 2.71 FIP in 78 innings. Triston McKenzie, Wednesday night’s expected starter, holds a 2.96 ERA in 70 innings pitched.
Their bullpen has been even better. Cleveland’s 2.81 bullpen ERA is second in all of baseball, sitting only behind the Houston Astros for the league lead. Emmanuel Clase has been a strong closer for the team with 15 saves and a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings pitched. Eli Morgan has been another high-leverage arm with a 0.57 WHIP, a 35 percent strikeout clip, and a 1.62 ERA. Cleveland manager Terry Francona has been known for his ability to optimize his arms, and that continues this season.
All-Star Jose Ramirez leads Cleveland’s lineup. The Guardians slugger is in another successful season, slashing .305/.397/.642 with 16 home runs and a 3.9 WAR clip. Finding hitting behind Ramirez has been the issue for Cleveland. However, they are getting some excellent production from Andres Gimenez, who’s slashing .302/.342/.500 in 53 games while hitting .407 with RISP this year.
Cleveland may not have the name recognition in its lineup, but the team is finding ways to produce runs. Their bats have averaged 4.56 runs per game, ranking 11th in the league. For comparison, Minnesota is actually behind Cleveland in this category with a 14th-best 4.41 runs per game. Still, the Twins have a higher number of runs scored with 300 runs compared to Cleveland’s 283. Neither team’s lineups are the same, but both offenses are hovering around that same middle-of-the-pack mark in run production.
Because the Twins and Guardians play in the same division, they will see a lot of each other. Teams playing multiple series against each other within 10 days isn’t completely unusual in baseball. However, it’s pretty uncommon that the Twins will play five games in Cleveland next week.
Due to the lockout, the five-game series has been a byproduct of the condensed season. The Twins and the Guardians will play five games in four days with a scheduled doubleheader. Playing a five-game set is already an unusual task for a big-league club. Playing those five games right after a three-game set in Minneapolis is a compounding challenge for both teams.
Minnesota was in this position nearly one month ago against the Detroit Tigers. The Twins played a three-game series at Target Field, and after a series apart, the two teams squared off again in a five-game series in Detroit. It was almost identical to the one they will play in Cleveland next week.
Against the Tigers, the Twins went 3-5 in that stretch with an initial series win, then proceeded to lose four out of the five games in that series. Detroit is in the division cellar but was able to get the better of the Twins because managers have to manage arms in that stretch carefully, and the two teams saw so much baseball against each other. Minnesota’s pitching allowed 3.3 runs per game in that first series with the Tigers. By the second series, that number rose to 4.2 runs per game against a Detroit offense that averages 2.87 runs per game this year.
These stretches tend to highlight the Twins going to go blow to blow with only one opponent in two series – it has a chance to get weird by the end. Tuesday night’s extra-inning affair set the tone for what this matchup will look like. Francona has recently pushed all the right buttons for Cleveland’s bullpen; Rocco Baldelli will need to do the same for Minnesota. They don’t have an off day until July 7.
They don’t need to win every game to prove a point, but winning this first series at Target Field and salvaging a series in Cleveland might be enough to keep their holding in the division steady. Two series losses would be tough to stomach, losing the Central to a team like Cleveland that is in a position to pull themselves a few games ahead of the Twins.
The Twins and Guardians won’t play against each other for another two-plus months after this. It’ll be September the next time these two will play, and these games will be even more critical. By the way, it will be another identical-looking stretch to the one both sides are currently in. Three games in Minneapolis, a home series in between, followed by another five-game set in Cleveland.
Look, it’s still June. I’m not trying to panic anyone and say the Twins season won’t be “over” if they don’t perform well over the next 10 games. In 2019, Cleveland briefly took the division lead in late August before Minnesota cruised to win the division that season. But if this team wants to control the division like they have so far this season, winning a handful of these games will be crucial.
No matter the outcome, there is still plenty of baseball on the schedule until September. However, this stretch could be an important one. The Twins can either establish themselves as a leader or watch Cleveland roll into first place. Minnesota can’t mess up a significant opportunity to defend their division lead against the Guardians. Buckle up because things could get interesting.