The Minnesota Twins had a 5-1 lead over the Cleveland Guardians entering the fifth inning on Wednesday. Minnesota had lost the first game against the Guardians, 6-5 in extra innings, after holding a 5-3 lead entering the 8th inning. But they had Cleveland’s hot bats contained for four innings in Game 2, and starter Sonny Gray was cruising.
Gray had given up back-to-back doubles in the third, allowing Cleveland to score. But he quickly shut the door on that inning. The 32-year-old former All-Star looked like he was in control entering the fifth. Gray was ahead 3-1 on the first batter he faced, Austin Hedges, when he missed his spot. Hedges crushed Gray’s errant heater to make it 5-2.
“No, that’s not where we lost the game,” Gray said, unsolicited, when asked about the solo homer in the 11-10 Minnesota loss. “It was 3-1, and I was trying to attack that one particular at-bat with the heater. I tried to go down and away. Solo homers aren’t going to beat you in this game. I wasn’t worried about that.”
Fair enough. But it’s kind of funny that Gray’s mind went there. The reporter’s question mainly focused on the pitch location. Still, he’s right. Solo homers usually aren’t going to cost a team a game, especially one that’s up 5-1. However, it was part of an inning that quickly got away from the Twins. It’s the kind of innings they’ll need to avoid in Cleveland, where Minnesota will play the Guardians five times in four days.
Everyone knows when an inning is unspooling. The players can feel it, managers sense it, and the fans start to get anxious. Gray’s solo homer becomes an afterthought if the Twins reel it in shortly after. Instead, the next batter Gray faces, Myles Straw, hits a single. Then Nick Gordon commits an error in center field. Suddenly, Gray has men on second and third and hasn’t recorded an out.
“There’s no way you can stop the game,” says Rocco Baldelli. “You gotta keep going and evaluate a lot of things simultaneously. But you can feel the energy changing.”
If Baldelli were coaching basketball, he’d call a timeout. He’d bust out his clipboard, gather his players, and do what he could to stop the run. Instead, Baldelli is limited to a few options. He can visit the mound and try to calm his players down, make a pitching change, or offer encouragement from the dugout. Ultimately, it’s in the players’ hands whether they can avoid letting the game get out of control.
“You can only slow this thing down for so long,” Baldelli acknowledges. “The players are gonna be the ones that are going to take over and make it happen and find a way through or not.”
On Wednesday, they couldn’t reel it back in. Amed Rosario reached on an infield single with men on second and third to cut Minnesota’s lead to 5-3. Baldelli left the dugout, asked Gray for the ball, and signaled for Caleb Thielbar to take over. Thielbar got the first batter he faced to pop out but balked and allowed another runner to score. Suddenly, the Twins only led 5-4.
“We’re right there. It’s just, I feel like, we could find a way to win the game,” Gray lamented. “We’re right there. It’s just winning those games earlier in the year, losing those games now, I feel like when we came out and were jumping on their starter, and I don’t get us through the fifth.”
The Twins didn’t lose the game in the fifth inning on Wednesday. They didn’t lose it in the seventh when Jharel Cotton gave up two homers, and Cleveland took a 7-6 lead. They lost it when they blew a 10-7 lead in the ninth. But things unspooled in every inning where they lost the lead.
In the seventh, Cotton gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Rosario, to make it 5-6. Then he hit Andrés Giménez with a pitch and gave up a home run to Oscar Gonzalez to allow Cleveland to take the lead.
And in the ninth, Emilio Pagán gave up two singles to start the inning. Then Josh Naylor doubled off of him to make it 10-8. Baldelli brought Griffin Jax in with men on second and third to preserve the lead. But the first batter he faced, Gonzalez, singled and scored both runs to make it 10-10. Then Miller hit a sacrifice fly to score him and take an 11-10 lead.
The Twins unspooled in three separate innings, and they lost a game that left them “pissed off.” But a domino effect set off a vicious spiral throughout the game.
Gray had things under control until things fell apart in the fifth. However, Baldelli had to dig into the bullpen early because Gray left the game in the fifth with no outs. Therefore, they had to go to Cotton in a relatively high-leverage spot. Pagán had to pitch in the eighth and ninth on back-to-back days, and Jax relieved him after pitching on Tuesday.
The Twins need to shore things up in the bullpen, but few relief staffs can handle this amount of stress.
“It kind of put us in a little bit of a tough spot there,” Gray admitted, talking about the fifth. “You’re winning 5-1 going into the fifth inning, and you don’t get an out in the fifth. Made some big pitches. Caleb came in and did great to keep us right there, keep us with the lead. But at the same point, you’re putting those guys in a tough spot.”
The Twins will need to keep things from unspooling in Cleveland. It’s June, so the stakes can only be so high. But the Guardians can begin to wrestle the division away from Minnesota by winning four or five games next week. It’s also easier for things to get out of hand on the road. The roar of the crowd begins to pulsate, mocking the outfielders, demanding that the pitcher throw the ball.
So, how do they keep things in check next week?
“Well, we try to do that a lot,” Baldelli said when asked how he can reel things in. “Sometimes it’s maybe visible, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just slowing the game down with visits at certain moments. Some of the visits are to give your bullpen a little time, some of the visits are to let your pitcher breathe, and some of them are to have a conversation out there.”
Still, it ultimately comes down to how his players respond. Will his veteran pitchers step off the mound, trying to calm things down? Can his inexperienced outfielders stay relaxed when fans at Progressive Field start to bear down on them? Will his veteran leaders offer serenity to their anxious teammates?
We’ll find out soon enough. The Twins enter the crucible on Monday.