Photo: Jason Miller (Getty)

The Minnesota Twins had a 3.5-game AL Central lead heading into Wednesday, but then a trio of results nearly cut it in half, setting up a high-stakes four-game home series with their division-rival Cleveland Indians, where the Twins could be in danger of losing sole possession of first place for the first time since April 26. It wasn’t that long ago—two months, basically—that the Twins’ 11.5-game lead on Cleveland looked mountainous, but after a doubleheader sweep by Cleveland on Wednesday and back-to-back losses by Minnesota against the Braves, the battle for the Central is closer than any other division in baseball.

It’s not even that the Twins have fallen into a particularly noticeable slump—a 30-25 record since June 4 is a cooldown but not quite disaster. It’s that the Indians have been the best team in baseball over that same time, going 38-16 by enjoying a return to form for Jose Ramirez and riding the shutdown arm of Shane Bieber, the anchor of an otherwise pretty makeshift pitching rotation. Despite injuries and other issues with starters like Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and the now-departed Trevor Bauer, the Indians have the best ERA in the American League over their hot streak, and it’s been a total team effort. On Wednesday, eight different pitchers across 18 innings allowed a total of just one run against the Rangers, as the Indians won 2-0 and 5-1 to have all the momentum heading into the crucial long weekend series.

“Everyone wanted to get these two,” said Jason Kipnis yesterday. “Everyone was kind of watching the scoreboard over in Minnesota, too, and we knew it had a chance to be a big day for us and it worked out perfectly for us. Guys are in a good mood, feeling good and excited to get to Minnesota.”

“We wanted to play some fun games down the stretch,” he added.

While credit is due to Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana, who have consistently raked all year, it’s Jose Ramirez who has suddenly remembered how to hit a baseball and consequently launched the Indians out of mediocrity. The back-to-back reigning Silver Slugger winner was stuck below the Mendoza Line as recently as June 12, but after putting up an OPS of 1.020 in July, he’s firmly back on track and providing much-needed depth in the middle of the lineup. His two-run dinger in Game 1 of Wednesday’s doubleheader was the entire offense, and the third baseman added a solo shot in Game 2 that opened up the scoring in the second inning.

Advertisement

Advertisement

The Twins haven’t had much to worry about with their offense, since only the Yankees score more runs than they do and even in their losses to the Braves they managed to plate seven. But, obviously, that means the pitching wasn’t quite so hot, as the team was consciously conserving their options to ensure the best possible matchups against the Tribe. The Twins’ top three pitchers—Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, and Jake Odorizzi—are all set to start in three of the four games, and the lone outlier—the young, inexperienced Devin Smeltzer—is still coming off a six-inning shutout of the Royals.

The Twins’ll get Clevinger and Bieber—the best the Indians have to offer—on Thursday and Friday, but then things get weirder, with Adam Plutko and Aaron Civale plugging holes that would normally be filled by much more established names. That’s where Cleveland’s shutdown bullpen guys like Brad Hand, Nick Goody, and Adam Cimber should come into play. That trio may not seem quite as fearsome on its face as Cody Allen, Dan Otero, and Andrew Miller did in 2016, but since that magic date of June 4, the Tribe’s reliever corps has allowed fewer runs than anyone in MLB.

Advertisement

This upcoming series won’t be the decisive final round between the Twins and the Indians—they’ll have six games against each other in September. But it’ll be a crystal-clear referendum on which of these teams should be favored to avoid the Wild Card as the season enters its final stretch. The Twins could increase their lead to as much as six games and immediately shut down any whispers about regression with a dominant performance, while the Indians could reassert their grip on an AL Central they’ve completely controlled for the past three years by continuing their recent success. Whatever happens, this’ll be four days of tense, all-out, good-ass August baseball.