MINNEAPOLIS -- Sixty-seven days ago, the Indians trailed the Twins by 11 1/2 games in the division race. It was a time when selling at the Trade Deadline seemed like the best -- and only -- option. When the team seemed to hit its lowest point, little did the baseball world know it was just heating up.
Cleveland’s 6-2 victory over Minnesota on Friday night at Target Field abolished the Twins’ lead in the American League Central, as Cleveland tied its division foe atop the leaderboard for the first time since sharing first place entering play on April 27.
“I think it’s easy to say things when things are going really well,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I think you find out more about your team when things aren’t going well. That’s why when we were 28-29, they kept at it enough to be able to get hot and not bury ourselves.”
The Indians have put together an impressive run since the start of June, posting the best record in MLB by winning 42 of 59 games. Clawing their way back into contention isn’t something the Tribe has been used to, easily cruising to division titles the last three years. Friday marked the first time since 2010 that either team -- the Twins or Indians -- went into a game after Aug. 1 with first place in the division on the line. Back then, it was the Twins who had a one-game lead over the White Sox. This time, the Indians came out victorious.
“We were all super excited coming in to this series,” said Indians starter Shane Bieber, who allowed two runs in seven innings, with 11 strikeouts. “I think you’ve seen that the first two games. It’s just an incredible group to be able to do this, from 12 [games] back, whatever we were, and to be tied at the top is a huge deal for us and really for everybody. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of right now.”
Since the beginning of June, the Tribe’s lineup hasn’t had too many changes. The club got a healthy Mike Clevinger back in the rotation, it has since parted ways with Leonys Martin and Trevor Bauer and added an energetic Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes (who snapped an 0-for-19 stretch with an RBI double in the second). But the biggest difference-maker has been third baseman Jose Ramirez.
“Josey’s been Josey,” Francona said, “which is what we need.”
There’s no need for the constant reminder. Ramirez’s offensive struggles -- that dated back to last August -- were mentioned daily through the first two months of the season. But suddenly, the Tribe’s former AL MVP candidate rediscovered his swing. Since June 21, Ramirez has hit .344 with 18 doubles, one triple, 11 homers and 36 RBIs.
In the Indians' five-run fifth inning, Ramirez extended his extra-base hit streak to eight games with an run-scoring double to left. The two-base hit marked his 30th double of the season, becoming only the third player with at least that many in each of the last four seasons (joining Anthony Rendon and Xander Bogaerts). The Indians have proven that they need their third baseman’s bat, winning 36 of the 41 games in which he’s driven in at least one run.
“He’s a guy that we can lean on, especially the way he’s going right now,” Bieber said. “It’s awesome. It seems like he’s batting, like, six times a game, just because of the impact he has. I’m sure it seems like that, maybe even more, for the other team. We’re able to lean on him. He’s a guy that you can trust in any situation. It’s nice to have him doing what he’s doing right now, because it’s a special thing.”
The Indians will have a chance to take sole possession of first place on Saturday for the first time since being a half-game up on the Twins on April 17.
“It’s a great feeling,” Indians reliever Oliver Perez said. “We’re not done yet. We have to keep going. Tomorrow is going to be an important game and we have to follow that. Follow that and just enjoy the moment.”