MINNEAPOLIS -- The Indians had the mindset of taking all three games in Minnesota over the weekend to pull them within striking distance of the first-place Twins. A loss on Saturday made winning the division look like an unattainable goal, but the Tribe rebounded with a 5-2 victory on Sunday to give them one final shot at making a move with three more games against their division rival coming up next weekend.
The Indians have lost six of their last 10 games. Before this stretch, they had held the first American League Wild Card spot by 1 1/2 games, but now are trailing the A’s by 1 1/2 games for the second AL Wild Card spot.
“I mean, I’d almost say have to win right now,” reliever Nick Wittgren said. “We’re in a Wild Card hunt and then we’re trying to catch the Twins right now, so taking two out of three from them is big. It gets us up again from where we were. Then also just coming in, we knew it was gonna be a battle all three games, and it was. To come out on top in two of them is really nice.”
Despite their recent skid, the Tribe have still won nine of 16 meetings against the Twins, which at least bodes well for a club whose final hope for its fourth consecutive division title could depend on a much-needed sweep of Minnesota when the two teams match up one last time, beginning on Friday at Progressive Field. Cleveland currently sits 5 1/2 games out in the AL Central.
Mike Clevinger has been the one arm the team has been able to consistently rely on. Two starts ago, the Indians bumped Clevinger to pitch a day early -- with the help of a team off day to keep him on schedule -- to make sure that the righty would be able to pitch in both Twins series, including Sunday’s series finale. That move paid off for the Tribe.
“I’m not just here to try to be a better pitcher tomorrow,” Clevinger said. “I’m here to win and I want to win. I want to help us win. I want us to beat the hell out of them every time we see them, especially when we’re this close and we’ve got this kind of race coming down the stretch, it just makes it that much more fun.”
Clevinger tossed a solid 6 1/3 innings, allowing two runs on four hits with seven strikeouts on 113 pitches. As of now, the 28-year-old is expected to pitch against the Twins again at home on Saturday. In three starts against Minnesota this season, he’s pitched to a 2.45 ERA, allowing five earned runs over 18 1/3 innings.
“He’s really tough,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He misses about as many bats as anybody in baseball. His stuff is excellent. He executes pretty well. It’s never an easy day when you’re facing him. You know you’re going to have to pull some things out to make it happen. We were close, we just didn’t do it when we had those guys on base and didn’t get them in.”
His success has stretched far beyond the leaders of the AL Central. The AL Pitcher of the Month for August has gone 10-0 with a 2.00 ERA over his last 13 starts (18 ER in 81 innings). Since the start of the 2000 season, only Clevinger (15 straight) and Cliff Lee (13 straight, two times) have had longer such streaks without a loss for the Indians.
“It’s fun to watch the evolution of [Clevinger’s] maturity,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, reflecting on his hurler’s four big league seasons. “And I think, like good pitchers or players, as they learn the league and they learn more about themselves, as long as they stay healthy, they get better. I don’t know if people -- you see the hair flying and everything -- I don’t know if people realize how hard he works and he gets after it.”
While a lot of his success has been on his own, Clevinger received a crucial assist from Wittgren, who relieved the starter with one out in the seventh inning and runners on second and third. The righty reliever gave up one run on a ground-ball single to second base and walked the bases loaded before recording back-to-back strikeouts to escape the jam with a three-run lead.
“I’ve closed all throughout my Minor League career and stuff,” Wittgren said. “I’ve been put in situations like that and then Tito has thrown me in a few as well. So, it’s just another day at the office.”
The Indians head to Anaheim for three games against the Angels, as the Twins will host the Nationals over the next three days before the AL Central rivals meet again on Friday.
“That’s not going to be a big series if we don’t win in between there,” Clevinger said. “So, again, we’ve got to take this next series just like it’s gonna be the Twins. If we’re still in a good spot, that should be a pivotal series that next go-around.”