Polanco gets rainout redemption in G1 of DH

September 14th, 2019

CLEVELAND -- Jorge Polanco was owed some positive karma after he had a mammoth two-run blast washed away by Friday night’s thunderstorms in Cleveland. He cashed it in right away.

The Twins’ relief corps was outstanding opposite Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger in the first of two planned bullpen games in Saturday’s doubleheader against the Indians, but Polanco was the difference-maker with a big swing of the bat and a stellar diving play that preserved the lead in Minnesota’s 2-0 win in Game 1 on Saturday afternoon.

Polanco’s homer off Aaron Civale in Friday night’s game had traveled an estimated 425 feet to right-center field, the second-longest shot of his career, but it ultimately came off the books. He got it back in Saturday’s third inning against Clevinger, when he followed a Max Kepler single by crushing a 1-0 changeup just over the wall in right-center field for his 22nd homer of the season.

“That was nice,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Rarely do the baseball gods kind of shine upon people like that. Most of the time when you lose a homer, it’s kind of a big, ‘Hang with them,’ and that’s pretty much the end of it. … But watching him go back out there and do it again, it was a really nice thing for Polo, too, on top of us winning.”

This time, that homer actually counted, and with Clevinger sharp as usual for the Indians with 10 strikeouts in eight strong innings, Polanco’s blast on a rare mistake by the right-hander ended up accounting for the only runs of the game to briefly push the Twins to a 4 1/2-game lead in the American League Central.

“[Clevinger’s] execution is good, and he has true Major League swing and miss stuff,” Baldelli said. “You need big at-bats. You need Polo to do something like that to make it happen.”

Though the Twins’ shortstop had struggled at times with his defense during the middle of the season, he came through with his glove in a huge moment in the very next half-inning.

With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the third, Carlos Santana shot a line drive into the gap between shortstop and third base, but Polanco snared the 107.5-mph missile as he dove to his right, saving at least one run on a ball with an expected batting average of .770, as estimated by Statcast.

“I thought I was going to catch it off the bat,” Polanco said. “I took a little longer to dive for it because it was moving away from me, but yeah."

“I mean, that's a game-changing play,” Baldelli said. “If he makes the play, we have an opportunity to win the game like we did. If he doesn't make the play, who knows? Maybe we're out there, still playing. So it was a tremendous play. You're always going to need in these good, close games, a few things to go your way.”

Outside of that Polanco-fueled escape, the Twins couldn’t have drawn up a more effective bullpen game in a critical division matchup.

In a game that Baldelli admitted the Twins were largely playing by ear, Devin Smeltzer, Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers made things quite easy for their skipper by outdueling Clevinger in a combined five-hit shutout. The Indians’ lineup was held to only five singles, a walk and two hit batsmen.

“It was a tremendous performance from beginning to end, starting with Smeltz and him going out there and putting up a few zeros,” Baldelli said. “We turned to other guys and asked them to throw multiple innings. Every guy we turned to just continued to step up and perform at a high, high level.”

The Twins only dealt with two serious jams in the game. After Polanco bailed Smeltzer out of a bases-loaded situation in the third inning, the only other trouble came in the eighth, when Oscar Mercado hit a one-out single off Romo and Yasiel Puig added a two-out knock off Rogers, but Greg Allen was called out on a third strike that nipped the bottom of the zone to preserve the shutout.

In the spotlight across from one of the strongest pitching staffs in the division -- if not the league -- Saturday’s game marked a banner performance for a Minnesota bullpen that was in question for much of the season but has quickly consolidated in the second half thanks to continued development from several arms that were already in the Twins’ organization.

“It's September baseball, and in my eyes, this is playoff baseball,” Smeltzer said. “There's not going to be much more tension than this. We're playing a team we're fighting to stay ahead of and we have a really deep bullpen with a lot of good arms. We just passed the baton and keep attacking.”

Smeltzer shook off his season-long struggles against Cleveland in three shutout frames to set the tone. Littell contributed his 20th scoreless appearance in his last 21 outings to lower his ERA to 0.73 since the start of June. Duffey pitched his 20th consecutive game without being charged with a run. That smoothly bridged the gap for Romo and Rogers, who again locked down the end of the game.

Twins relievers lowered their ERA to 3.70 since the start of August, the second-best mark in the AL behind only the Rays.

“I think we've shown, time and time again, that every single arm down there is capable of going out there and getting Major League hitters out,” Littell said. “I think that's the kind of confidence we have every day, and it doesn't matter who's on the mound. I think everybody here thinks they can go out there and dominate."