Twins' five-run eighth 'a knockout'; Central lead at 7

Solano's bases-clearing triple caps decisive frame, helps secure series win vs. Guardians

September 6th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- The sinking line drive first hit the grass in shallow center field, then it snuck under the glove of Cleveland center fielder Myles Straw. He windmilled his arms, turned around and ran helplessly after the baseball as it rolled further and further away to the warning track.

“That was the knockout there. We knocked them out of the game right there,” Minnesota catcher Christian Vázquez said.

It might have knocked the Guardians out of the American League Central title chase, too.

  • Games remaining: at CLE (1), vs. NYM (3), vs. TB (3), at CWS (4), at CIN (3), vs. LAA (3), vs. OAK (3), at COL (3)
  • Standings update: The Twins (73-66) hold a seven-game lead on the Guardians (66-73) for the AL Central title. Minnesota is currently the third-best division leader, meaning it would host a best-of-three Wild Card Series vs. the final Wild Card entrant starting on Oct. 3.
  • Magic number: 17 (for AL Central)

As that ball rolled, three baserunners touched home plate as Donovan Solano raced to third with a triple, capping a five-run explosion in the eighth inning that carried the Twins to an 8-3 victory on Tuesday night at Progressive Field. It also secured a win in the teams’ final -- and most critical -- series of the season.

Minnesota’s division lead extended to seven games with only 23 left to play, and only one head-to-head matchup remaining against Cleveland -- that being Wednesday’s series finale.

“Even when it’s close or we’re down, we’ve just kept coming,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We just have not stopped. It’s a good feeling sitting in my chair knowing those guys are feeling that, always capable of that.”

Wednesday’s finale is still important for the AL Central race in that the winner will hold the tiebreaker in the event of a tie atop the standings. But that possibility has grown slimmer because, regardless of the outcome of that game, the Twins have taken care of business by winning the series.

At worst, Minnesota will leave Cleveland with a six-game lead in the division. The Twins will face teams with a losing record in 16 of their 22 remaining regular-season games.

“Everything is together as a team, especially in this series,” Solano said. “That's a good sign for us. We need to continue that for the rest of the season.”

After missing an earlier chance to mostly put the division on ice by losing two tough games to Cleveland at Target Field last week, Minnesota responded with a 4-1 road trip featuring series victories against the Rangers and Guardians -- both playoff-hopeful teams.

The Twins have outscored those opponents by 24 runs (47-23), thanks to their average of 9.4 runs per game (helped by the 20-run outburst in Monday’s series opener).

After waiting for the offense to complement its stalwart pitching staff for much of the season, Minnesota’s bats have finally come to life in the second half, ranking fifth in the Majors in wRC+ since the All-Star break entering Tuesday.

Minnesota put 14 non-bunted balls in play off Cleveland starter Tanner Bibee on Tuesday; 12 of them qualified as hard-hit (in excess of 95 mph). The Twins scored two in the first, erased a 3-2 deficit on Vázquez’s solo homer in the sixth and won with the five-spot in the eighth.

“We’re grinding a lot of really good [at-bats], and when you do that, you’re putting yourself in a good position,” Baldelli said. “I think we’ve been in a good position over the last week, over the last month, but it comes one pitch at a time.”

All facets are finally starting to click as the Twins had hoped -- just when it matters most.

Sonny Gray, who had hoped to earn the trust to pitch out of a late jam, succeeded in an opportunity to do so when Baldelli left him in a tie game with runners on the corners and one out in the sixth. Gray escaped with a strikeout and a lineout to cap an eighth quality start in his past nine outings.

Carlos Correa, playing through the pain of plantar fasciitis, has led the way on defense with his hard-nosed and crisp fielding, exemplified once again by a slick stop and tag on a strikeout-throwout double play to help Gray out of a third-inning jam.

“Carlos put his body on the line and went out there, and put his nose in there, to make sure he got the tag down,” Gray said. “Very appreciative of that. That's just what winning baseball looks like.”

A little less than a year ago, the Twins’ epic September collapse from contention saw them lose four games in a pivotal five-game set in this very stadium against the Guardians.

This season, they’ve flipped the script.

“We're excited,” Solano said. “We're playing right now like it's the playoffs every time we play. It's a good sign for us. If the team can make the playoffs, that's how we have to play.”