CLEVELAND -- This time, Jorge Polanco’s clutch RBI hit mattered -- and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Twins.
Three days ago, the shortstop knocked an RBI infield single in the All-Star Game to give the American League an insurance run in a one-run game. On Friday, Polanco, the Twins’ lone All-Star among position players, came through again at Progressive Field with a two-out, two-run double in the seventh inning that gave the Twins a 5-3, come-from-behind win over the Indians to set the tone for the second half.
"It was a great way to start out the second half,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We did a lot of things right. We faced a good team and faced a very good starting pitcher who is throwing the ball well. Mike Clevinger has great stuff. I think we battled them well. We did what we had to do to stay in the game and stay in a good competitive place and then take the lead and hold it.”
The Twins’ starting rotation had struggled with consistency in the waning weeks of the first half while an injury-depleted lineup had issues in high-leverage situations, and that continued early into Friday. In the span of one inning, starter Kyle Gibson was chased in the fourth and the Twins couldn’t bring a runner home in the fifth despite having men on second and third with none out.
All that turned quickly in the seventh, with the Twins down, 3-1, when Max Kepler was initially ruled out on a grounder to the right side with runners on the corners, but a replay review of 1 minute, 42 seconds overturned the ruling into an RBI infield single. Two pitches later, Polanco lined a slider over the head of center fielder Oscar Mercado for a two-run double that put the Twins on top.
“I knew I hit it well since I hit it off the barrel,” Polanco said. “I thought it was going to hit the wall.”
“Guys who have years like that, like he's having right now, you hit balls and get a ton of hits,” Baldelli said. “You also hit a bunch of balls good and don't get hits. He just squares a lot of balls up. This was one of those balls that obviously found some green out there and just made it happen."
“It wasn't one of those days where we were going to score a ton of runs, but we continually kind of forced our way into situations, and eventually, one of those situations worked out for us,” Baldelli said.
Sure, it’s only July, but with the Indians riding a six-game winning streak into the game and having reduced the Twins’ divisional lead from 11 1/2 games to 5 1/2 in just over a month, Friday’s game saw Minnesota take advantage of a chance to halt the momentum of their most significant rivals for the American League Central crown coming out of the All-Star break.
A win on Friday, though, was certainly a good start.
“If we win two out of three moving forward, we're going to be in a really good spot,” Gibson said. “I think, more importantly, winning the series would kind of take some of their momentum away and start it getting going back our way. So winning the first game is definitely a big part of that."
Bullpen dominates following Gibson’s early exit
The Twins will be in the market for pitching help leading up to the July 31 Trade Deadline, but even without any reinforcements so far, the bullpen also stepped up on Friday in an extended high-pressure situation to carry the team to victory.
Gibson only allowed three runs (and one earned), but he lost his command in the fourth inning and couldn’t escape a jam that began with a homer by Carlos Santana, forcing the bullpen into action after only 3 2/3 innings.
The Indians used six different relievers on Friday night, but despite Gibson's short start, the Twins only needed four -- Trevor May, Zack Littell, Ryne Harper and Taylor Rogers. They combined for 5 1/3 dominant frames and allowed only two hits and one walk while striking out seven to keep the Indians at bay while the bats got to work.
“They were all doing exactly what they wanted to do,” Baldelli said. “They were throwing the ball great. They kept us in the game. Our offense scored the runs, but ultimately, our bullpen won the game for us, I think.”
May consistently touched 97 mph with his fastball and found his command, which had been shaky at times in the first half, as he threw strikes on 18 of his 23 pitches. Littell, who was recently converted to a full-time relief role, threw a scoreless inning to earn the win. Harper threw a perfect seventh to bridge the gap to Rogers, who earned a two-out save and lowered his ERA to 1.73 after having been passed over for the All-Star Game.
“There’s a lot to factor in, but I thought the way that coming right back from the break right here, being well-rested and ready to go, I thought that [a two-out save] made sense, and we always talk to the player, too,” Baldelli said. “[Rogers] was ready to go and he wanted it.”