CLEVELAND -- By the fifth inning of Monday’s game, Minnesota had already swapped out both halves of its battery due to injuries, and as the series that the Twins had touted as their most important of the season drew to a close with their playoff hopes all but officially extinguished, that was all too emblematic of the painful path that has brought them to this underwhelming conclusion.
With their 2022 hopes on life support and several lineup regulars struggling to even walk without pain, the Twins further suffered with early exits from both starting pitcher Sonny Gray and catcher Sandy León as an almost unbelievably depleted Twins roster sputtered across the finish line of their most critical stretch of the year with a position player on the mound in an 11-4 loss to the Guardians.
Minnesota entered this series likely needing to win three of five, at minimum, to even give themselves a fighting chance in the American League Central. Instead, the Twins somehow found more injured list placements (at least three) than wins (one) as they emerged from Progressive Field with a virtually insurmountable seven-game deficit in the division with 15 games to play -- and none remaining against the first-place Guardians.
"I'm not ready to talk about the season like it's behind us,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I don't think that's appropriate. We still have guys in that clubhouse that are ready to work and that are ready to play, and we still have games to play.”
In a sight that’s grown too familiar to the Twins in the second half of the season, Gray saw his velocity noticeably diminished in the early innings, with his fastball, curveball, sinker, cutter and slider all at least 1.4 mph below his season averages.
He exited after allowing four earned runs -- his most since July 14 -- in two innings with what was later announced as a recurrence of the right hamstring tightness that had already put him on the IL at the end of April and forced another early exit from his Sept. 2 start in Chicago, though he continued to pitch through the issue after the latter start. Two innings later, León followed after feeling the effects of the right knee inflammation he has dealt with of late.
It’s unclear if this injury will land Gray on the IL again, but the recurrence is reminiscent of, for example, the lingering shoulder issues that have twice sent Tyler Mahle to the IL or the season-long battle with Byron Buxton’s balky knee (and now, hip) that still has held the center fielder out of baseball activity, nearly a month after his Aug. 23 placement on the IL. Nineteen players are now on the IL for the Twins, possibly with more on the way.
“I mean, with everything that's gone on, we've gotten to this point in the year,” Baldelli said. “We're still competing. We're not where we want to be at this moment, but we've done it without what you would consider anything close to the lineup that you expected.”
But injuries are only one part of the equation that led to the Twins losing 13 of their 19 games against the Guardians this season, as time after time, Cleveland just found a way in the biggest moments.
In the coda to the season series, the Twins stranded the bases loaded with a key double play in the sixth inning when they had a chance to tie the game -- and in the bottom of the frame, the Guardians did get the big swing, landing a knockout blow with Amed Rosario’s three-run blast.
That’s reminiscent of all the missed opportunities and bullpen meltdowns earlier in the year against the Guardians, leading to eight losses in which Cleveland plated the winning run in the seventh inning or later. In seven of those, the Twins led in the seventh or later. Ultimately, that made the difference in the divisional standings.
“There were just too many moments, I think, in the series where it could have swung either way, where they got the better of us and they made the plays and they had the big swings,” Baldelli said. “We had those chances. It's not like all four of the games we lost this series were routs and we got played off the field. But overall, they did outplay us, and you could see it in those moments that I was describing.”
Outmanned and outexecuted, the Twins simply couldn’t get it done against Cleveland.