Minnesota Twins series preview: Twins fight for AL Central supremacy against Indians

CLEVELAND, OHIO - JUNE 06: Willians Astudillo #64 celebrates with Max Kepler #26 of the Minnesota Twins after both scored on a homer by Kepler during the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 06, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - JUNE 06: Willians Astudillo #64 celebrates with Max Kepler #26 of the Minnesota Twins after both scored on a homer by Kepler during the third inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on June 06, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Twins head into their biggest series of the year this weekend against the Cleveland Indians. Can they hold on to their lead in the AL Central?

The Minnesota Twins season has been a roller coaster of emotions. There was the skepticism that greeted the team when they returned from Fort Myers and the shock when the Twins became one of the best teams in the American League with a strong April and May.

That feeling became paranoia when the Twins’ 11 1/2 game lead over the Cleveland Indians started shrinking over June and July. With the advantage down to two games, it seems like the Twins are eliciting a different emotion from fans on a nightly basis.

With the Indians playing out of their minds and breathing down their necks, the Twins will host the Tribe at Target Field this weekend for a crucial four-game series. A sweep in either direction can change the tide in the AL Central, but even a series win for the Twins would build their lead back up to four games. In other words, this might be the most important series at Target Field since the Twins were chasing their last division championship in 2010.

About the Twins

The roller coaster of emotions was on display during the Twins’ last series against the Atlanta Braves. While Miguel Sano hit a walk-off home run in the opener, the Braves were triggered by the recycled clips of Kirby Puckett‘s Game 6 home run in the 1991 World Series.

Actually, a majority of the Braves roster wasn’t even born when Puckett forced Game 7 at the Metrodome, but they still took it out on Jose Berrios and Martin Perez, who turned in awful starts to drop the last two games of the series.

Despite falling to one of the best teams in the National League, the Twins do have some positives cutting through the paranoia. Nelson Cruz continues his home run binge as he smacked two on Tuesday night for a total of 32 on the season. He’s been joined by Miguel Sano who hit two home runs himself during the Braves series to reach 20 bombs in just 65 games.

With a 70-44 record, the Twins still have an advantage in the AL Central, but the Indians continue to be right on their tail.

About the Indians

While the Twins have been hitting bombs all season, the Indians decided to do what the Twins couldn’t (or maybe chose not to) by making a big splash at the trade deadline. By shipping out Trevor Bauer and adding Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, the Indians infused 49 home runs into their lineup in order to out-slug the Bomba Squad.

The kicker for the Indians is that their pitching has been pretty good, too. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber have stepped up in the absence of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco and since bottoming out at 29-30, they’ve gone 38-16 to get back into the American League Central race.

The Indians will also be coming in with added momentum after a doubleheader sweep with the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, but may be depleted after playing a couple of games right before a four-game series at Target Field. Either way, this has become an extremely dangerous team down the stretch.

Pitching Matchups

Thursday 7:10 p.m.: Mike Clevinger (6-2, 3.07 ERA) vs. Kyle Gibson (11-4, 4.02 ERA)

Clevinger’s stats don’t look imposing, but they would look a lot of better if he didn’t miss time because of two separate stints on the injured list. The Indians pushed the right-hander back a day because of Wednesday’s doubleheader and although the Twins were able to get to him late in his last start against Minnesota on July 12, he carries a 1.69 ERA over his last six starts.

The Twins will counter by tasking Gibson to stop the bleeding. After a pair of short starts, Rocco Baldelli was able to keep most members of his bullpen rested against Atlanta, but also can’t have Gibson duplicate his last start from July 12, where he threw 80 pitches in just 3 2/3 innings. Positively, Gibson has posted a 3.57 ERA since the beginning of July but will need to be “Good Gibby” in order for the Twins to take the opener.

Friday 7:10 p.m.: Shane Bieber (11-4, 3.31 ERA) vs. Devin Smeltzer (1-1, 2.28 ERA)

While his Players’ Weekend nickname shows he has a sense of humor, there’s nothing funny for opposing batters when they step into the batters’ box against Bieber. After winning the MVP award in the All-Star Game, Bieber has been on fire for the Tribe, going 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA and nearly a 6:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio including a July 14 start against Minnesota where he struck out nine batters in a 4-3 win.

Meanwhile, Twins fans have called for more Smeltzer and the rookie will get that opportunity in the biggest start of his young career. The left-hander earned his first major league victory against Kansas City on Sunday and while he took the loss in a June 4 loss to the Indians, he pitched well into the sixth before falling apart for a total of five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings.

Saturday 6:10 p.m.: Adam Plutko (4-2, 4.55 ERA) vs. Jake Odorizzi (12-5, 3.61 ERA)

The Indians have a strong top of their rotation, but the Bauer trade has left them a little short-handed until Kluber returns from his broken forearm. For now, Cleveland will send Plutko in Bauer’s place and the right-hander pitched well allowing one run over 5 1/3 innings in a victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 3.

The Twins will hope that Odorizzi’s last two starts are more of what they can expect from the right-hander after a nine-run blowup against the Yankees on July 24. In his last two starts, Odorizzi has walked the tight rope with a high pitch count but has delivered allowing two runs, 12 strikeouts and four walks in a pair of Twins’ victories.

Sunday 1:10 p.m.: Aaron Civale (1-1, 0.75 ERA) vs. Jose Berrios (10-6, 3.24 ERA)

Civale has been the Indians spot starter during the early stages of his career but will make his first back-to-back start at the major league level on Sunday. In his two previous starts, he’s fared well, throwing six strong innings against the Rangers last Sunday and throwing six scoreless innings in a June 22 spot start against the Detroit Tigers.

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The Twins will also look for something more ace-like from Berrios after his disastrous start against the Braves on Tuesday night. A first-pitch home run was a precursor of what would be a career-high nine earned runs for the Twins’ ace and had many fans up in arms about whether he was a true ace. Something closer to his previous start against the Marlins (7 IP, 2 H, 11 K) would be great for what could be a pivotal close-out game.