Don’t look now, but the Twins’ runaway train has hit an obstruction on the tracks. The obstruction came from Cleveland. Whose Indians have been—unexpectedly but just as profoundly—baseball’s second-hottest team since the All-Star break, just behind the self-resurrected Mets.
The Twins were bludgeoning their way to the American League Central title, no? The Indians were an injury, inconsistency, and sometimes indifference-addled mess who were lucky to be tied with the rebuilding White Sox eleven and a half games out in second in the Central, no?
While baseball world paid closest attention to what looked like the self-imploding Mets turning into a self-resurrecting surprise after the All-Star break, and the Twins and their thumping boppers sending home runs flying at a volume unfathomable by even this season’s supposed Year of the Big Yank, the Indians took more than a little advantage of the chance to sneak back into the thick of things.
So the Mets jerked themselves right back into the National League’s wild card picture? With a chance to make the National League East a race of it again while they’re at it with a three-set in Atlanta starting tonight? Don’t look now, but the Indians jerked themselves right back into the AL Central race.
And, a half game beyond.
That’s the Tribe sitting in first place this morning. They followed a weekend taking three out of four from the Twins by taking advantage of a Twins off day Monday and walking it off against the Red Sox—the defending World Series champions now staggering their way through a season looking more lost as the days go by.
Well, specifically, switch-hitting smasher Carlos Santana walked it off. He led off the bottom of the ninth in Progressive Field Monday night, after Xander Bogaerts tied it at five in the top with an RBI double to blow a save for Indians reliever Brad Hand. Batting lefthanded he saw a 2-2 slider from Red Sox reliever Marcus Walden coming right into his wheel house. And he wheeled his 200th career home run over the center field fence.
That was one day Hand blew a two-run lead in the bottom of the ninth at Target Field. Leaving Santana to bail him out in the top of the tenth. With the bases loaded and nobody out against Twins reliever Taylor Rogers. Rogers fed Santana batting righthanded a 2-1 fastball that didn’t elude the middle of the zone entirely, and Santana sent that one into the left center field bullpen.
On the far, far, far other side of the power coin there were the beyond hapless Orioles. While Santana bombed the Indians to a half game lead over the Twins Monday, the Orioles set the record no team wanted to set, the most home runs surrendered by a team on a season. They had the Yankees to thank for that on Monday, the Yankees—somehow continuing to possess the American League East despite resembling a season-long M*A*S*H post-op population—hitting seven out to make it 248 at the Orioles’ expense this year.
The Indians appreciate what Santana—a prodigal son returning to the Tribe after a 2018 with the Phillies—is doing lately. “Right when you get punched in the stomach he takes a swing like that,” said manager Terry Francona after Santana hammered the Red Sox Monday. “I mean, that was a gorgeous swing. I know the last two days, but he’s been doing it all year.”
They just hope the next time Santana hits one out it won’t be solely to save Hand’s hide after another blown save. Hand hadn’t blown one until 25 June; he’s now blown four including that one.
“You guys know Carlos is a damage guy, a really dangerous guy,” says Indians outfielder Franmil Reyes, who’s been an Indian for two weeks, “and you have to watch out every time he is up there.”
Especially when it’s late in the game this year. Santana’s 26 bombs on the season include twelve putting the Indians into the lead, and five of them have been hit in the seventh or later. That puts Santana second to Reyes’ former San Diego teammate Hunter Renfroe’s six seventh-inning-or-later lead-taking homers this year.
And to think that it was only yesterday (figuratively speaking) when talking about the Indians meant reminding yourself which pitcher(s) occupied the injured list and which bats were missing in action a little too often. Corey Kluber, their ace of the recent past, is due back this month. Carlos Carrasco is still working through his leukemia diagnosis. Hunter Wood left Monday’s game with a calf contusion and is day-to-day. And that’s just a cursory look.
Just as the Indians might have been better than their first half results showed, the Twins may not have been as powerful as their looked. “Finally, some relative normalcy,” wrote The Athletic‘s Grant Brisbee after Sunday’s game. “The Twins aren’t a super team. They’re just a well-constructed group of sluggers and starters who have a chance to make some October noise. If they can ignore those heavy, clomping footsteps coming from behind them and . . . ”
Aren’t a super team? The Twins are 23-23 since they had baseball’s best record and a ten-game AL Central lead on 18 June, and they’re 15-14 since the All-Star break. And, since the trading deadline?
They added nothing big at the deadline but settled for Sam Dyson as a bullpen boost. Dyson got torn for three earned runs each on 1 and 2 August, against the bottom-feeding Marlins and Royals.
They lost two out of three to the Braves before the Indians hit town, and about the only positive the Twins took out of that thumping was manager Rocco Baldelli—who’d looked like a Manager of the Year candidate in his first-ever season commanding from such a bridge—managing somehow not to burn his bullpen in advance of the Indians’ arrival. If you’re a Twins fan and you saw that set as an October preview, it wasn’t exactly encouraging.
But if you’re an Indians fan, you’re sitting with dessert in your mouth practically every day. They didn’t hurt their rotation when they dealt talented but mercurial Trevor Bauer to the Reds in the three-way swap that bagged them Reyes and Yasiel Puig, a pair of fun lovers who are now good for clubhouses regardless of what they do in the field or at the plate. Puig’s hit .333 as an Indian so far with six runs batted in and five scored; Reyes is beginning to find his stroke again.
All-Star sophomore Shane Bieber (a Twins fan of my acquaintance refers to him as “Chained Beaver,” swearing that’s how it sounds when announcers say his name) has been a continuing pleasant surprise with his walks/hits-per-inning-pitched rate under 1.00. Rookie Zach Plesac has been a plain surprise on the mound even if he’s depending a little too much on his defenses. Veteran Mike Clevinger came off the injured list in June and has a 3.13 ERA since.
And Jose Ramirez, the third base mainstay, has shaken off that grotesque first half slump at the plate. He has a .328/.354/.681 slash line in his past thirty games, and when you bring that back to a lineup already featuring Santana, Puig, Reyes, Francisco Lindor, and rookie surprise Oscar Mercado, all you need is for one and all to hit and play the way they’re capable of hitting and playing.
If so, these Indians are no pushovers. And these Twins should have known better than to think they’d turned their division into the proverbial walk in the park.
Who’s going to have it worse over the final 44 games?
With the Brewers and the Red Sox reeling more than a little bit, the Twins have only one bona fide contender to deal with down the stretch, when they have three home dates with the somehow-self-revived Nationals 10-12 September. And those are sandwiched by a pair of three-game sets with the Indians.
The Indians have another pair with the Red Sox starting tonight. But then they get to test themselves with a very long week in New York—against the Yankees and the Mets, one after the other. It’ll be a big test for the Mets, too, depending on whether they can make a solid stand against the Braves this week. If they make it, this coming weekend against the Royals will be target practise. If they don’t, it’ll be time to re-charge.
Like the Mets against the Braves this week, the Indians need to make a solid stand against the Empire Emeritus this weekend. But if the Mets prove they’re still the real second-half deal by the time the Indians visit, the Indians may have a real battle on their hands.
They still have to be careful. For all Santana’s heroics. Kluber has to return to his ace form when he returns. Bieber and Plesac need to be handled adroitly enough not to exhaust themselves down the stretch. Puig and Ramirez can’t afford to be too streaky. And that mostly soft schedule for the Twins could mean the northern thumpers getting their groove back for keeps.
Will it be a treat or a soul sacrifice for Santana and his Indians?
Any resurrected inconsistency on their part and their current overthrow of the Twins will turn into a pleasant memory before its time. But let’s just savour the pleasant part, for now. We’ll know soon enough whether it’s singing winds or crying beasts.