Trying to ice his arm and knee in the clubhouse after his night was done, Mike Clevinger screamed at the television after each up and down for Cleveland just like a fan watching the tense finish at home.
The scene in Minnesota was befitting of the postseason, intensifying an AL Central race that’s just heating up.
Clevinger allowed only three hits with nine strikeouts in seven innings, José Ramírez drove in three runs, and the Indians struck first in this four-game series between the division front-runners with a 7-5 victory on Thursday that cut the Twins’ division lead to one game.
“It’s way more fun to go through this versus feeling like it’s spring training where you’re getting ready for something bigger,” Clevinger said. “This is what it’s going to be like in October. The games are going to be just like this.”
Indians closer Brad Hand ended the game by retiring Eddie Rosario on a routine flyout with the bases loaded, recording his 29th save in dramatic fashion after facing the last four batters of a three-run eighth by the Twins.
“This team is fighting all the time, fighting all game, every pitcher and every at-bat,” said Rosario, who went 0 for 5 with one RBI.
Minnesota has been in sole possession of first place since April 27, a lead that was 11½ games on June 3 and was still 7½ games on July 13. The Indians are 40-16 since June 4, the best record in baseball in that span.
“This is like a whole new rivalry starting this year. It’s a totally different ballgame when they’re on the field now,” Clevinger said.
The RBI singles in the fourth by Luis Arraez and Marwin Gonzalez were all the Twins managed against Clevinger (7-2), who watched four relievers toil through the eighth as Cleveland’s lead was cut to 6-5. Miguel Sanó hit an RBI double off Hand, who retired Gonzalez on a flyout with runners at first and second to finish the frame.
Then Hand had to grind through the ninth, after a home run by Tyler Naquin in the top of the inning insured the lead.
“That was a lot to ask,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.
Of everyone, really.
“I’m trying to figure that out right now, if I had fun or not, because I couldn’t even breathe. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said Francona, whose team won the last three AL Central titles by 13, 17 and eight games, respectively.
The Indians didn’t visit here in April, May, June or July, a quirk of the schedule that only increased the anticipation for this matchup, with nine more games remaining between them. When the Indians started the season here on March 28, their lifeless lineup included five players not currently on the team. Now Ramírez is back in his two-time All-Star form, with an extra-base hit in each of his last seven games.
The crowd was announced at 32,517, the 24th time in the last 29 games the Twins have drawn 30,000 or more, including five sellouts of the 38,649-seat ballpark.
With two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber past the three-month mark on the injured list with a broken right arm, Clevinger has made a strong case this summer that he’s currently the ace of one of the most consistent rotations in baseball.
The long-haired right-hander with the herky-jerky throwing motion won for the fifth straight start. In seven turns since returning from a second stint on the injured list, Clevinger is 6-0 with a 1.83 ERA and 33 hits allowed in 44 1/3 innings with 58 strikeouts.
“That dude’s got guts and heart,” Naquin said.
The Twins lost surging designated hitter Nelson Cruz to a strained left wrist, after he swung and missed at a pitch from Clevinger in the fourth, and Kyle Gibson (11-5) allowed six runs in less than five innings behind a career-high six walks.
The Twins actually entered the evening with a 3.89 ERA for their starters, sixth-best in the majors and one spot ahead of the Indians, but the longest-tenured member of the staff failed to hold up his end of the bargain. Gibson threw only 42 of his 85 pitches for strikes and took his first loss in 10 starts. One of the runs against him was unearned, thanks to his throwing error on a pickoff attempt that drifted wide of first base after a leadoff triple in the second inning by Yasiel Puig.
Gibson walked three batters in the three-run fourth. Ramírez hit an RBI single, and Jason Kipnis — who is 15 for 36 with 14 RBIs in his career against Gibson — followed with a two-run double . After Gibson was pulled with one out in the fifth and the bases loaded, Ramírez pulled the first pitch from Zack Littell just inside the first-base line to push the lead to 6-2.
“We’re in a little bit of a rut, just starting pitching wise,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Indians: Kluber threw three innings in a rehab start for Triple-A Columbus, creeping closer to a return. He’ll pitch again on Tuesday, for Double-A Akron.
Twins: Cruz missed 15 games earlier this season with a similar injury. Baldelli had no more information on his condition.
Indians: RHP Shane Bieber (11-4, 3.31 ERA) takes the mound on Friday night, coming off his majors-leading third complete game of the season.
Twins: Rookie RHP Devin Smeltzer (1-1, 2.28 ERA) pitches the second game of the series, after throwing six scoreless innings in his last start.
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