That lead had dwindled somewhat by the time last week's All-Star break came around, but the Twins opened their second half by adding to it with another big statement – this one made all the more impressive by preceding trends and an away setting.
Weekly Snapshot: Mon, 7/8 through Sun, 7/14
Record Last Week: 2-1 (Overall: 58-34)
Run Differential Last Week: +5 (Overall: +121)
Standing: 1st Place in AL Central (6.5 GA)
Willians Watch: Out IndefinitelyThe big surprise coming out of the break was that the Twins did not activate Eddie Rosario, who by all indications was ready to go when his 10 days on the Injured List lapsed, and held back as a mere precaution. Rosario was not in the lineup for any of Minnesota's three games against Cleveland, and his absence was felt – especially on Sunday when the Twins simply could not find that big hit.
It sounds like there's a good chance he'll be activated Tuesday against the Mets, but this front office has been really tough to read. They're cryptic in communicating about injury status, and we've seen them opt for the conservative route on almost every occasion. This approach has served them well, so I don't have a problem with it, but it's consequentially impossible to say with certainty when Rosario will be back. The same is true for Byron Buxton, who hit the ground hard on a fantastic diving catch Saturday and was out of the lineup on Sunday, and C.J. Cron, who's eligible to be activated from the IL on Tuesday.
One big noteworthy roster move from the past week: Adalberto Mejia was designated for assignment to make room for Jake Odorizzi's return from the IL. The big lefty just hasn't shown enough and his latest meltdown was the last straw. I'm guessing he'll be claimed on waivers by some also-ran non-contender that views him as a cheap starting option with remnants of upside.
Plenty of Twins hitters rose to the occasion in Cleveland. There were home runs from some of the usual fixtures – Max Kepler (x2), Nelson Cruz, Mitch Garver – and also big production from an unexpected source: Jake Cave delivered a home run and clutch two-run double in Saturday's series-clinching victory. He had just a .542 OPS with the Twins coming in, and the big breakout was very much welcomed with the continuing absence of Rosario.
Jorge Polanco, fresh off delivering an RBI hit in Tuesday's All-Star Game, came through when it mattered on Friday, launching a two-run double over the center fielder's head to put Minnesota in front for good in the seventh. Polanco added three more hits on Saturday.
Also on Saturday, fellow All-Star Odorizzi had a nice return to form, hurling 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball to pick up his 11th win of the season (first in nearly a month). A solo homer by Jose Ramirez represented the only damage against Odorizzi, who otherwise allowed just two singles and two walks. Still, despite the successful results, his lack of swing-and-miss prowess was conspicuous. Odorizzi struck out only two hitters, a number he's posted in three of his past four turns. He had struck out three or more in 12 of his first 14 starts.
While the lineup and rotation had their moments, the biggest story in this series – in an extension of the encouraging trend we highlighted last week – was the excellent work from Minnesota's bullpen. The unit stepped up after a short start on Friday with 5 1/3 scoreless innings, facilitating the critical comeback win. Trevor May, Zack Littell and Ryne Harper paved the way for Taylor Rogers to close it out with a two-inning save; collectively, those four struck out seven, with two hits and one walk allowed.
The Twins turned to Rogers again on Saturday, with a four-run lead in the ninth, and he was perfect. Since that late-May stretch where he allowed home runs in back-to-back games, Rogers has a 0.90 ERA and 25-to-1 K/BB ratio in 20 innings of work. During that span he has allowed seven hits – five of them singles. As Aaron Gleeman notes here, Rogers has been the biggest difference-maker among AL relievers this year, and no one else is close:
May's costly mistake on an 0-2 pitch on Sunday, taken deep by Carlos Santana for a decisive home run, was an unfortunate blemish amidst a strong stretch (and, really, season) for the right-hander. He bridged the gap on Friday by getting four big outs, and blew away the three other hitters he faced on Sunday. Over his past six appearances he has piled up a whopping 14 strikeouts with one walk in 7 1/3 innings. Santana's bomb stands as the only extra-base hit allowed during that span, and one of just three homers May's surrendered all year. He's a viable setup man, in spite of this hiccup.
Littell is emerging as a legitimate late-inning option himself. He tossed two more scoreless innings last week and hasn't allowed a run in eight appearances since the start of June. During that span he has a dazzling 16% swinging strike rate, although the five walks are a bit concerning.
Cleveland's bullpen has the best ERA in the league but it was Minnesota's that shined in this showdown: Twins relievers allowed just two runs (on solo homers against May and Tyler Duffey) in 12 innings, with 14 strikeouts and one walk. Phenomenal stuff.
Kyle Gibson was cruising along on Friday, fanning four through three scoreless innings, before everything unraveled in the fourth. A home run, a walk, an error, a bloop two-run single, and a hit-by-pitch all contributed to a series of events that saw Gibson lifted before escaping the frame.
It's been a weird run of usage lately for Gibson, whose past four outings have included one-inning appearances as a reliever (in the 17th) and an opener (in the first). Outside of those, in his more traditional starts, he hasn't looked very good of late, allowing three-plus runs in six of his past seven turns.
Over the course of the year, Gibson's been plagued by the same issue that afflicted Odorizzi last year: hitters are seeing him way better on successive trips through the order. His first time through, the righty is holding opponents to a .197/.278/.275 line, and we saw this play out on Friday as he mowed through the first three innings. Then, the second time through the order, opponents improve to .246/.311/.442, and the third time that goes up to .340/.376/.553. Against Cleveland, Gibson didn't even make it to that third go-round.
To be a reliable force for Minnesota down the stretch, Gibson's going to need to find a way to give hitters a different look in their second and third at-bats.
Working deep into games hasn't generally been an issue for Jose Berrios, who has failed to reach the sixth only three times all season. But two of those have come in his past two starts, which have both seen Berrios ousted after five innings while allowing three runs and battling uncharacteristic command struggles. The right-hander's 1.6 BB/9 rate through the first three months ranked among the best in baseball, but he's now issued three walks in back-to-back starts.
On offense, there were plenty of trials experienced against Cleveland's outstanding staff, but no one looked worse than Jonathan Schoop, who went 1-for-9 with five strikeouts in his two starts. One of those K's came in a huge spot with the bases loaded and no outs in the seventh on Sunday, and it ran Schoop's futility with bases juiced this year to 0-for-8. He'd entered the game sporting a .167/.235/.449 line with runners in scoring position, and .158/.256/.184 in "Late & Close" situations.
Schoop's overall production has been plenty respectable, but if it seems like he's been getting fat off lopsided blowouts, you're not mistaken. His most recent offensive explosion, before the break when he put up a homer, two doubles and four RBIs in a 15-6 laugher against Texas, was typical. He has a 1.119 OPS when hitting with a score margin of four-plus runs, and his numbers get progressively worse the closer the game is.
The Twins are plainly a better team with Luis Arraez or Marwin Gonzalez at second base over Schoop, and you can make a pretty decent case for Ehire Adrianza as well. It'll be interesting to see how the veteran's playing time shapes up in the final months, especially considering the other three are clearly bigger factors in the team's future plans.
With Mejia out, the Twins have an immediate need for a second southpaw in the bullpen. They really don't have a single situational guy to face tough left-handed hitters at this point, since Rogers is more of a closer and all-around max-leverage stud. That's something they'll almost certainly want to address in short order.
Internal options are waning. Like Mejia, Gabriel Moya and Andrew Vasquez have pretty much pushed themselves out of the picture this year, as both have been outrighted from the 40-man roster. Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer are certainly intriguing options, but both are still working as starters in Rochester.
It seemed like Littell benefited from getting the chance to transition to a relief role in the minors; will the Twins take a similar approach with one of these two? Or will they strike quickly on the trade market to address their need? Or both?
DOWN ON THE FARM
Minnesota's representatives in the All-Star Futures Game, which took place ahead of last week's midsummer classic, performed accordingly in their returns to the field. Shortstop Royce Lewis and right-hander Jordan Balazovic – ranked No. 1 and No. 6, respectively, in our recently updated midseason prospect rankings – both participated in the talent showcase, then got back to work at Fort Myers.
Lewis launched a pair of homers in six games for the Miracle and also drew three walks. The power outburst was nice to see but I'm more heartened by the patience; he has been undone by a lack of discipline this year, and entered last week with a 25-to-2 K/BB ratio in 28 games dating back to the start of June. His balky swing mechanics are among the reasons Keith Law dropped Lewis from No. 9 to No. 34 in his new midseason ranking updates at ESPN.
Balazovic, on the other hand, was all the way up to No. 44 in Law's rankings, after appearing as a "Just Missed" guy on the fringe of the spring Top 100. Balazovic had his usage altered a bit coming off the Futures Game appearance, and worked in relief for Fort Myers on Friday night. His results were customary. Entering in the sixth and working the final four frames, Balazovic held the Bradenton Marauder scoreless on one hit while notching six strikeouts.
Meanwhile, it's getting tougher and tougher to understand why Trevor Larnach is still on the same roster as these two. Minnesota's first-round pick from last year's draft has been tearing up Florida State League pitching and was tremendous last week, going 12-for-26 with a homer and six RBIs in six games. That home run was his first in five weeks, so there's certainly a noticeable dearth of power from the former star collegiate slugger, but he's batting .316 and the quality of at-bats has consistently been very good. I wonder if the Twins will let the 22-year-old start acclimating to Double-A before season's end.
The Twins came just short of delivering a critical hit to Cleveland on the road, but should still be feeling good with an extra game in the standings as they return home for a fairly key juncture. They'll be lucky to avoid Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom in their two-gamer against the Mets, but will then have a tough challenge ahead of them with four games against an A's team that gave them plenty of trouble in Oakland at the beginning of the month.
Meanwhile, Cleveland will get Detroit and Kansas City at home. If they can't close the gap some in the next seven days they'll be facing some cold realities as they look inward at the deadline.
TUESDAY, 7/16: METS @ TWINS – RHP Zack Wheeler v. RHP Michael Pineda
WEDNESDAY, 7/17: METS @ TWINS – LHP Steven Matz v. LHP Martin Perez
THURSDAY, 7/18: ATHLETICS @ TWINS – RHP Mike Fiers v. RHP Kyle Gibson
FRIDAY, 7/19: ATHLETICS @ TWINS – RHP Chris Bassitt v. RHP Jake Odorizzi
SATURDAY, 7/20: ATHLETICS @ TWINS – LHP Brett Anderson v. RHP Jose Berrios
SUNDAY, 7/21: ATHLETICS @ TWINS – RHP Daniel Mengden v. RHP Michael Pineda
Catch Up On Twins Daily Game Recaps
- Game 90 | MIN 5, CLE 3: Late Rally, Bullpen Power Stunning Comeback Win
- Game 91 | MIN 6, CLE 2: Series Clinched Behind Big Performances From Kepler, Cave
- Game 92 | CLE 4, MIN 3: Cleveland Prevails, Avoids Sweep
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