From one corner of the big leagues to the other they’ve chased them.
On Friday night they’ll have a chance to pull even atop the AL Central. They earned that opportunity Thursday night with a 7-5 victory over Minnesota at Target Field.
The top spot in the Central has not been occupied by the Twins and Indians since April 26.
Mike Clevinger improved to 6-0 in his last seven starts and the offense blistered Kyle Gibson early and often on a mild August night. The Tribe evened the season series against the Twins at 5-5, but there is still a lot of corners to turn before this thing is decided. The two teams meet nine more times, including Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Indians are a season-high 23 games above .500 (69-46), and also lead the AL wild card by 3.5 games over Tampa Bay and 4 games ahead of Oakland.
What a run the Indians have been on. They’re 41-17 since May 29. On that date, they trailed the Twins by 10.5 games. The deficit is now one. The Twins, meanwhile, have gone 32-27 over the same stretch.
Clevinger (7-2, 3.02) allowed two runs in seven innings. He struck out nine and retired the last 10 Twins he faced. In his last seven starts, he’s posted a 1.83 ERA, allowing nine earned runs in 44 1/3 innings. Clevinger threw a season high 117 pitches, 70 (60 percent) for strikes.
The seven inning were welcomed by manager Terry Francona after his bullpen pitched 13 innings in Wednesday’s doubleheader win over Texas.
“That was important,” Francona said. “Unfortunately, he had the one inning where he had the walk and hit batsman and it led to two runs. Other than that, he allowed just three hits. But that offense over there. We know what they can do. Thank goodness there weren’t more innings.”
After Clevinger left, Twins applied the heat. The bullpen, a pillar of strength all season for the Tribe, did not react well.
The Twins scored three times in the inning as Francona used four relievers — Adam Cimber, Oliver Perez, Nick Wittgren and Brad Hand — before finally stopping the Twins with a 6-5 lead still intact. Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano hit RBI doubles and Max Kepler scored on a fielder’s choice before Hand retired Gonzalez with two on to end the inning.
Cimber started the inning and was charged with three runs on two hits while recording just one out.
“They keep coming at you and we knew that,” Francona said. “That was two teams that wanted to win really bad.”
Tyler Naquin gave Hand some room to close the game with a leadoff homer in the ninth to make it 7-5. It was his 10th of the season.
But nothing is easy against the Twins. They tried to rally again in the ninth on one-out singles by Ehire Adrianza and Max Kepler. Kepler’s bloop to shallow left should have been caught by somebody, but the defense was shifted to the right and Naquin was playing deep in left.
“We’re in the shift,” Francona said. “Naquin is the only go that has a chance. He looked at Josie and by the time he did that, it was too late. I told Carl (Willis, pitching coach), ‘If I didn’t think it would set a bad example, I would have started crying.'"
Hand retired Polanco on a fly ball to the track in center as the runners advanced. He fell behind C.J. Cron and issued an intentional walk to load the bases and bring Eddie Rosario (1-for-7 lifetime vs. Hand) to the plate. He retired Rosario on a weak fly ball to left for his 29th save in 30 chances.
There was a playoff feel to Thursday’s game.
“For sure it felt like a playoff game,” said Hand. “Everybody knows this is a big series. All four of these games are going to be important. It’s going to be a fun series for sure.”
The Indians took 1-0 lead in the second against Gibson (11-5, 4.24). Yasiel Puig hit a leadoff triple and scored on Gibson’s errant pickoff attempt of Jose Ramirez at first base.
They made it 4-0 in the third. Gibson, who issued a season-high six batters, walked Oscar Mercado and Carlos Santana to start the inning. Puig forced Santana at second as Mercado went to third. Ramirez made it 2-0 with a single to center and Jason Kipnis followed with a two-run double to the wall in left center.
The Twins made it 4-2 in the fourth, but lost DH Nelson Cruz to a sprained left wrist. Cruz has 16 home runs since the All-Star break. Clevinger started the inning by walked Polanco. Cruz, the next batter, left with a 2-2 count after injuring his wrist on a swing. C.J. Cron replaced him and struck out.
After Eddie Rosario bounced out, Clevinger hit Sano with a pitch and allowed consecutive RBI singles to Luis Arraez and Marwin Gonzalez. He struck out Jason Castro to end the inning.
Ramirez pushed the Indians lead to 6-2 with a two-run double in the fifth. Ramirez has at least one extra base hit in seven games, a personal high. He has 35 RBI since June 21.
Right-hander Shane Bieber (11-4, 3.31) will face Twins left-hander Devin Smeltzer (1-1, 2.28) at 8:10 p.m. Friday. The game will be on SportsTime Ohio and WLKR 95.3 FM will carry the game.
Bieber is coming off his third complete game of the season, a five-hitter against the Angels. He is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA in two starts against the Twins this season. Smeltzer, coming off a win vs. the Royals, is 0-1 against the Indians this year. He allowed five runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Tribe one June 4. The Indians hit four home runs against him in that game — two by Francisco Lindor and one each by Roberto Perez and Jake Bauers.
Corey Kluber went three innings and allowed two runs on Thursday afternoon for Class AAA Columbus in his first rehab start. It’s the first step in a process the Indians hope will return the two-time Cy Young winner to their rotation by the end of August or early September.
Kluber, facing Class AAA Pawtucket, retired the last five batters he faced. The two runs he allowed came on homers. Chris Owings homered in the first inning with two out. He hit a 1-0 pitch. Josh Ockimey homered on a 2-0 pitch in the second with one out.
Kluber, who suffered a broken ulna bone in his right forearm when he was hit by a line drive on May 1, threw 41 pitches, including 24 strikes. He went to the bullpen and continued to throw so he could reach his pitch count of 50. He struck out two and walked one. Five of his outs came on ground balls.
Scouts who watched the game said Kluber’s two-seam fastball was sitting at 89 mph to 90 mph. They said he threw some good breaking balls, but looked rusty because of the long layoff.