It’s just beginning, but at least the Indians have drawn a new starting line in the infield dirt with 46 games left in the season.
Shane Bieber, with the help of a methodical offense, pitched the Indians into a first-place tie in the AL Central with a 6-2 win over the Twins Friday night at Target Field. Bieber, 6-1 in his last eight starts, allowed two runs and struck out 11 in seven innings.
The Indians and Twins share first place in the division — with identical 70-46 records — for the first time since April 26. Between then and now, it’s been all about the Twins running away, while the Indians were trying to figure out what to do with Leonys Martin and Hanley Ramirez.
But the Indians re-engaged in June and have been after the Twins like a dog chasing a rabbit. Friday night they finally pulled even after going 41-16 since June 4. The Twins went 30-27 over the same span.
In the first two games of this four-game set, Tribe starters Bieber and Mike Clevinger went 2-0 with a 2.57 ERA. They limited the powerful Twins to four runs on 10 hits, while striking out 20 and walking three. Bieber (12-4, 3.28) improved to 2-0 against the Twins this year and 3-0 in his career.
The Indians have owned the AL Central for the last three years. Not this year. The Twins shot out of the gate and almost disappeared over the horizon. But the Indians never completely lost contact. OK, they were 11.5 out on June 3, but they were always lurking.
Now they are dead even with eight games left against the Twins and an imposing August schedule that includes dates with Boston, the Yankees and Rays. On Saturday and Sunday, they’ll have the Twins’ top two starters to deal with — Jake Odorizzi (12-5, 3.61) and Jose Berrios (10-6, 3.24).
So it doesn’t get easier, but divisional races aren’t supposed to be easy.
The Indians took a 1-0 lead in the second on a two-out double by Franmil Reyes off lefty Devin Smeltzer (1-2, 3.60). Jose Ramirez, who walked and took second on a balk, scored. The double broke an 0-for-18 skid by Reyes.
In the fifth, the Tribe turned methodical. The inning consisted of six hits, including five singles, and a sacrifice fly. When it was over they’d scored five runs for a 6-0 lead.
Greg Allen opened with a bunt single. Smeltzer struck out Francisco Lindor, but Oscar Mercado and Carlos Santana hit consecutive singles. In the process, Allen scored on Santana’s single to center and Mercado went to third.
Yasiel Puig delivered Mercado with a single to left for a 4-0 lead. Ramirez followed with the only extra base hit of the inning, a double to the base of the wall in left to score Santana and send Puig to third. Smeltzer’s night was over and Ramirez had an extra-base hit in his last eight games.
But the Twins couldn’t stop the station-by-station Indians. Roberto Perez greeted Tyler Duffey with a single to score Puig and send Ramirez to third. The hit ended an 0-for-16 skid by Perez.
Jason Kipnis closed the scoring with a sacrifice fly to make it 6-0.
While the Indians produced their offense station to station, the Twins wasted no time. Jason Castro homered in the fifth to make 6-1. Eddie Rosario hit another homer to start the sixth to make it 6-2. Rosario’s homer gave the Twins a franchise record 226 homers this season.
When Bieber left, Oliver Perez and Nick Goody slammed the door with a scoreless inning each. The Indians lead the season series with the Twins, 6-5.
Right-hander Adam Plutko (4-2, 4.55) will face the Twins’ Odorizzi at 7:10 p.m. on Saturday. SportsTime Ohio and WLKR 95.3 FM will carry the game.
Plutko, coming off a win against the Angels, will face the Twins for the first time this season. Odorizzi, 2-4 with a 4.89 ERA against the Indians in his career, is 1-1 in his last four starts. He’s faced the Tribe twice this year, allowing two runs in 11 1/3 innings.