MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Following a 13th defeat in 22 games, Cleveland manager Terry Francona decided to deliver a brief pep talk before taking the road for a pivotal series in Minnesota.
With time running out in this race, the Indians responded to the skipper’s address and took one back from the first-place Twins.
Roberto Pérez hit a two-out RBI single for Cleveland against Minnesota rookie Brusdar Graterol to ignite a four-run 11th inning, as the Indians broke open a critical game against the American League Central leader and beat the Twins 6-2 on Friday night to trim the division lead to 5½ games.
Though baseball is hardly the sport of fiery motivational messages, Francona’s advice to “not leave anything on the field” resonated with an Indians team that has been hit with several bad-luck health problems this season but still entered this weekend with an opportunity to mount a last-ditch attempt to catch the Twins.
“Tito came in and just let us know this is a group of guys we’re going to battle with every day,” said Oscar Mercado, who tacked on a two-run single in the 11th against Trevor Hildenberger, the seventh reliever for the Twins after a stellar start by Michael Pineda. Mercado added: “It was good to get that breath of fresh air.”
Mercado tied the game in the eighth by scoring on a one-out sacrifice fly by Yasiel Puig after hitting a leadoff triple off Sergio Romo. Tyler Clippard (1-0) struck out three of four batters he faced for the victory, and Nick Goody fanned two of three in a perfect 11th to finish it.
“That’s a tough game to win. You’re on the road. You’re one pitch away from going home not happy, and we end up finding a way to win,” Francona said.
The Twins saw their “magic number” for clinching the division stay at 14, meaning any combination of their wins and losses by the Indians reaching that total would give them the title. The Twins have 21 games remaining, and the Indians have 20 games left. They face each other five more times, including a three-game series in Cleveland next weekend. The Indians also entered the evening one game — and two losses — behind Oakland for the second wild card spot.
After the Indians won three out of four games here in mid-August and took a half-game lead the following day, the Twins have gone 16-7 to retake control of the race. That included an 8-2 road trip they finished on Thursday in Boston, when Eddie Rosario ended a 2-1 win with a one-hop throw to the plate to beat a Red Sox runner after playing a ninth-inning double off the Green Monster in left field.
“It was actually a pretty similar game to last night in some ways,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We came out on top and figured out a way to get it done and made a few plays yesterday. Didn’t figure out a way to get it done tonight.”
Indians starter Adam Plutko was almost as effective as Pineda, but in the fourth, an inning that started with a liner by Nelson Cruz that rocketed off the right-hander’s right hip, he gave up an RBI double to C.J. Cron. Then in the fifth, Jorge Polanco’s single put the Twins in front.
“We really want to come out and compete and show everybody what we got, because the last couple of games we feel like we were a little bit down,” Plutko said.
After Lewis Thorpe (2-2) got the first two outs of the 11th but left with Puig at third, Graterol was summoned. Minnesota’s top pitching prospect, a flame-throwing 21-year-old right-hander, got the groundballs he needed. They found just the right spots, though, including an infield single by Francisco Lindor that trickled out of the glove of a drawn-in third baseman Miguel Sanó.
“I felt really comfortable,” Graterol said through an interpreter. “Maybe too comfortable for the situation. Maybe that’s what happened.”
Pineda compiled a season-high 10 strikeouts over six smooth innings, recovering from a third-inning home run by Lindor and retiring 10 of the last 12 batters he faced. He put quite the exclamation point on his 26th start of 2019, fanning Puig, Jason Kipnis and Franmil Reyes in order in the sixth.
The hulking right-hander, whose 6-foot-7, 280-pound presence in the rotation has been one of the most underappreciated improvements made by the Twins this year, reached double-digit strikeouts for the first time since April 10, 2017, with the New York Yankees. Pineda missed the second half of that season and, after signing with the Twins, all of 2018 while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
“This run of starts, it’s been fantastic,” Baldelli said. “To call it consistent doesn’t really give him enough credit.”
Indians: RHP Jefry Rodriguez was reinstated from the 60-day injured list prior to the game. RHP Corey Kluber, whose strained left oblique muscle three weeks ago thwarted his return from a broken right arm, is still limited to aquatic exercises, diminishing his chance to pitch again this season.
Twins: DH Cruz (sore left wrist) and RF Jake Cave (strained left groin) were removed from the game as a precaution. RHP Sam Dyson, who with Romo was acquired for a bullpen boost at the trade deadline, had an MRI test that confirmed another bout with biceps tendinitis. CF Byron Buxton, limited to pinch running and defensive replacement, is still not close to having his separated left shoulder cleared for hitting, Baldelli said.
Indians: RHP Aaron Civale (3-3, 1.94 ERA) pitches on Saturday night.
Twins: RHP Jake Odorizzi (14-6, 3.61 ERA) takes the mound for the middle game of the series.
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