By Phil Miller
CLEVELAND — The Guardians hadn’t hit Jhoan Duran all year. On Friday, they discovered they don’t need to.
Minnesota’s hopes of catching Cleveland in the AL Central suffered a ruinous blow on Friday, and the Guardians didn’t even swing at the game-winning curveball. It bounced in the dirt, caromed to the backstop and allowed pinch-runner Ernie Clement to score from second base, securing a 4-3 victory that drops the Twins five games out of first place with 19 to play.
Duran, who had not allowed Cleveland to score in 8 1/3 previous innings against him, entered the game in the eighth inning and surrendered a soft-liner single to Josh Naylor, then a ground ball to right field by Oscar Gonzalez that might have been a double play if the defense hadn’t been shifted far to the left.
Up stepped Andres Gimenez, who took a ball, futilely swung at a fastball, and then watched a 1-1 curve from Duran bounce well inside, just missing his shoe and skipping past catcher Gary Sanchez, who didn’t realize where it had gone. By the time he spotted the ball, Clement was rounding third, and Sanchez’s throw home, where third baseman Gio Urshela was waiting, was late.
Blowing a 3-0 lead, using four of their best relievers, and watching the Guardians beat their most reliable one — it’s about the worst possible start to this weekend’s critical five-game series that the Twins could have imagined. Especially after it looked like they might capture an improbable win.
Since it was always going to take some baseball magic for the Twins to climb back into the AL Central race, they couldn’t have deliberately chosen a more unlikely pair of heroes than the pitcher who’s been gone for 3 1/2 months, and the hitter who doesn’t drive in runs on the road.
But Bailey Ober and Jake Cave came through in the first of five games here, even if it didn’t work out in the end.
Ober, who hadn’t pitched for the Twins since suffering a groin injury June 1, faced 13 batters before allowing his first hit, a two-out single to Oscar Gonzalez in the fourth. The tall righthander breezed through five innings, though he hit two Guardians with pitches, and left after throwing 70 pitches, the Twins clearly committed to ramping up his workload slowly.
Cave, fighting to keep his batting average above .200 since being added to the roster six weeks ago, startled Guardians starter Triston McKenzie by ambushing a first-pitch slider in the fourth inning, driving the ball 412 feet to just in front of the Twins’ bullpen in center field. Cave’s homer, his first run-producing hit in a road game this year, scored Urshela in front of him and staked Ober to a 3-0 lead.
It didn’t last.
Cleveland woke up its crowd of 20,669 with a three-run seventh, taking advantage of an errant throw by second baseman Nick Gordon to start the rally, then stringing together three line-drive singles. The last coming on a two-out, two-strike, too-far-inside fastball from Griffin Jax that Amed Rosario punched into center field, just inches out of Carlos Correa’s leap, to score two runs and tie the game.
And it set up the stomach-punch still to come an inning later.