Twins strike first (and second and third) in AL Central showdown with Guardians

CLEVELAND — In the ninth inning on Monday, the Minnesota Twins’ catcher was playing second base, their utility man was pitching and the manager’s stress level was soaring.

And they were winning. They were winning their most important game of the season. They were winning their most important game of the season by 17 runs.

Manager Rocco Baldelli and his coaches found themselves in the midst of an awkward conversation nobody ever expected to hold. Billed as a critical September matchup against their closest competitor, the contest was so far out of hand that the Cleveland Guardians pitched a position player for four innings and the Twins, leading by two touchdowns and a field goal, began to discuss whether to save their taxed bullpen by pitching a position player of their own.

To accomplish their goal, the Twins would need to surrender their designated hitter, move infielder Willi Castro, who just returned from an oblique injury to pitcher, slide Donovan Solano from second base to third and insert catcher Christian Vázquez at second base.

Welcome to the 2023 American League Central.

Strange as it seemed, Baldelli begrudgingly made the logical decision to spare Emilio Pagán from closing out a 20-6 win over the Guardians at Progressive Field, a victory that extended the Twins’ lead in the division to six games with 24 to play.

“There are very few times where I’ve been as uncomfortable on a field as the end of that game,” Baldelli said. “No game is over, but it’s a big lead. You want to still play good, crisp baseball. You want the end of the game to continue to show a quality game and the way you got there was by not doing things like that. It can get weird looking and you’ve got to make sure you don’t let that bother you in any way. I didn’t want to bring (Emilio Pagán) in that game.”

In his fourth career game, on June 27, 1933, Milt Galatzer hit a home run. It was the only home run of his career, a 251-game ledger that spanned five seasons. By the end of his Cleveland tenure in 1936, Galatzer was a light-hitting utility player, and on Aug. 26 of that year, he took the hill in a lopsided loss against the Washington Senators. When Denny Galehouse and George Blaeholder couldn’t rise to the occasion, manager Steve O’Neill turned to Galatzer for six innings of mop-up duty.

First, there was Milt. And 87 years later, there was David Fry.

The Guardians probably needed a sweep to stand any chance at chasing down the Twins in what appears to be Terry Francona’s final season at the helm. At the absolute bare minimum, they need to win the series. And so on the most significant evening in this bizarre season, a season full of transactional flops and head-scratching decisions and key injuries and bullpen meltdowns and a surprising, last-gasp splurge on the waiver wire, a season in which the Guardians have forged ahead into every pothole, they had a position player standing atop the mound with no outs in the top of the sixth inning.

Fry’s outing was the longest by a Cleveland position player since good ol’ Milt.

The team relying on what could be Kole Calhoun’s final big-league breaths — he was preparing to retire in mid-August before the Guardians acquired him last month — and on three buzzer-beating waiver claims and on a rotation stitched together with rookies delivered its least inspiring effort of a trying season on the night it could least afford to do so.

Royce Lewis is credited with providing the big blow, blasting a towering grand slam in the second inning off Cleveland starter Lucas Giolito. But the Twins’ two-out rally began when catcher Ryan Jeffers worked all the way back from falling behind 0-2 in the count to draw a 10-pitch walk.

Castro singled behind Jeffers and Edouard Julien and Jorge Polanco, who blasted a solo homer in the first inning, each walked, the latter forcing in a run. After taking a pair of off-speed pitches for balls, Lewis pounced on a 2-0 fastball from Giolito and crushed it 401 feet to give the Twins a six-run lead.

“That inning was built very slowly and methodically by swinging at good pitches, by taking pitches that were pitches that we don’t want to go after,” Baldelli said. “Giolito is a guy that can get a lot of swing-and-miss out of the zone with his changeup and his breaking balls below the zone, fastball above the zone. He can run right through a lineup and not even really throw a ton of balls that are good hittable pitches. He has some good traps and I think we were able to avoid those, and when we did get good pitches to hit, we were ready.”

The Twins entered the game hoping to find even a modest amount of success against Giolito, who had a 2.07 ERA against them in 61 innings since the start of 2021. He surrendered nine earned runs and seven hits while walking three in three innings.

The Guardians’ David Fry, normally a catcher, pitches to Joey Gallo of the Twins on Monday. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Fry, who had played one inning of first base since returning from a three-week stint on the injured list, was deployed to the center of the diamond to fling 56-mph flutterballs to eager Twins hitters.

“It was pretty good hitting speed,” Fry said.

His four-inning effort — which, all jokes aside, did Cleveland’s bullpen an immeasurable favor — is the longest by any position player in the league in 35 years.

Fry did outperform Lucas Giolito, who described his Guardians debut as “a nightmare situation.” Giolito, who surrendered nine runs in three innings, is no stranger to AL Central competition. He spent six and a half seasons with the Chicago White Sox before his five-week pit stop in Anaheim this summer. Giolito spoke Sunday about the view from the visiting dugout at Progressive Field, where he watched a cohesive Cleveland group across the way storm to a division title last season.

On Monday, there wasn’t much to galvanize those in the home dugout. At least, until umpires warned both sides when Brent Headrick struck Bo Naylor with a pitch. Players and coaches expressed their distaste for the decision. Even Mustard, the hot dog mascot, dismissed the umpires from his perch atop the dugout.

“I thought that was maybe a little overly ambitious,” Francona said. “I’m not really sure what Fry was gonna do.”

It was the fifth time Cleveland has allowed 20 or more runs in a game since 1935, and the first time since June 4, 2002 — which also came against the Twins.

For the second time in a week, Francona had to answer a question about Lewis. Whereas a week ago he suggested Lewis had star power, this time he was less cordial.

“I don’t even know how to answer that, man,” Francona said when asked about another Lewis grand slam. “What do you want me to say? I’m happy? He’s a good player. He had a nice swing.”

The Guardians are seeing too much of that swing in big spots for their comfort. Not only did Lewis belt the second-inning grand slam, he ripped a two-run, bases-loaded single in the sixth inning. Lewis’ grand slam was his third in eight games, a feat previously accomplished only by Jim Northrup (1968, four games), Lou Gehrig (1931, five games) and Larry Parrish (1982, eight games).

With the bases loaded, Lewis is now 6-for-11 with four grand slams and 18 RBIs.

“It truly is on (the pitcher),” Lewis said. “He went down 2-0. He has to come over the middle of the plate with something. Whether it was away or inside or something, I just chose to be picky in that situation. … You just got to pick a pitch and pick a part of the zone that you can do damage on. Luckily enough it was middle-in for me.”

When he returned from an oblique injury on Aug. 15, Lewis apparently brought a magnet for big situations with him from the minors. Since returning, Lewis has seven homers and 24 RBIs in 18 games. With runners in scoring position this season, Lewis is hitting .400/.464/.780.

Teammates say it’s because Lewis is loose at the plate the same as he is in the clubhouse.

“If I had his energy,” said Kyle Farmer, who belted a three-run homer off Fry, “I’d be president by now.”

(Top photo of Royce Lewis of the Twins watching his grand slam against the Guardians on Monday: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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