The Twins sliced another game off their magic number on Thursday. Whether they’re close to slicing another pitcher out of their postseason rotation is becoming an urgent question.
Nelson Cruz homered twice, leaving him one short of 400 for his career, and Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver also connected, helping the Twins rally past the Royals, 8-5 at Target Field. The victory maintained Minnesota’s four-game lead over Cleveland in the AL Central but reduced their magic number for clinching their first division title since 2010 to six with nine games left.
The standard Minnesota offensive fireworks — the Twins have outhomered the Royals 23-12 this season, with six more games to come — and strong relief pitching made for a pleasant night at the ballpark for the home team. Even Kyle Gibson, whose late-season slump showed no signs of abating, said he had a good time.
“You can’t possibly come back to our dugout and not enjoy what’s going on,” Gibson said gamely after the shortest start (a lone “opener” role excepted) of his seven-year career. “I’ve been struggling, but it’s a lot of fun to come up and watch these guys compete and battle back and pick me up. And go out there and get a big win.”
But time grows short and Gibson’s results don’t scream “playoff starter,” not at the moment. The 31-year-old righthander didn’t allow a hit or walk to the first five batters he faced, but then put seven straight Royals on base, even walking in two runs in a messy, 52-pitch (only 25 strikes) outing. Gibson, who had hoped that extra time off between starts might make a difference, instead allowed three runs, three hits and four walks, even walking the final three hitters he faced, while recording just five outs.
“It was a tough start. I don’t know if it’s necessarily command, or just getting the ball on the plate,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
“The question really is, are we aiming in the zone? Are we trying to attack in the zone or not?”
The Twins have 10 days to find those answers before Baldelli must answer another critical question: Does Gibson, whose ERA stands at 7.14 since Aug. 1, join Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi in the postseason rotation — or even on the postseason roster?
“We have a ways to go before we make any decisions [on] that,” Baldelli said. “Everyone here has time to do whatever they need to do to get ready for potentially that point in the year. But we have a long way to go. … If anyone is really focusing on anything beyond that, or wondering about anything beyond that, I would advise them not to. Because we have to figure out how to win now.”
It helps, Baldelli said, to have a deep bullpen. Six relievers split the remaining 7⅓ innings, and only Lewis Thorpe, who pitched four innings, allowed another run.
And it also undoubtedly helps to have so much firepower at the plate.
With two runners on base, Cruz crushed a Mike Montgomery fastball to right-center in the third inning, tying him with Dale Murphy at 398 career homers. His run also counted as the Twins’ 880th run of the season, setting a Twins record.
Two batters later, Sano connected, too, blasting a pitch into the third deck in left field. The Royals responded with single runs in the fourth and fifth innings to retake the lead, but the Twins simply unleashed their power again to put the game away.
Mitch Garver hit a 3-2 sinker over the center field fence, a blast that so incensed Montgomery, he was ejected for yelling at plate umpire Manny Gonzalez.
Two innings later, Cruz connected again for home run No. 399, tying him with Al Kaline and Andres Galarraga for 57th on baseball’s all-time list. Not that he seemed to care, not after a victory.
“That’s what we’re here for, to win games,” Cruz said. “Personal goals, at the end of the year you can enjoy them.
“Otherwise, the most important thing is winning.”