The senior member of the Twins in service with the big-league club, Jorge Polanco, returned Thursday, inserted into what's been a troublesome leadoff spot for this lineup.
Polanco hit a couple of balls to right field with some zest, although for outs. Then came the bottom of the ninth, with the score 6-6 after the Twins' rarest of feats — a three-run comeback in the eighth.
Christian Vázquez reached to open the inning, and then Polanco rocketed the ball into the right-field corner. Even Vazquez, with those catcher's legs, was able to get to third.
Willi Castro followed with a game-winning sacrifice fly and a feel-good win over a Cleveland team that made a habit of beating the Twins in last at-bats in 2022, while it walked away with the AL Central's playoff spot.
There were many reasons for the Twins' fade, and one was that Polanco didn't play after leaving mid-game on Aug. 27 because of an injured knee. The switch-hitting infielder, first at shortstop, then at his better position of second base, had been a reliable presence in the lineup since coming to stay on July 30, 2016.
There was that unfortunate pause in 2018, when Polanco missed the first half of the schedule after testing positive for a performance enhancer, but in the years that followed, he was almost always in the lineup — not giving in to ailments that could have been an issue for others.
Quiet guy that he is, Polanco discovered the best way to stay in the lineup was to not talk about such things.
"Lot of great guys on this team," said Tommy Watkins, now the third base coach, longtime Twins employee in the minors and majors. "None better than Polanco. He's been the same since he was a 16-year-old kid. Goes about his job, and there's not a person who would fail to vouch for him."
On Friday, the Twins were almost in crisis mode. Byron Buxton, left ribs brutalized Thursday by a 97-mile-per-hour pitch, and Carlos Correa, with his foot injury acting up again, were both unavailable.
And then, 90 minutes before the first pitch, Joey Gallo was scratched because of a reoccurrence of left hamstring problem.
This left the Twins with only 10 available players — a starting lineup and Vázquez as the extra catcher.
Manager Rocco Baldelli has a tendency to slip in a quick day off for a player returning from injury, but we know for certain if he had asked Polanco how he was feeling, the answer would've been "bien," plus — Jorge was needed to come up with a lineup card.
Aaron Civale, making his first start for the Guardians since April 7, handcuffed the Twins for five innings.
It could be suggested he benefited from not facing Buxton, Correa and Gallo, but the manner in which those gents had been swinging lately, probably not.
Sam Hentges, the lefthanded Mounds View Mustang, pitched a scoreless sixth. And at that point, the Twins had four hits and no runs, as did the Guardians against Bailey Ober.
Ober's six scoreless had come on 78 pitches, leading, we can be sure, to the usual complaints about removing an effective starter early, but try to remember this, Star Tribune commenters:
Big Bailey is now an official member of a starting rotation that's been pitching every five games, and his highest total innings for a season in pro baseball was 108. Saving bullets is a solid idea.
Brock Stewart needed to replace Jovani Moran to keep it scoreless into the bottom of the seventh — remember us saying at season's start, "Where would the Twins bullpen be without Brock Stewart?" — and righthander Nick Sandlin was the Guardians' choice for the bottom of the seventh.
Ryan Jeffers, who should be the Twins' 1A (rather than 1B) at catcher with this hitting-starved team, opened with a double to left field. With one out, Kyle Farmer earned a walk.
Carl Willis — Cleveland's pitching coach, but still in our hearts as the "Big Train" of the Twins bullpen for the 1991 World Series-winning team — came out for a discussion with Sandlin.
Whatever the advice, Polanco rocketed a double off the right-field cement to drive in what would prove to the game's only run (thanks to Jhoan Duran getting the final five outs for an eighth save on his high-speed journey to an All-Star appearance).
Two games back, two late, ripped doubles that led to one-run Twins victories.
It's good to have a player back in the lineup who has been your best for long stretches over what's now Season 8 since he came to stay.