CLEVELAND – Kyle Garlick seemed like the most unlikely of heroes for the Twins' first extra-inning conquest of the season. Perhaps even to himself.
The 29-year-old backup outfielder, somewhat of a surprise inclusion on the Opening Day roster though he has stayed solidly in the majors since, has said many times he knows his role. Namely, play a little left field here and there and be one of the few Twins players who can successfully hit against lefthanded pitchers.
Yet he started warming up early in the second inning Sunday, having a feeling hobbled right fielder Max Kepler wasn't long for the series finale at Progressive Field. When Garlick subbed in for the seventh inning, the Twins were up a run and didn't think Garlick would ever come up to hit.
Predictably, though, the Twins blew their lead in the bottom of the ninth, forcing a dreaded scenario for a team 0-8 in extra innings.
Those previous losses all lacked one apparently key ingredient, though: Garlick sauce.
Up to bat for the first time in extra innings this season, Garlick unloaded an eye-bugging, 442-foot, three-run homer to center, helping the Twins secure a series-clinching 8-5 victory over Cleveland.
"Kyle Garlick's always ready to go. Whenever we call his name, no matter what it is, he nods and he grabs his glove," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, adding in this instance Garlick actually grabbed someone else's glove in his rush to take the field. "… I don't care how long you play baseball, those are swings that you don't really forget. Those are the kinds of moments that you always remember."
Beyond Garlick, the Twins had a couple notable flashes and also a few they will probably repress. In the latter category, how Cleveland's Zach Plesac blanked the Twins lineup the first time through, pitching three perfect innings. But in the former, how Plesac melted down in the fourth inning, cycling through the entire lineup again but giving up five hits and five runs — including three on a homer from Kepler — as the Twins took a 5-4 lead.
Twins starter J.A. Happ won't etch into his mind the five hits and three runs he gave up in the first two innings. But he will want to savor the retiring seven consecutive batters, leaving the tying run stranded at third with no out in the fifth inning and amassing a season-high 10 strikeouts.
Cleveland's AL-best bullpen kept the Twins hitless for four innings. The Twins' shaky relievers again couldn't preserve a late-inning lead, with Hansel Robles giving up the tying run on a ninth-inning safety squeeze by Jordan Luplow.
"We've been fighting, and that's what's really good to see," Happ said. "We were ahead and then we lost that lead and then we kept fighting, and we had great at-bats and found a way to come out ahead."
Garlick did just that in his at-bat against righthander James Karinchak, who entered having given up only three hits and one home run in 21 appearances this season. Garlick pushed him to a full count before snaring his first homer off a righthander this season and only the fifth homer of his major league career.
The MLB nomad said he appreciates the home run for what it did for his team, since it clinched Twins' third road series victory of the year and first since they went 4-2 at Milwaukee at Detroit to start the season. And it came amid a brutal stretch of 17 country-spanning games in 16 days.
Garlick did at least admit it was "nice" taking his first Gatorade shower of champions, courtesy of Kepler during his on-field postgame interview. There was a wisp of subtle pride and sentimentality, too, as Garlick explained how he went from being labeled "a bad outfielder" in college to taking that to heart and working his way up through the minors to become a steady big-league presence.
"Definitely for my own psyche, kind of had a rough series against Chicago last week and to be able to, in my first at-bat after that series, to come up big," Garlick said, "making myself feel really good, actually."