Guardians, Twins battle with AL Central in balance

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All the suspense has been building up to this.

The Guardians and Twins have not met since June, and now, in the homestretch of the regular season, the two will go head-to-head in one of the closest division races in the Majors. Cleveland, a young and inexperienced ballclub that had no expectations of being a playoff contender in 2022, and Minnesota, a team that was largely counted out after an unexpectedly rocky ’21 season, are approaching the starting line for an intense foot race.

Friday will not only begin a critical three-game set between the first-place Guardians (up by two games entering Thursday) and second-place Twins, but it also starts a stretch of eight matchups between the two contenders in 11 days, including a doubleheader at Progressive Field next Saturday. These two highly anticipated series (the three-game set in Minnesota this weekend and the five-game series in Cleveland next weekend) could easily be the difference-maker in naming this year’s American League Central champions.

Let’s take a look at everything we know heading into the series:

Where to watchFriday’s series opener will be broadcast on Apple TV+. As a reminder, you do not need an Apple TV+ subscription in order to watch. Click here for more details.

The Guardians and Twins will be on the national stage again on Saturday, but this time on FOX. On Sunday, Cleveland fans can tune into Bally Sports Great Lakes and Minnesota fans can watch on Bally Sports North.

What’s the series record heading into it?The Guardians currently lead the season series over the Twins, 6-5.

Why does this matter? This year, there will be no Game 163. That means, if the Twins and Guardians were to end the regular season in a tie for first place in the AL Central, the first tiebreaker is the head-to-head record between the two. So, if the season ended today and Minnesota and Cleveland were in a tie for first, the Guardians would take the title.

What needs to happen for either club to win the division?Guardians: Is it too easy of an answer to say everything? The Guardians have known since Spring Training that they have no room for error this year. It has helped that the division hasn’t been as competitive as others in order for this youthful Cleveland team to still be sitting in first place. But the Guardians certainly can’t back off the pedal now. They need to have perfect baserunning and sound defense. Those are the two things the club has focused on since Opening Day. If those two things can be consistent, the hitting and pitching can fall into place.

Twins: The Twins need to get at least moderately healthy, and Carlos Correa needs to step up. At least in theory, injury reinforcements are on the way in the form of Byron Buxton, Trevor Larnach, Josh Winder and Bailey Ober. The first two are particularly important because of Buxton’s star power and the extremely depleted nature of Minnesota’s outfield, but any boost from even one or two of those players will help this injury-ridden team.

Meanwhile, Correa’s career-long ability in the biggest moments was a laudatory point when he signed with the Twins, but not only has he arguably not had a “signature moment” with Minnesota, but he also carries a .646 OPS with no homers with runners in scoring position this year. Especially with Buxton down for now, the Twins need a big September from their star shortstop to carry them in the stretch run.

What could go wrong?Guardians: Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale could be out for the rest of the season. That has not been determined yet, but having to piece together this rotation every fourth and fifth day could be taxing on a bullpen that’s been the unsung hero for the Guardians this year. The team can’t afford the relief corps waning at this point in the season. And if the offense goes cold all at once like it did last week, it’ll be difficult for Cleveland to stay in the win column.

Twins: As improbable as it seems, the Twins could get even more injured. Max Kepler was dealing with a lingering hip issue throughout the Yankees series, and Sonny Gray had a tight hamstring that caused him to get pushed back a day. It remains to be seen when Buxton (hip) and Jorge Polanco (knee) will be healthy enough to come back. Meanwhile, the Twins have been unable to sync up their streaks of solid pitching and streaks of clutch hits all season long — and time is running out for them to finally figure it out. Perhaps they’ll run out of time.

Who’s hot and who’s not?Guardians: Oscar Gonzalez is heating up. He has been one of the key contributors in this lineup all season but fell into a brutal two-week stretch hitting below .200. Now, he has started to right the ship, smacking doubles in each of his last three games. As for who’s not, Myles Straw has struggled all season to get rolling offensively. As long as the top half of the order can continue trending in the direction it’s been going in since Monday, Straw’s woes aren’t as problematic and the team can benefit from his stellar defense in center field.

Twins: If the Twins get to the late innings with a lead, rookie bullpen ace Jhoan Duran has somehow gotten even better as the year has gone on, with one earned run allowed in his last 20 appearances across 22 1/3 innings, with 30 strikeouts, six walks and a 100.8 mph splitter in that span. Not too many of Minnesota’s hitters are on hot streaks at the moment, and Luis Arraez in particular has been mired in an extremely unusual funk, with a .205 average since Aug. 17.

What are the pitching matchups?Friday: RHP Cal Quantrill vs. RHP Dylan Bundy

Quantrill has been one of Cleveland’s most consistent starters this year, and his last two full starts (excluding last time out when his outing was shortened by rain) were electric. He allowed one run in 13 combined innings.
Though Bundy got off to a rocky start and has been arguably the least heralded arm in the rotation, he has quietly been extremely consistent for much of the summer, with three or fewer earned runs allowed in 12 of his last 14 starts, leading to a 3.36 ERA since June 18.

Saturday: RHP Triston McKenzie vs. RHP Chris Archer

If anyone could compete with Quantrill for most reliable on the staff this season, it’s McKenzie. But two of his worst outings of the year came against the Twins, as he gave up 13 runs in 10 1/3 innings in back-to-back starts against Minnesota in June.
At this point, we know what to expect from Archer: He’ll pitch twice through the order before yielding to the bullpen unless the Twins really need to spell their relief corps. Whether that gets him through five innings or not will depend on his ability to throw strikes — which has come and gone throughout the season.

Sunday: RHP Shane Bieber vs. TBD

Bieber is at his best. It took Cleveland’s ace a much longer time to find his stride this year, but once August arrived, he found a second gear. He boasted a 1.62 ERA over the month and is coming off a one-run, eight-inning performance against the Royals on Tuesday night.
This should have been Joe Ryan’s turn to start, but the Twins’ weather postponement in New York on Tuesday pushed Ryan back a day, leaving him ineligible to start this finale. Whether this start goes to Aaron Sanchez or the Twins get Cole Sands or Winder healthy enough to pitch, they’ll need a gutty performance from a depth arm.