Guardians, Twins matchup a real hair-raiser

7:27 AM UTC

MINNEAPOLIS — If much of the fate of the American League Central race is to be decided in this 11-day span involving eight critical games between the Twins and Guardians, the opening act of that stretch couldn’t have set up the stakes and tension between the division rivals more effectively on Friday night, when the Minnesota offense nearly completed a huge comeback against the normally ironclad Cleveland bullpen — and not without a touch of controversy, either.

The Guardians have relied heavily on two things all season: Solid defense and stellar relief pitching. When either of those two departments has a rocky night, it’s been a mountainous obstacle to overcome. On Friday, Cleveland’s defense was sloppy and its relievers weren’t as sharp as we’ve seen at points throughout the season.

But uncharacteristically, the club relied on the long ball with two homers from Oscar Gonzalez and another from Austin Hedges to cling to a 7-6 victory at Target Field, moving the Guardians up 2 1/2 games over the Twins, who fell to third place in the division for the first time since April 23.

“They’re important games to win,” Guardians starter Cal Quantrill said. “We have to beat them if we want a chance at the playoffs.”

If the stakes weren’t high enough entering the series opener, both sides now have a little extra fuel to add to their fires.

Cleveland owned a 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth. Minnesota began chipping away, plating two runs in both the fifth and sixth innings. But the Guardians’ bullpen was fresh, coming off of Thursday’s off-day, and the stars were aligning for its strong trio of Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase to shut everyone down.

Stephan handled his duties in the seventh. But when Twins manager Rocco Baldelli emerged from the dugout in the eighth, asking home-plate umpire Ted Barrett to check Karinchak for a foreign substance, tensions grew even higher.

“I think I have an obligation to our players and to our team to do what I think is right,” Baldelli said. “I believe it would have been hard for me and for our group as a whole to watch their pitcher do the things that he does on the mound, in a very upfront and straightforward way of trying to apparently alter some things.

“The last thing on earth that I want to do is go on the field and ask for a player check.”

Karinchak was going through the same routine before each pitch: Running his hand through his hair and immediately picking up his rosin bag. The Twins immediately wondered if there was an illegal substance at play. But when he was questioned, Karinchak didn’t flinch.

“I mean, I knew people were obviously thinking I was cheating,” Karinchak said, “but I had no worries because it was just sweat and rosin. So, come check.”

“I was hoping it didn’t get in the way of him pitching, but we’ve checked everybody,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “That’s the last thing we’d ever want to happen.”

Shortly after the check, Correa crushed a two-run blast to cut Cleveland’s lead to 7-6. It not only marked Correa’s third game in a row with a long ball, but it was also the first time any opponent had gone deep off Karinchak all season, snapping a scoreless streak of 24 2/3 innings, the longest active stretch among rostered MLB relievers.

“[The check is] something I don’t see very often, but I think it threw him off a little bit,” Correa said. “We were able to score some runs there.”

Clase finished the Twins off in a less eventful ninth inning for his AL-leading 32nd save, but the fact that they got to Cleveland’s big bullpen arms at all was a solace to Minnesota after it had trailed by seven runs.

This is what playoff baseball can feel like: Superstars like Correa making outsized efforts in the clutch with a team-leading four hits and four RBIs, youngsters like Gonzalez making names for themselves in the big moments, and even elite relievers like Karinchak faltering in their duties as the tensions and storylines mount between the sides.

That had a somewhat delirious Target Field crowd buzzing, even after a one-hour, 16-minute rain-delay start — and it seemed like both dugouts could feel the pressure starting to mount.

“I think I age on a good day,” Francona joked, with a belly laugh. “So, I would say yes, [this game made me age] more than normal.”