CLEVELAND — It felt, in a sense, like September — a taut game between the top two teams in the division on a crisp evening.
Except the Minnesota Twins’ 1-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians last Friday night was played in the middle of May at Progressive Field. The pennant race is still a long way off.
Nevertheless, Twins veteran first baseman Joe Mauer could not deny that the victory was a little more special. It kept the surprising Twins in first place in the American League Central, a year after their 59-103 record was the worst in the major leagues and franchise history.
“It did kind of have that pennant race feel to it, didn’t it?” Mauer said with a smile. “It was a good win for us, especially on the road against a great team. It builds some more confidence.”
It was the kind of game good teams win.
Slugging third baseman Miguel Sano hit a home run in the top of the first inning. Ace right-hander Ervin Santana and three relievers made the lead hold up against the defending division champions.
The Twins wound up taking two of three from the Indians in the series to improve to 19-15, including an 11-5 mark on the road. The series victory left Minnesota one game in front of Cleveland in the division standings.
“What I like is that we’re competing,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “Even in our losses, we’ve had a chance to win in almost every one of them. That wasn’t always the case last year. We’re more competitive and we’re winning close games.”
The Twins’ roster is not dramatically different from last year’s. Chief executive officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine were confident there was talent on hand when they were hired at the end of last season.
Falvey and Levine particularly like the core group of players 25 or younger n their lineup: Sano, shortstop Jorge Polanco, left fielder Eddie Rosario, center fielder Byron Buxton, and right fielder Max Kepler.
Right-hander Jose Berrios’s performance in Saturday’s win was extremely encouraging. He was called up from Triple-A Rochester on Friday night and then held the Indians to one run and two hits over 7.2 innings. The highly-touted 23-year-old got lit up as a rookie last year, going 3-7 with an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts.
“Jose had great numbers in the minor leagues but sometimes that doesn’t tell the full story with young players, doesn’t mean they are ready to come up and contribute,” Falvey said. “We felt the time was right now for Jose and we’re going to stick with him. If he has a couple of bad starts, he’s not going right back down to Rochester.”
Whether the Twins become contenders this season remains open to debate. They entered Monday averaging more runs allowed a game (4.65) than runs scored (4.56).
While the numbers suggest the Twins probably won’t be able to sustain their early-season success over six months, they are enjoying the moment. It is hard to blame them after suffering through triple-digit losses a year ago and having only one winning season in the last six years, following a run of six A.L. Central titles in a nine-year span from 2002-2010.
“It’s fun to win,” Sano said. “Everybody in our clubhouse is having fun.”
Falvey received his 2016 A.L. championship ring from the Indians prior to Friday night’s game. He began his professional baseball career with the organization in 2007 and rose to assistant GM before being hired away by the Twins.
It was suggested, considering his team’s good start, that Falvey might possess a Twins championship ring this time next year.
“I don’t know about that,” he said with a smile. “There’s a long way to go. We’re competing night in and night out. More than anything, coming into the season, that is what we were hoping to see and our guys are doing that.”