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Jim Ingraham

Jim Ingraham: Twins series coming at perfect time for hard-charging Indians

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    Kevin Plawecki, left, and Nick Wittgren celebrate after the Indians downed the Rangers 5-1 to complete a doubleheader sweep Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, at Progressive Field. The Indians are playing their best ball as they head to Minnesota for a showdown with the Central Division-leading Twins.



It ended with a spectacular diving catch by center fielder Oscar Mercado, putting the finishing touches on a glorious day of ball at the old ballyard for the feisty Indians.

When Mercado belly-flopped onto the outfield grass with the 27th out of the second game, it meant the Indians, by playing about as perfect as a team can play in sweeping a doubleheader, picked up a game and a half on the Twins in the span of six hours.

Minnesota lost in Atlanta, and the Indians won twice in Cleveland. The next four games for the two teams will be played against each other, starting tonight in the Twin Cities.

Buckle your chinstrap.

That’s right, the hard-charging Indians are at it again.

Wednesday was two games worth of vintage TitoBall. The Indians beat Texas 2-0 and 5-1, winning the second game without even using a starting pitcher as bullpen maestro Francona went with relievers wire-to-wire, thereby allowing him to unleash the two big dogs in his rotation -- Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber -- in the first two games of the four-game series in Minnesota.

At the start of play Wednesday, the division-leading Twins led the Indians by 3½ games. At the end of play Wednesday that lead was down to two games.

The next four will be in the land of 1,000 lakes and 1,000 homers, as the Indians’ wounded-but-not-wobbly starting rotation, backed by their underappreciated, overachieving bullpen, will try to keep Minnesota’s homer-happy Paul Bunyan lineup in the park and off the scoreboard in what is shaping up as a wild two-team log-rolling contest to win the division and avoid the wild-card, poison-pill one-game playoff.

“I wish we were up (in the standings), but we’ve done a good job of controlling what we can control,” Francona said. “It’ll be a fun series. They’re really good. We know that.”

The Indians are really good, too. Especially their relievers, whose 3.29 ERA at the start of play Wednesday was easily the best in the majors. Minnesota sits eighth in the AL with a bullpen ERA of 4.45.

In the two games Wednesday the Indians used seven relievers who combined to pitch 12 innings, allowing one run on five hits, with 12 strikeouts and two walks. The winning pitcher in both games was a reliever (Nick Goody and A.J. Cole).

Five relievers worked in the second game. None pitched more than 2 ⅔ innings.

“They were tremendous,” Francona said. “Guys pitching multiple innings, got lefties and righties out. That’s hard to do. There’s no wiggle room for anyone to have a bad inning, and nobody did.”

The Indians couldn’t be going into a big series feeling any better about themselves. The pitchers are pitching, the hitters are hitting and the defense has been spectacular.

Since June 4 the Indians are 39-16, the best record and the best winning percentage (.709) in the majors.

Jose Ramirez’s long-awaited and desperately needed slump-busting streak continues. He hit home runs in both games Wednesday, going 3-for-6 with a walk, a double, two homers and three RBIs.

After hitting .218 in the first half, Ramirez is hitting .330 since the All-Star break. He has nine home runs and 25 RBIs in 103 at-bats since the break after hitting just seven homers with 35 RBIs in 317 at-bats before the break. This changes everything.

Clevinger has a chance to set the tone for the Twins series with his start tonight. In his last six starts he is 5-0 with a 1.69 ERA, while averaging 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s also been a Twins killer of sorts. In five starts vs. Minnesota over the last two years he has a 2.19 ERA.

One red flag: In five starts at home this year he has a 0.92 ERA. But in five starts on the road: 5.47.

Friday’s starter will be Bieber, whose stunningly rapid rise to stardom couldn’t have come at a better time, given the wave of injuries that have drenched the rotation. Bieber’s demeanor, stuff, poise and comportment on the mound all resemble Corey Kluber’s. So do Bieber’s results.

With Kluber potentially rejoining the rotation in the coming weeks, that would give the Indians two Klubers. Or is it two Biebers?

In order to make hay during this crucial part of their schedule, the Indians are going to have to throw some haymakers. They better be in launch mode, because they don’t figure to get much help from anyone else.

Outside of their 10 remaining games with the Indians, the rest of the Twins’ schedule is virtually wall-to-wall cupcakes.

Twenty-six of the Twins’ remaining 48 games, including all of their last 13 games, are against AL Central punching bags the White Sox, Tigers and Royals.

For now, however, it’s the next four games that are most important for the Twins and Indians.

Buckle your chinstrap.

Contact Jim Ingraham at (440) 329-7135 or jingraham4@gmail.com and follow him @Jim_Ingraham on Twitter.

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