CLEVELAND — The Indians are playing their best baseball.
It’s a good thing, because they’re about to host the Central Division-leading Minnesota Twins in a series that could drastically change the direction of their season.
Cleveland, which trailed the surprising Twins by as many as 11 1/2 games, whittled the deficit to 5 1/2 by the All-Star break. Starting tonight, the Indians and Twins will play 13 times before the regular season is complete.
“We’re really excited,” All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber said. “We play Minnesota quite a bit and we made a nice little push at the end of the first half and we’re looking to carry that momentum going into the second half. I like this team playing with a little chip on our shoulder and playing that underdog role, and we’re really excited for it.”
“We brought it back to 5½ going into the break, so we’re right there,” All-Star closer Brad Hand said. “We dealt with a lot of injuries, obviously. Now that we’ve clawed back into it, hopefully (we) make a push in the second half. We have to play well after the break, it’s just where we are. We have to keep pushing.”
Minnesota was considered somewhat of a contender when the season began, a team expected to keep the Indians honest in the division. But the Twins have been way more than that — once owning the best record in the American League during the first half.
“Yeah, they’re really good. They’re really good,” manager Terry Francona said. “When we faced them the first couple days of the season I remember we were talking, as you do in the clubhouse, I was like, ‘Man, if these things click for them, they could really be dangerous. Because they went out and got (Jonathan) Schoop, guys that maybe had some down (years).
“Well, not only did things click but their own guys matured. Like (All-Star Jorge) Polanco and (Byron) Buxton and their pitching staff — (Jake) Odorizzi, now all of a sudden that they acquired, is one of the best. They’re good.”
Francona had more than a feeling the Twins would become a threat when they hired former Indians assistant general manager Derek Falvey as executive vice president and chief baseball officer in 2016.
“I knew when Derek went over there that they were going to get better,” he said. “Kinda (ticks) me off that they did it this fast, but he’s too good not to do it right.”
Minnesota’s pitching hasn’t been great, but it hasn’t had to be with a lineup that is on a record home run pace and averages 5.7 runs per game, which is tied with Boston for the AL lead.
“It’s amazing because you know no matter what happens when you go out there, they’re going to score runs for you,” right-hander Jose Berrios said during All-Star week in Cleveland. “The only thing you need to do is go out there and compete, trying to hold the game as low as possible and win the game.”
While the Twins were busy laying waste to opposing pitching, the Indians struggled offensively. They were also without three of their starting pitchers for extended periods: two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco.
But something clicked in June. With Triple-A Columbus reinforcements such as Jefry Rodriguez, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale filling rotation spots, Cleveland started scoring runs and winning games.
It’s added up to a 21-6 record since June 1 and changed the perception for some that the Indians will be sellers at the trade deadline. The first half was filled with consistent trade talk concerning Hand and right-hander Trevor Bauer.
“It’s baseball,” All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor said. “I knew we had a good team since Day 1. In the beginning it seemed like we were good, then all of a sudden in May we had that stretch where we weren’t playing as good as we wanted to play. But right now, we continue to play the game right and we’re enjoying it, we’re all having fun. We all get along, we love each other, we back each other up. We’re having a blast.
“I’ve liked my team since spring training. I believe in them. I believe in what we have. A lot of people count us out. This is our team. We’re a team that’s going to compete. We’re not trying to trade nobody. I want to add pieces. This is a good team. Our guys are playoff-caliber.”
They certainly have looked like it lately. And with the Twins falling off their homer pace a bit and dealing with injuries of their own, here come the Indians.
“We all the time hear, ‘Cleveland’s coming,’” Polanco said. “They’re getting closer and everything, but we’re not focusing on that. We’re focused on day-by-day, trying to win every day and get better every day.
“It’s gonna be a fun series.”
From a neutral perspective, Royals All-Star outfielder Whit Merrifield, who’s been mentioned as a potential trade target of Cleveland, thinks the Indians have their work cut out for them trying to chase down Minnesota.
“I’d like to see Cleveland get a little more healthy,” Merrifield said. “I think the Indians have their hands full.”
From a biased perspective, Bieber is confident the Indians can catch the Twins.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “That’s always the expectation and we’re going to go for it and play our brand of baseball and it’s going to work out.”