The two best teams in the American League Central brutalized their opponents on Thursday. The Twins crushed the Rangers, 13-6. The Indians pulled off an even more decisive victory, destroying the mighty Yankees by a 19-5 score. On the heels of those wins, Minnesota and Cleveland entered play Friday neck and neck in the division, which has largely been the case over the past couple weeks. The Twins hold a half-game lead over the Indians, the three-time reigning AL Central champions.
The fact that the race has gotten this close is somewhat hard to believe. For most of the season, the division has looked like the Twins’ in a runaway. They owned an 11-game edge over the Tribe as recently as June 15, but the Indians have chipped away since then. Despite the long-term absences of arguably their two top pitchers – Corey Kluber (out since May 1 with a fractured forearm) and Carlos Carrasco (out since May 30 because of leukemia) – the Indians have remained on the Twins’ heels. The Indians also traded away high-end starter Trevor Bauer prior to last month’s deadline, though they received immediate help for their lineup in outfielders Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes in return.
Cleveland’s starting staff, which should at least get Kluber back sometime soon, has gotten by mostly because of young sensation Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger. Meanwhile, the ERAs of rookie Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko have far outperformed much weaker peripherals, while first-year right-hander Aaron Civale has been excellent over his first few starts. And the Indians’ lineup, which was a sore spot earlier in the season, has risen from the dead with help from Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis – both of whom struggled mightily at the outset of the campaign – among those complementing Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor.
The Indians went into play Friday with 169 home runs – 67 fewer than the major league-leading Twins’ 236. Minnesota’s on track to breeze past the single-season record of 267 that the Yankees set just a year ago, but the Twins’ co-leader, designated Nelson Cruz (32 HRs), has been on the injured list since last week because of a strained wrist. Their lineup’s still in enviable shape – Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Luis Arraez are among those enjoying standout seasons – but the team has nonetheless stopped operating at a breakneck pace. Since it held its 11-game lead over the Indians two months ago, Minnesota has gone a mediocre 26-26. Starters Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez have all slowed down to some degree as the season has moved along, while the Twins’ bullpen – despite the acquisitions of Sam Dyson and Sergio Romo before the deadline – hasn’t thrived.
Considering the Twins have been atop the AL Central throughout the year and currently lead the division, they’re the front-runners to take it this year. Indeed, FanGraphs gives the Twins a 60.6 percent chance to win the division and the Indians 39.4 percent odds. But it would be unwise to count out Cleveland, which has remarkably rallied to make it a legitimate race and still has six regular-season matchups left against Minnesota. Which of the two teams do you expect to win the division?
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