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Zulgad: No sweat: Jose Berrios has another strong start as Twins begin stretch against inferior foes

MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins returned to Target Field on Monday night having taken two of three in Cleveland to increase their lead over the Indians to 4.5 games in the American League Central and set up what looks like it’s going to be a victory lap for the final 13 games of the season.

The White Sox are in for three games and then the Royals for four before the Twins close with three games in Detroit and three in Kansas City. The Twins have been out of first place in the division only once since April 20 and there have been several magical moments at Target Field as a result.

But until the playoffs arrive it’s likely the magic will be put on hold — unless the Twins clinch their first division title since 2010 at home. The Twins’ magic number was nine entering Monday. That number was reduced by one with the Twins’ 5-3 victory over the White Sox before 21,850.

The White Sox entered Monday’s game with a 65-84 record and 26 games behind in the AL Central. That’s nothing compared to Royals (55-95) and Tigers (44-104), who are 36.5 and 46.5 back in the division. All of this means manager Rocco Baldelli should have plenty of time to tinker with lineups and pitching and continuing to rest players over the next week plus.

Baldelli did exactly that after the Twins swept a doubleheader from the Indians on Saturday by using back-to-back bullpen games. With the Twins holding a 5.5-game lead in the Central after the sweep, Baldelli pushed Jose Berrios’ scheduled start to Monday and held designated hitter Nelson Cruz, shortstop Jorge Polanco and right fielder Max Kepler out of the starting lineup on Sunday. Marwin Gonzalez was given another day to rest an oblique injury that had sidelined him since late August. Gonzalez, the Twins’ super-utility man, returned Monday at first base.

Not surprisingly, the Twins ended up losing 7-5 to Cleveland as they made four errors and Kyle Gibson gave up a three-run home run to Roberto Perez after entering the game in relief. So why didn’t Baldelli attempt to deliver a knockout punch to the Twins’ biggest rival? That’s pretty obvious. Baldelli won’t say it but he also has looked at the Twins’ final 13 games and knows the AL Central race is over.

Cleveland’s three-year run as AL Central champions will end in the coming days. The Indians were off Monday and have 12 games remaining, including three against Philadelphia and three at Washington. The Nationals are the NL wild card leaders and the Phillies are 4.5 games back in that race.

The Twins fine-tuning plan included the hope that they would get a second consecutive strong outing from Berrios on Monday. Berrios went from being the Twins ace for much of the season to being a mess on the mound in August and into his first start in September. Berrios went 1-3 with an 8.07 ERA in six starts before giving up no runs and two hits with a walk and four strikeouts in seven innings of a 5-0 victory last Tuesday over Washington.

He got off to a rocky start on Monday as Chicago’s top two hitters, Leury Garcia and Yoan Moncada, singled and doubled before Jose Abreu’s sacrifice fly scored Garcia. Moncada was thrown out trying to tag and go to third and Eloy Jimenez struck out swinging. James McCann led off the second with a home run to left field and Berrios walked Yolmer Sanchez later in the inning before settling down. He retired 12 of 14 hitters before Moncada singled to lead off the sixth inning and was promptly picked off first.

Berrios received a standing ovation as he departed with a runner on second and one out in the top of the eighth inning, having given up two runs, five hits with two walks and eight strikeouts in 7.1 innings. This is the Berrios the Twins will need to pitch Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, if they are to have any hope of advancing to the ALCS.

“I thought he was really sharp,” Baldelli said of Berrios. “Even from the beginning, I thought he looked really good. The stuff was really good. I think it was as good as we’ve seen it. I think his confidence level, the way he felt, the way he was going about his business, what he was saying when he would come back in the dugout, he just seemed to have an air of confidence about everything he was doing. He wanted to keep pitching and normally when a guy is thinking like that at that point in the game he’s feeling good physically and it was a good day.”

The Twins did not add to their Major League-leading 287 home runs, but Mitch Garver broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning with a double that scored Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez added his third hit of the game in the sixth inning that somehow cued past Moncada to score Gonzalez and LaMonte Wade Jr.  The Twins improved to 92-58, giving them the second-most victories through 150 games since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961. The 1965 AL championship team had 95 wins at the same point. The Twins also improved to 12-5 against the White Sox this season and moved five games ahead of the Indians.

It was an unspectacular victory over an inferior opponent that put the Twins a step closer to being able to break out the Champagne. More importantly, the Twins were able to get another effective outing from Berrios, they were able to get Kepler’s aching shoulder another day of rest and they were able to continue to see their bullpen thrive (Tyler Duffey, Sergio Romo and Taylor Rogers gave up a combined one run in 3.2 innings). All without any real concern about the second-place team in the division. It might not provide much drama but Baldelli and Co. aren’t complaining.


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