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Twins are proving to be a hit early, but late-game struggles at the plate have become an issue

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Minnesota Twins’ Miguel Sano reacts after swinging and missing for a strike during the fourth inning of Game 2 of an American League Division Series baseball game against the New York Yankees, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The Twins lost the final two games of their series in Cleveland this week despite taking the lead in the early innings in both.

On Tuesday, Luis Arraez’s run-scoring double and Max Kepler’s RBI single gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead in the top of the second inning against Indians ace Shane Bieber. On Wednesday, Kepler led off the game with a home run and LaMonte Wade Jr., knocked in Miguel Sano in the second to make it 2-0 after two innings.

The Twins lost 4-2 on Tuesday, not scoring a run after Kepler knocked one in, and 6-3 on Wednesday, getting only one run in the final seven innings. The troubling things about those back-to-back losses is, when it comes to run production, they help tell the story of the Twins’ pandemic-shortened regular season.

On the surface, everything is fine. The Twins entered Thursday with a 20-12 record, putting them in first place in the AL Central, a half-a-game ahead of Cleveland and the White Sox. Minnesota was supposed to open a four-game series in Detroit on Thursday, but its players, along with players from the Tigers, elected to postpone the game as a way to protest the weekend shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis. The series will begin on Friday with a pair of seven-inning games.

The Twins, who will be playing their 33rd game in this 60-game regular season, will hope to do more than get off to a fast start. So far, that has been the norm. The Twins have scored 28 runs in the first inning, the most in the big leagues entering Thursday’s games, and their 71 runs in the first three innings also lead MLB. Minnesota is fourth in batting average during those innings (.276) and its 18 home runs are tied for fifth.

What is the Twins’ biggest flaw?

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the success of the offense hasn’t continued. The team’s 46 runs from the fourth through the sixth innings are tied for 20th and its batting average drops to 15th (.257). The Twins’ home runs (19) remain steady and are tied for fourth. The late innings are where manager Rocco Baldelli’s club really falls off the map. Minnesota has scored only 30 runs in the seventh through the ninth innings to rank tied for 23rd in the 30-team league. The Twins are hitting .195 to rank 27th and they also are near the bottom of the league with eight home runs.

Among the Twins’ regulars who struggling in the seventh, eighth and ninth are left fielder Eddie Rosario (.086/.135/.086 with no home runs and one RBI in 35 at-bats), Arraez (.143/.250/.190 with no homers and two RBIs in 21 at-bats) and, before their injuries, Buxton (.050/.050/.100 with no homers or RBIs in 20 at-bats) and Garver (.077/.294/.077 with no homers or RBIs in 13 at-bats).

The Twins, who hit a Major League record 307 home runs in a 162-game season last year, are tied for seventh in the big leagues this season with 45. It’s not a question of the power not being there, it’s a question of when the hits are going to come? The Twins got off to an impressive start this season, scoring 27 runs in winning two of their first three games against the White Sox in Chicago. Since then, the Twins have scored in double digits once (a 12-run game in Milwaukee) and scored as many as seven runs in three other games.

It doesn’t help that power-hitting third baseman Josh Donaldson has missed 22 games because of a right calf strain. It probably comes as no surprise that designated hitter Nelson Cruz has been pretty good across the board, slashing .286/.429/.714 with four home runs and eight RBIs in the late innings. Miguel Sano is slashing .240/.296/.360 in the final three innings but has not hit any of his six home runs and only has two RBIs in the seventh, eighth or ninth.

Still, the Twins are 11th in MLB with 148 runs and are third in baseball with a run differential of plus-36. The problem is the deeper the Twins get into games, the less production they get from their bats. That hasn’t stopped them from getting to first place, but it could keep them from staying there.