Despite two straight losses in their biggest series of the season, the Minnesota Twins will head into their final regular-season game as a first-place team. They can thank the Cleveland Indians for that.
The Twins look to avoid an embarrassing sweep and potentially clinch the AL Central title on Sunday afternoon when they face the surging Kansas City Royals.
Minnesota (87-74) will begin play with a one-half game lead over the Chicago White Sox in the Central, and could clinch the division with a victory over the Royals (75-86) and a White Sox loss to Cleveland.
Should both teams win or both lose, Chicago would be forced to make up a rained-out game at home against Detroit on Monday. A possible one-game playoff between the Twins and White Sox would be played Tuesday in Chicago if the teams remain tied after Monday’s contest.
“If we end up having to go to Chicago on Tuesday, we end up having to go,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. “Right now, the first thing we’ve got to do is win that ballgame tomorrow. Then we’ll see what happens.”
Minnesota could have found itself in a much worse position if not for the Indians, who beat the White Sox on Friday and Saturday to set up Sunday’s drama.
The Twins fell flat for the second straight day on Saturday, leaving 11 runners on base and grounding into four double plays in a 4-2 loss, one day after a series-opening 8-1 defeat.
“All the things that go for us went against us, the bloops and the choppers and the off-the-gloves,” Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They did to us what we do to a lot of other people.”
Morneau, an MVP candidate, went 1-for-5 Saturday and is batting .200 (10-for-50) with no homers in his last 12 games.
“He’s battling. No one wants to do it more than that guy,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been there all year for us. … Mornie will be right there for us. We need to pick him up.”
Minnesota hasn’t been swept in a three-game series by Kansas City since Aug. 4-6, 1998.
Long eliminated from the playoff race, the Royals seem to be relishing the spoiler role. They have won 13 of their last 15 games, including eight straight on the road. Their 18 victories in September are the most in the season’s final month since the 1985 World Series champions, and the current win streak away from home is their longest since the 1977 team won a franchise-best 11 straight.
“Everybody feels pretty good with the way we’re finishing, and I think everybody is realizing we’re really not that far,” said Kansas City’s Gil Meche, who won his 14th game Saturday.
Scott Baker (10-4, 3.59 ERA) will start Minnesota’s biggest game of the season seeking his fourth straight winning decision. The right-hander came up huge in his last start, giving up one run and five hits over seven innings in Twins’ 9-3 win over the White Sox on Tuesday. He is 3-0 with a 2.90 ERA in his last five starts and has lost only once in his past 12 outings.
Baker is 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA in eight career starts against the Royals, winning his last four decisions.
Duckworth limited Minnesota to two runs and seven hits over five innings on Sept. 11 in Kansas City’s 3-2, 10-inning win. The right-hander played a part in the playoff race when he faced the White Sox last Sunday, and allowed three runs and five hits in six innings of a 3-0 loss.
He is 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA in four career starts against the Twins.