The Twins were one strike away from closing the door on the Cleveland Guardians. Not just a chance to win Wednesday's game and take a three-game series, but perhaps unofficially wrap up the division.
The tying run scored against Twins closer Jhoan Duran on a wild pitch with two outs in the top of the ninth inning. Kole Calhoun hammered a three-run homer in the 10th inning and the Guardians sent the message that the American League Central Division race isn't quite over as the Twins were handed a 5-2 loss at Target Field.
It was the first time the Twins lost a game this season when they led after eight innings.
The Twins remain in a comfortable position, a five-game lead over Cleveland with 28 games remaining, but the fallout from the wild pitch amounted to a two-game swing in the standings. The Twins and Guardians will meet for a three-game series in Cleveland next week, their final games against each other.
"We had very high expectations coming into these last two or three days," Twins pitcher Sonny Gray said. "Started off well for us, and then it just kind of slipped away from us at the end. I think we still are in a good spot as a team. We just let one get away from us."
In a game that started in a pitchers' duel between Gray and Tanner Bibee, two of the best starting pitchers in the AL this season, the Guardians won the battle of the bullpens. The Twins didn't record a hit over the final five innings while Cleveland scored five runs.
Duran, who was handed his fifth blown save of the season, had two batters reach base against him with one out. Both runners advanced a base when Duran bobbled a one-hop comebacker to the mound, spoiling a potential game-ending double play.
In a 1-2 count to Bo Naylor, Duran spiked a curveball that bounced behind the lefthanded pinch hitter and allowed the game-tying run to score easily from third. Naylor had his bat cross the plate as he tried to dodge the pitch, but home-plate umpire Jose Navas ruled it wasn't a swing. Duran thought it was a swing — "100%," Duran said — and struck him out on the next pitch.
After Emilio Pagán retired the first two batters he faced in the 10th inning, the Twins intentionally walked José Ramírez with a runner on third base. Reliever Kody Funderburk entered to face Calhoun for a left-on-left matchup in his second career MLB appearance. Funderburk threw a fastball in a 3-0 count and Calhoun drilled it 433 feet.
Pagán "has thrown four of the last five days, so the last thing I want to do is leave him out there for too long," Baldelli said.
Gray had the upper hand against Bibee, twirling seven shutout innings. Gray threw more than 13 pitches in only one inning, a model of efficiency against a Guardians lineup that doesn't strike out often or hit for much power.
After giving up a leadoff double to Steven Kwan on his second pitch of the afternoon, Gray retired his next 13 batters with only two balls hit out of the infield.
"That's a personal goal of mine: to continue to feel strong through August, September and October," said Gray, who owns the lowest ERA in the AL (2.92) among qualifying starting pitchers. "The work for that started a long time ago and now it's just not getting complacent."
Bibee, a rookie, entered Wednesday with a 2.17 ERA in his last 11 starts. Twins hitters didn't have more success against him than other teams, but they forced him to throw 90 pitches through five innings, getting four hits and three walks.
The Twins finally broke through against Bibee when they loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth inning and Jorge Polanco dropped a two-run single into shallow right field in a two-strike count.
They had only three more baserunners after Polanco's hit: two walks and the automatic runner in the 10th inning.
"Today wasn't our day," Polanco said. "We lost. But we are ready for the next day."