With Indians pulling out all the stops, AL Central race will be epic

Carlos Santana smacks a go-ahead grand slam in the 10th inning to stun the Minnesota crowd. (0:32)

Things are getting serious, my friends. Citi Field was rocking and shaking; the Milwaukee Brewers drew more than 121,000 fans for a three-game series against the Texas Rangers; Yordan Alvarez is still mashing; Aristides Aquino is making us learn his name; and Hyun-Jin Ryu keeps rolling along.

Nowhere was the baseball more intense this weekend, however, than at Target Field, where the Cleveland Indians went into Minneapolis and took three of four from the Minnesota Twins, turning a two-game deficit into a dead heat atop the American League Central with 44 games remaining. Both teams are 71-47, on pace for 97 victories. It might take more than that to win the division.

Sunday’s contest was the best of the series, a 7-3 win for Cleveland in 10 innings, as Carlos Santana belted a go-ahead grand slam off tough lefty Taylor Rogers. But if the Indians win this division by a game, everyone will remember Francisco Lindor‘s game-saving relay throw in the bottom of the ninth.

Let’s set the stage:

Cleveland led 3-1 entering the bottom of the ninth with closer Brad Hand on the mound. Eddie Rosario doubled. Mitch Garver fanned on a 3-2 slider as Hand came back from a 3-0 count. (Garver might have wished he had swung at the 3-0 pitch.) Luis Arraez singled past Jason Kipnis, scoring Rosario to make it 3-2. C.J. Cron battled Hand for 10 pitches before lacing a 106 mph rocket into left-center to put runners at first and second. Hand wasn’t fooling anybody. He had given up seven hits to lefties all season entering the inning and gave up two this inning.

That brought up Marwin Gonzalez. He hit four fouls, then this happened on the fifth pitch:

Marwin Gonzalez doubles to score the game-tying run, but Ehire Adrianza is tagged out at the plate courtesy of a great throw from Francisco Lindor.

It was an aggressive send by Twins third-base coach Tony Diaz with one out, but it took a perfectly executed relay from Tyler Naquin and Lindor to nail pinch runner Ehire Adrianza. Lindor was lightning quick with his catch and release and threw a strike to catcher Kevin Plawecki:

Tyler Naquin and Francisco Lindor combined for a great relay to throw out the walk-off run at the plate and send Indians-Twins to extras. The Statcast…

Naquin to Lindor: 91.9 mph, 161 feet, 1.07 second exchange ➡️
Lindor to the plate: 90.6 mph, 166 feet, 0.60 second exchange pic.twitter.com/huPOuplrns

People say the triple is the most exciting play in baseball. I’ll go with a great relay at the plate — three fielders in cohesion, showcasing the intricacies of well-executed defense. That relay was the difference between a two-game deficit and the tie we now have. How great is baseball?

The key for Cleveland remains getting solid work from the back of its rotation — and the front office clearly had confidence in those guys when they traded Trevor Bauer. Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber won the first two games of the series, as they are the aces in the absence of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Adam Plutko had a solid effort in a 4-1 loss on Saturday. But rookie Aaron Civale, making his third career start, shut down the high-powered Twins offense on Sunday; he gave up one run and four hits in six innings.

Where do the Indians keep finding these guys? Civale was Cleveland’s No. 15 prospect before the season, according to Baseball America, and was a third-round pick in 2016 out of Northeastern. Zach Plesac wasn’t even in the top 30, a 12th-rounder the same year out of Ball State. Credit to Cleveland’s scouting department — Civale wasn’t even a starter until his junior season — and the player development staff for getting these two to the majors so quickly. They have given Cleveland 16 much-needed good starts so far and helped the Indians to a 37-14 record since June 14 as they clawed back from 11 games out.

Civale isn’t overpowering, with a two-seamer that sits in the low 90s. Early on against the Twins, he relied on that sinker plus a slider and cutter. The second time through the order he mixed in an occasional changeup and curveball to give the Twins another look. Most importantly, he throws strikes and changes speed. Look at one sequence versus Arraez in the fifth inning:

Sinker: 92 mph
Cutter: 88 mph
Curveball: 92 mph
Sinker: 93 mph
Sinker: 93 mph
Sinker: 94 mph
Changeup: 86 mph

Arraez finally flied out.

Is Civale the next Bieber? I don’t know about that, but there’s some similarity in their pedigrees and minor league numbers. And there’s no doubt that the Indians find a way to get the most out of their starting pitchers. The Indians are 8-3 since Aug. 1 — Yasiel Puig has hit .357/.413/.571 in 11 games, although Franmil Reyes is hitting .111 — and they’re doing it the way they’ve done it all season: with good pitching. This race is going down to the wire.

The instant Carlos Santana’s grand slam sailed over the fence, Francisco Lindor jumped up and down. He stared at the Indians’ dugout and pumped his fist his entire way to the plate. An enormous swing of the bat.

Showdown of the season: So this was, with Yankees up 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth against the Blue Jays, trying to get a split of the four-game series. After Brandon Drury led off with a base hit against Aroldis Chapman, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came up as a pinch hitter. It turned in an epic 13-pitch duel, the longest of Chapman’s career:

#VladJr fouled off SEVEN pitches in this 13-pitch battle vs. Aroldis Chapman.

But advantage: Chapman. pic.twitter.com/2PtIOKPoP6

Chapman finally got the double play — this is a going to be huge negative for Guerrero, as he already has grounded into 14 double plays — but Bo Bichette then singled on a 3-2 slider and Cavan Biggio worked Chapman to a 3-2 count before finally striking out to end it, a tough 27-pitch save for Chapman.

Upset of the … decade? The Astros had just beat the Orioles 23-2 on Saturday. The Orioles were 0-5 on the week and had served up 22 home runs in those five losses. Oh, and Justin Verlander was starting for Houston. That made the Astros a huge favorite in Las Vegas. They closed at -460 at Caesars Sportsbook, just the ninth favorite of minus-400 or greater since 2005. Only the Dodgers at minus-485 for a game against the Braves in 2016 were a bigger favorite.

So it wasn’t a surprise when the Astros scored three runs in the top of the ninth to take a 7-5 lead. But miracle of miracles, the Astros couldn’t get the final three outs. With two outs and two on, Rio Ruiz came up against closer Roberto Osuna and did this:

Rio Ruiz crushes a two-run home run into the stands as the Orioles beat the Astros 8-7 in a wild game in Baltimore.

Good for the Orioles! Bad for Caesars. The price on the Astros’ moneyline scared away many bettors at Caesars as 97% of the money was on Baltimore. Ouch.

Nationals cool down red-hot Mets: After a demoralizing loss in the ninth inning on Friday when the Mets scored four runs off Sean Doolittle, then another bitter defeat on Saturday when the Mets beat Fernando Rodney in the eighth, it’s safe to say the Nationals needed a win on Sunday. No easy task given that Jacob deGrom started for the Mets.

The key play actually came in the top of the first, with bases loaded with two outs after an infield hit, a single and a walk. Pete Alonso made a diving stop on Asdrubal Cabrera’s grounder, but then threw the ball away — as all three baserunners came around to score. The throw was a little high, but deGrom also hesitated as he came to first base and the ball glanced off his glove and rolled to the backstop. deGrom actually had to chase it down and they should have gotten Juan Soto for the third out, but Ramos dropped that throw. Ugly play.

Anyway, that was all deGrom would give up, but the Nationals worked him for 101 pitches in just five innings. And since no starter is allowed by rule to throw more than 110 pitches now, that meant four innings from the Mets bullpen and the Nationals tacked on four runs for a 7-4 victory, with Anthony Rendon went 4-for-5 and raised his line to .320/.404/.607.

The loss snapped the Mets’ eight-game win streak, but they’ve still won 15 of 17 and start the week 1.5 games behind the Nationals and one game behind the Cardinals in the wild-card race (with the Brewers a half-game behind St. Louis).

Shutout of the day The Tampa Bay Rays completed a three-game sweep in Seattle — two by one run — with a 1-0 victory behind former Mariner Ryan Yarbrough, who pitched 8 ⅔ scoreless innings. Kevin Cash pulled him with two outs and nobody on the ninth. Apparently, 99 pitches was his limit even though he’d allowed just three singles. Come on, Kevin! (OK, credit to Cash for not getting emotional about the shutout. The Mariners had a right-hander up in Domingo Santana, so he brought in Emilio Pagan. The Mariners did pinch-hit Omar Narvaez, but he grounded out.)

With Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos on the IL, Yarbrough has been huge for the Rays, working as both a starter and “bulk” guy behind the opener. He’s now 11-3 with a 3.56 ERA. Batters are hitting a meager .211/.246/.349 against him. In fact, he’s been better against righties then lefties:

Right-handed batters: .210/.243/.326
Left-handed batters: .213/.255/.415

That’s a testament to the quality of his changeup and curveball, since Yarbrough doesn’t break 90 very often with this fastball (88.2 mph on average). But — think of Civale — he throws strikes and doesn’t beat himself.

He’s also another testament to the Rays’ scouting and analytics department, which liked him even though he wasn’t a flamethrower. He came over in the first Mallex Smith trade in exchange for Drew Smyly, who got hurt in spring training and never pitched for Seattle. Yarbrough his now 27-9 in his two seasons with Rays. Not bad for a guy who was kind of the throw-in in that deal.

After the game, Yarbrough told reporters that he was “obviously, a little angry” at getting the hook and missing out on the shutout.

“But I think [Cash] would want me to be. I think he would want me to want to finish it. I don’t think I have any ill will about it or anything,” Yarbrough said. “Cash simply went with what he thought was the best matchup for the final out.”

Cash offered his take.

“Very difficult decision, given obviously with what Yarbs provided for us. But felt like that was to give us the best chance to win,” Cash said.

Yes, that’s Jorge Soler with 35 home runs: I know, I know, we could do a crazy home run note every night. But this one has kind of come out of nowhere. Soler belted two home runs in the Royals’ 10-2 win over the Tigers and is now to second to Mike Trout in the AL in home runs (Trout has 39). Some notes:

• Soler is hitting .327/.455/.755 with 12 home runs since the All-Star break. It’s that .455 OBP that impresses me: He has 22 walks and 23 strikeouts after being 28 and 108 in the first half. He might be figuring things out here.

• The Royals’ team record for home runs is Mike Moustakas with 38, set back in 2017, so Soler is going to roar past that record.

• Since the Royals have had few great sluggers in their franchise story, and because Royals Stadium is a tough home run park, they’ve never had a player lead the American League in home runs. Moustakas ranked fifth in 2017. Steve Balboni ranked third in 1985, when he hit 36 and John Mayberry ranked third in 1975 when he hit 34, the highest finishes ever for a Royals player.