CLEVELAND (AP) — For months, the AL Central was the butt of jokes.
The Minnesota Twins may get the last laugh.
Jorge Polanco hit a sacrifice fly and Donovan Solano added a three-run triple in Minnesota’s five-run eighth inning as the Twins pushed their lead to seven games over second-place Cleveland with an 8-3 win over the Guardians on Tuesday night.
Polanco hit a shot deep enough to right off Trevor Stephan (6-6) to score pinch-runner Joey Gallo and break a 3-3 tie. Later in the inning, Solano’s liner to center skipped past outfielder Myles Straw and rolled to the wall, clearing the bases.
By winning the first two games of the critical three-game series, Minnesota, which has been atop the division since mid-July, moved seven games above .500 for the first time in 2023.
More importantly, they probably put away the defending division champion Guardians with just 23 games left.
Still, the Twins, who improved 4-1 on this road trip and are playing their best ball this season, aren’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s the beginning of September,” said manager Rocco Baldelli. “We play six-month seasons and we have close to a month left. Nothing changes for us right now. We’ve just got to keep playing good.”
Minnesota’s Christian Vázquez, who hit a game-tying homer in the sixth off Guardians reliever Matt Moore, led off the eighth with a single and Willi Castro doubled down the left-field line. Gallo came on for Vázquez and scored easily on Polanco’s fly ahead of Will Brennan’s throw.
Stephan’s wild pitch made it 5-3, and the right-hander walked two and hit a batter to set up Solano’s shot — a potential knockout blow for Cleveland.
Bo Naylor hit a two-run homer for the Guardians, who were blown out 20-6 in Monday’s series opener.
Manager Terry Francona understands the challenge his team is facing. He’s also confident the Guardians won’t surrender.
“I’ve never been accused of being a math major,” he said. “We need to win and the best way to is to win tomorrow. We certainly didn’t put our best foot forward the last two nights, and I don’t think you can run from what we haven’t done. But until it’s time they make you go home, we’ll keep playing.”
Griffin Jax (6-8) struck out two in one inning after coming on for starter Sonny Gray, who gave up three runs and six hits in six innings. Caleb Thielbar worked the eighth and Emilio Pagán finished up for Minnesota.
With one out, Vázquez belted Moore’s first pitch down the right-field line, the ball ducking into the seats just inside the foul pole.
The Guardians got a solid outing from rookie Tanner Bibee, who held the Twins to two runs and four hits in five innings one night after Minnesota unloaded on Lucas Giolito — nine runs, three innings — in his Cleveland debut.
Afterward, Bibee expressed the team’s frustration at losing ground to the Twins.
“Good team for sure,” he said. “We’ve shown them we can beat them, shown them we can compete with them.”
SLAM (DUNK) CHAMP
Minnesota’s Royce Lewis didn’t hit a grand slam, and that’s noteworthy.
Lewis connected for his third slam in eight games Monday, becoming the first rookie and fourth player to hit three in a span of eight games or less. The others: Jim Northrup (1968, 4 games), Lou Gehrig (1931, 5) and Larry Parrish (1982, 8).
David Fry’s right arm was still attached Tuesday after the utilityman pitched four innings in Monday’s blowout.
Fry threw 64 pitches — all under 60 mph — while helping Guardians manager Terry Francona preserve his bullpen for the remainder of the series.
Francona said Fry was not feeling any worse for wear.
“When you think about it, it’s almost like he was catching,” Francona said. “He’s just throwing it back. He’s intelligent enough and he has enough discipline not to overdo it. He really did a good job because it was a big ask.”
Fry gave up three homers and allowed seven runs and 10 hits. He became the first Cleveland position player to pitch at least four innings since Milt Galatzer, who pitched six against Washington in 1936.
Twins: RHP Chris Paddack, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2022, will make a rehab start for Fort Mylers (Low A) on Wednesday. He’ll throw three innings or 50 pitches.
Guardians: Francona said injured starters Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber remain on track to face batters later this week at Class A Lake County before going on minor league rehab assignments. The team has targeted Sept. 20 for their possible return. Bieber (elbow inflammation) has been out since July 9, McKenzie (elbow sprain) since June 17.
The rivals meet for the final time in 2023 with Guardians rookie RHP Gavin Williams (1-5, 3.46 ERA) starting against Twins RHP Joe Ryan (10-8, 4.20).