Image: USA Today

With nearly every coach possible on the COVID-19 list and some unease about the situation, The Cleveland Guardians struggles at Target Field continued Friday as Cleveland has now lost 12 of their last 17 games in Minneapolis, as a nine-run fifth inning by Minnesota that saw them hit a grand slam and a three-run home run, ended up being the difference as the Guardians fell 12-8.

Twins (19-14) 12 – Guardians (15-16) 8. WP: Griffin Jax (3-0), LP: Aaron Civale (1-3)

Civale’s Struggles Continue 

You can look at Aaron Civale’s stats and see that he’s struggled out of the gate this season. In six starts, he has an ERA of 9.85, has had just one outing where he made it past the fifth inning, has allowed four or more runs in every start and has allowed a home run and six or more hits in five consecutive appearances. That doesn’t do enough to tell the complete story. If you dive down deeper, you’ll find out that Civale has six pitches that he uses, A cutter, curveball, four-seam fastball, sinker, splitter and a slider. Aside from his curveball, batters are hitting at least .333 against every other pitch. The Twins hit two home runs in the first inning off of Civale, those coming off the bats of Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco. The two pitches that were home runs were a splitter and a four-seam fastball, which are statistically his two worst pitches this season. 

“The pitch to Buxton was a pretty bad splitter,” Civale admitted, “Not one that I’d ever try to throw, it just happened. I tried to double up on a fastball to Polanco and he hit it to center. After that I just tried to minimize and get the guys back into the dugout.”

Just like against the Blue Jays last week, Civale actually settled in after that and retired the next 11 batters. Then came the fifth inning, after Luis Arraez scored a run while hitting into a double play, Civale had a chance to limit the damage to only one run and significantly improve the Guardians’ chances of winning. However, Civale walked Polanco and then Max Kepler singled home a run off of a cutter, Civale’s third worst pitch statistically this season. Carl Willis, who was in the role of Manager due to nearly every Guardians coach being on the COVID list, wanted to keep Civale in against Max Kepler, who batted .125 against Cleveland in 2021. 

“Two outs, we get a double play and only give up one run so we’re in a good spot,” Willis said. “We felt good about Kepler and his repertoire vs him (Civale). He gave him a good pitch and then he found the hole opposite way.”

Civale has struggled in the first inning in the majority of games he’s started, but Willis is confident that if he can get through that first inning, Civale can put together quality starts.

“There’s some first inning struggles we need to work through, but he competed.”

Guardians Meet Royce Lewis

With an injury to shortstop Carlos Correa, the Twins were finally able to call up one of their top prospects for the last few seasons, Royce Lewis. Lewis, the number one pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, made his debut last week. Friday night, he introduced himself to the Guardians in a big way. With a 7-2 lead in the fifth and the bases loaded, Lewis hit his first career home run in the majors in grand style, knocking a grand slam to left center. With one swing of the bat, Lewis brought in four runs and made it 11-2, capping off a nine run fifth inning by the Twins. Lewis also doubled earlier in the game off of Civale, giving him a final stat line of 2-4 with a grand slam, double, four RBI and two runs. He did show some rookie moments during the game as he committed an error in the second inning and then missed an easy grounder in the ninth inning that allowed Amed Rosario to reach base. Other than that, it was a solid performance from Lewis. The 22-year-old from California seems destined to be an important piece of the Twins future. 

Good Showing by the Offense 

The Guardians offense has been putting up quality performances over the past week. Over the past 12 games now, Cleveland has put up four or more runs in nine of those games. Friday night was no different as the Guardians pushed eight runs across home plate and hit three home runs, with those coming from Austin Hedges, Oscar Mercado and Andrés Giménez. Giménez in particular hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning, which gave him 18 hits in his last 13 games and 19 RBI on the season, which is already a career high in just 28 games played. Last season, Giménez had 16 RBI in 68 games. Another player who has really turned it on recently is Amed Rosario. Not too many games ago, Rosario’s batting average sat right under the Mendoza Line of .200. Now, he’s hitting .248, thanks in part to having nine hits over his last four games. Rosario also had an RBI single in the eighth inning that made it 11-6. 

“I can’t say enough about our offense,” Willis praised. “They grinded, they put together some really good at-bats. Can’t say enough how much they grinded tonight.”

It’s unfortunate that the offensive performance Friday will get overshadowed by the pitching performance, specifically by Civale and reliever Bryan Shaw, who recorded didn’t record an out and gave up four runs on four hits in the fifth inning, four of those coming off of a grand slam by Royce Lewis.

This Team Continues to Fight When Down 

More than a week ago, the Guardians used a three-run eighth inning to come back and win against the San Diego Padres on a walk off single by Steven Kwan. A couple of nights ago, the Guardians scored six runs in the ninth, thanks in huge part to a grand slam by Josh Naylor, to comeback and eventually win 12-9 against the White Sox in what seemed like an insurmountable lead at one point. Friday, even though it wasn’t enough, the Guardians showed something that has a lot of fans excited: This team will battle to the very end. The Guardians scored six runs over the final three innings of play and cut a nine-run lead all the way down to four. 

“Regardless of the score we did a really good job of playing proper baseball and continuing to play until the end,” Civale said.”

It will show up as a loss on the schedule either way, but if you’re able to burn through some of the opposing team’s bullpen arms, that can end up being a difference later on in the series when they really need it. 

“Jax is having a really solid year, but we got to him,” Willis said. “We made their closer throw some pitches there in the ninth, which is good.”

With the loss, the Guardians now fall to one game below .500 while Minnesota increases their AL Central lead back to three games as the Chicago White Sox also fell to the New York Yankees. The Guardians and Twins will play Saturday for game two of this three game series, with first pitch set for 7:05 p.m.

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