Too early to call it a race? Perhaps, but after three straight one-run games there's no denying these division rivals will match up the rest of the way.
Nick Gordon hit a third-inning home run that stood up for starter Devin Smeltzer as the Twins dodged a sweep, cooling off the Guardians with a 1-0 win on Thursday.
''I try not to get wrapped up in the race. The only pitch that matters is the next one. The only game that matters is the next one,'' Smeltzer said. ''What happens in the past, you really can't control. If you start riding those waves, that's when you start getting in trouble.''
Gordon, subbing for ailing star Byron Buxton in center field, drove a 1-2 curveball from Zach Plesac (3-4) into the grass berm beyond the wall in center. Smeltzer took it from there, before a high-wire act by Minnesota's taxed and struggling bullpen finished off the back-and-forth series.
''We're not going to back down, but we respect them. We know when we play them, they're good, man,'' Guardians manager Terry Francona said. ''They play us as tough as any team has played us the last few years.''
The Guardians loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh inning against Joe Smith. They got a man to second base with one out in the eighth facing Jhoan Duran, the Twins' best reliever. They had a runner on second with one out in the ninth against Caleb Thielbar, who recorded his first career save by striking out pinch-hitter Steven Kwan to end the game.
Cleveland lost for just the fifth time in its last 22 games. The Guardians (36-29) lead by percentage points in the AL Central race, having played six fewer games than the Twins (39-32).
''They're tough, and they're going to continue to be tough. They're not going anywhere,'' Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Cleveland hosts a five-game series against Minnesota starting Monday. They play eight more times in September.
''Hopefully, we can pack the house at Progressive. It's going to be exciting,'' Plesac said.
After blowing a 10-7 ninth-inning lead in an 11-10 loss on Wednesday and squandering a 5-3 eighth-inning edge in a 6-5 defeat on Tuesday, the Twins badly needed a pick-me-up from Smeltzer (4-1). The left-hander cruised through six innings, allowing only two singles and one double while striking out three on a 95-degree afternoon.
Plesac completed six innings, with three hits and two walks allowed. He struck out six.
The Twins had Buxton on the bench for the second straight game because of soreness and swelling in his right knee that has bothered him all season, his first consecutive absences in two months. Baldelli said the team is not currently considering an injured list stint to help Buxton's chronic case of patellar tendinitis.
''He's going to continue to do an admirable job going forward dealing with this,'' Baldelli said. ''But when you literally cannot swing or run, you can't play the game.''
Buxton has tried his best to take the injury in stride, having plenty of experience over his star-crossed career with missing time.
''I wouldn't say it's worse. I wouldn't say it's better. Some days are better than others,'' Buxton said. ''So take those days and try to run with them as most as I can. On the bad days, you battle.''
Guardians: RHP Yohan Ramirez, who was acquired in a trade last month with Seattle, joined his new club for the first time after eight scoreless innings with Triple-A Columbus. RHP Anthony Castro was sent down after allowing four seventh-inning runs on Wednesday night, as the recently instituted 13-pitcher roster maximum continues to trigger more league-wide transactions.
Twins: Rookie RHP Josh Winder (shoulder impingement) was returned from his rehab assignment and sent to Triple-A St. Paul, with the pitcher limit making it unfeasible to carry six starters. He's in line for a 27th-man call-up to start during Tuesday's doubleheader at Cleveland.
Guardians: RHP Cal Quantrill (4-4, 3.77 ERA) pitches the opener of a three-game series against Boston on Friday night. He has logged six-plus innings in six of his last seven turns. RHP Nick Pivetta (7-5, 3.31) starts for the Red Sox.
Twins: RHP Dylan Bundy (4-3, 5.17) takes the mound to begin a three-game against Colorado on Friday night, coming off his best start of the season with one run allowed over eight innings at Arizona last week. RHP German Marquez (3-5, 6.16) pitches for the Rockies.
More AP MLB coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Copyright 2022 STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.