MINNEAPOLIS — The Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins open the second half of the Major League Baseball season with a three-game series beginning Friday night at Target Field.
Despite a 4-6 finish to the first half, the Indians will begin play 6 1/2 games clear of the Detroit Tigers for first place in the American League Central and seven games ahead of the Chicago White Sox and defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals.
It's the first time since Terry Francona took over as manager of the Indians in 2013 that the club begins the second half atop the division standings.
“I don't want to get too carried away because we're still playing, and nobody has a crystal ball,” Francona told MLB.com. “But we've played ourself into a position where every single game we play from now on is fun as (heck). And I don't doubt our guys will embrace it and see how good we can be. That's the whole idea.”
The Indians have done their damage with a balanced attack, including All-Star pitchers Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar as well as sterling defense and a lineup capable of piling up runs in a hurry.
Shortstop Francisco Lindor, another All-Star, has been a linchpin for the Tribe all season both in the field, where he is a strong Gold Glove contender, and at the top of lineup.
They've done it with outfielder Michael Brantley on the shelf with an injured shoulder for all but 11 games this season. But he is on a rehab assignment and could be just a week or two from rejoining the club.
Carlos Carrasco, who missed a sizable chunk of the first half with a hamstring injury, will start against Minnesota in Friday's opener.
The right-hander has allowed two earned runs or fewer in each of his last six starts but has a record of just 3-2 during that stretch. He allowed five runs against the New York Yankees in his final turn before the break, but four of the runs were unearned.
Carrasco hasn't pitched against the Twins this season but struggled against them a year ago, going 0-2 with a 6.30 ERA in two starts against Minnesota in 2015.
Minnesota is the only team in the AL Central not within striking distance of the Indians, sitting 20 games out of first place. But the Twins were the best team in the division in the final two weeks of the first half, led by a suddenly surging offense.
Only the Chicago Cubs have equaled the Twins in the power department since June 26; both clubs have slugged 28 homers to lead the major leagues.
Minnesota's 140 runs since June 18 are eight more than the next closest club and the most in baseball since that stretch.
The Twins finished the first half by winning seven of their final nine games before the break, including five of seven over the AL-leading Texas Rangers during that stretch. Minnesota won three of four in Arlington in its final weekend before the break, outscoring the Rangers 38-18 in the series.
“I'd think we're on the high end here (offensively) the last two or three weeks, and it's been balanced,” Twins manager Paul Molitor told MLB.com. “(Brian) Dozier has been hot, Kurt (Suzuki) has been on an incredible run.
“The young guys have injected some life and are taking advantage of some opportunities. (Max) Kepler's development and RBI-to-games-played ratio is pretty impressive. You can just go on about the guys who are swinging the bat well.”
Minnesota's starting staff has also been better of late, led by right-hander Ervin Santana, who will get the ball against the Indians on Friday.
Santana, who has been the subject of trade rumors recently, is 2-0 with a 1.63 ERA in his last four starts, capped by a brilliant two-hit shutout of the Oakland Athletics his last time out on July 6.
Santana beat Cleveland in his only start against the Indians, limiting the Tribe to one run, five hits and a walk in six innings on May 14 at Progressive Field.