MINNEAPOLIS -- The American League Central race certainly has lost much of its intrigue over the past week with the Twins stretching their lead to 11 games over the White Sox and watching as their magic number to clinch the division has continued to shrink.But just because the division race has turned into a runaway for the Twins doesn't mean that the team is treating its remaining games lightly. With a chance at the best record in the AL still in sight, and an opportunity to keep up their momentum heading into the postseason, the Twins treated their series with the Indians that kicked off on Monday as any other this season -- a must win. And perhaps that's a good thing, since the Indians provided Twins starter Brian Duensing, who is expected to be in the postseason rotation, with a bit of a test. Duensing worked his way out of a sixth-inning jam and the Twins' offense provided some immediate support in the form of a four-run inning, as the Twins beat the Indians, 9-3, in the series opener. The victory, and a White Sox loss to the A's later that night, cut the Twins' magic number for winning the AL Central to two. Duensing gave up three runs on six hits in six innings to notch his 10th win of the season. He became the fifth Twins pitcher to win double-digit games this season, joining Carl Pavano (17-11), Francisco Liriano (14-9), Kevin Slowey (13-6) and Scott Baker (12-9). But this victory wasn't quite as easy as many have been for Duensing since he was moved into the rotation on July 23. Duensing is now 7-1 with a 2.43 ERA in 12 starts since joining the rotation, but on Monday he matched his career high with four walks. And things really got tricky in the sixth when Duensing entered the inning with a 4-1 lead only to see it quickly diminish to one when the lefty put himself in a jam. Run-scoring singles from Andy Marte and Drew Sutton cut the Twins' lead to one run, and with one out in the inning, Duensing faced a bases-loaded situation. But Twins manager Ron Gardenhire let Duensing work out of the jam. He got Lou Marson to strike out swinging and Michael Brantley to line out with the bases loaded to preserve the lead in what was a 30-pitch inning for the starter. "He wasn't as sharp as he has been," said Gardenhire. "But he was when he needed to be. ... He was one hitter away from getting out of it, and one hitter away from being taken out of it. We just really wanted him to get out of it himself more than anything else -- hopefully leave us with a lead. It's important for him in that situation to be able to battle through that. He did a really good job. He made the pitches when he had to." "He's a tough pitcher," said Brantley. "He commands the strike zone really well. We put up quality at-bats, but, unfortunately, we weren't able to come through there." Duensing held his glove up to his mouth at the end of the sixth inning and appeared to mutter something as he headed back to the dugout. After the game, the left-hander said that his words were a mix of relief and frustration. "I was relieved I got out of the inning with the lead still," Duensing said. "Also, I was disappointed because I wasn't really pitching that well, walking guys and a whole bunch of frustration came out right then. Of course, then you come out and the offense puts up all those runs, and it kind of makes you feel a little bit better about the outing, too." The game didn't stay close for long. The Twins' offense delivered once again as it had earlier in the game, this time with a four-run sixth inning that included an RBI triple by Denard Span and a two-run homer by Michael Cuddyer to left field. It was Cuddyer's 14th home run of the season. The Twins had trouble with a couple of the Indians' young starters during the last series between the two teams in Cleveland, but they managed to get to 22-year-old Jeanmar Gomez on this night. Gomez gave up eight runs on 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings. Minnesota did its damage with timely hits, as all of the Twins' nine runs in the victory came with two outs. Delmon Young went 2-for-3 with two RBIs, bringing his team-leading total to 104 for the season. J.J. Hardy delivered his fifth three-hit game of the season while scoring three runs. Danny Valencia, the club's rookie third baseman, continues to deliver big hits for the Twins, as he hit a 409-foot shot into the second deck in left field with two outs in the fourth inning to break a 1-1 tie. It was his third home run in the last four games "You're seeing a guy develop right in front of your eyes," Gardenhire said. "He's coming up with some big hits, driving the ball and putting the ball in the seats and playing the heck out of third base. It's happening right in front of our eyes in a pennant race." The Twins' hope has been to clinch their division title sometime during the next two games of their homestand. But of course, that will require some help from the A's, who are hosting the White Sox.
A combination of one Twins win and one White Sox loss, or two Twins wins over the next few days would officially clinch the Twins' sixth AL Central title in the last nine years.But the Twins are only focused on what they need to do, and right now that's continuing to win games down the stretch. "It's a weird situation," said Cuddyer of the team's possible clinch scenarios with the White Sox playing on the West Coast.
"First and foremost, obviously, we have to take care of [Tuesday's game]. We have to win [Tuesday], then see how that situation plays out."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.