Many intriguing division rivalries will be renewed this weekend.
The Astros, defending World Series champions, will travel to Seattle in a rematch of last year’s American League Division Series. In San Diego, the Padres will host the Dodgers in a National League Division Series grudge game. And the Yankees will visit the scorching Rays in an AL East showdown.
But such a divisive rivalry has flown under the radar.
There are plenty of big storylines to follow as the Twins and Guardians meet this weekend at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
The AL Central game begins at 7:10 p.m. ET Friday on Apple TV+, with games Saturday (6:10 p.m.) and Sunday (1:40 p.m.) to follow.
Here’s why the 2023 first series between the Twins and Guardians is one of baseball’s most important matchups so far this season.
These are the two best teams in the AL Central
A lot can change in the next five months, but right now these two teams seem like the top contenders for the AL Central crown.
The Tigers, White Sox and Royals all struggled to start the season, posting a combined 30-61 record. Meanwhile, Minnesota sits in first place with an 18-14 record, and Cleveland isn’t far behind at 14-17, though the Tigers are half a game behind the Guardians.
Thanks to a 30-21 record in April and May, the Twins spent 108 days in first place in AL Central in 2022. They led the division until Sept. 4. But an 11-22 mark in September and October sent Minnesota into a tailspin, and they finished 78-84, in third place behind the Guardians and White Sox.
Cleveland, meanwhile, was red hot on the stretch. The Guardians went 40-21 from August through the end of the regular season, overtaking the Twins and White Sox and finishing with a 92-70 record. They won the division by 11 games, beat the Rays in the AL Wild Card Series, and led the Yankees to five games in the AL Division Series.
It’s still early days, but 2023 is shaping up for another close race between these two clubs.
They are still close in the standings
A three-game streak can mean a lot when the contenders are closing in on the standings. Just ask the Braves, who swept the Mets in three games late last season to take over the NL East after playing up to seven games in early August. The Twins know it too, having been swept by the Guardians at home last September before going 1-4 in a five-game series at Cleveland. Minnesota’s 6-13 record against its rival in 2022 was a big reason the Twins missed the playoffs.
With the Twins and Guardians close so far this year, this weekend’s series will be crucial for both teams.
If the Twins sweep the set, they can take a six-game lead in the AL Central – far from insurmountable but a nice advantage to have at the start of the year.
If the Guardians complete the home sweep, they will draw within half a game of the Twins. After a 12-14 record in April, Cleveland is reportedly poised to take first place.
Regardless of this weekend’s results, the winner of the series will win at least one game in the standings – and one game can make all the difference at the end of a long year.
They have fewer one-on-one opportunities
Thanks to MLB’s new balanced schedule, this weekend’s Twins-Guardians series means even more.
With each team playing the other 29 for the first time, the division’s opponents will face off 13 times this season. That’s down from the previous number of 19 clashes, meaning two fewer series a year between division rivals. That means every game between teams like the Twins and Guardians is even more critical.
The two teams will meet for a four-game series in early June at Target Field in Minneapolis, but after that it will be some time before their third game of the year. The Twins and Guardians will face off again Aug. 28-30 in Minnesota and wrap up their season streak Sept. 4-6 in Cleveland.
With fewer chances to do one-on-one damage, both teams will be extremely motivated to play their best this weekend.
Pitching matches should be interesting
Another reason to get started? Pitching talent on both sides, although neither team enters the weekend with an intact pitching rotation.
Sonny Gray, who leads MLB with a 0.77 ERA in 2023, will start Saturday’s game for the Twins. Bailey Ober (Friday) and Joe Ryan (Sunday) will also start against Cleveland. The Guardians rotation this weekend will feature a pair of rookies in Peyton Battenfield (Friday) and Logan Allen (Saturday) as well as Cal Quantrill in the series finale.
The Twins put right-hander Kenta Maeda on the disabled list on Saturday with a right triceps workout, and right-hander Tyler Mahle will be out for four weeks after leaving an April 27 start with elbow pain. Mahle was placed on the IL on Wednesday with a posterior impingement in his right elbow and a pronator flexor sprain.
For the Guardians, promising young right-hander Triston McKenzie is yet to pitch this season due to a major right-round strain. Cleveland hopes McKenzie can leave the 60-day IL at the end of the month, but he won’t be available this weekend. Neither is Aaron Civale (left oblique strain), who is in rehab in Cleveland and threw a mound Wednesday for the first time since landing in IL.