MINNEAPOLIS — When Danny Salazar departed the mound early, Mike Napoli flexed his muscle and Cleveland’s bullpen followed with a stifling performance.
That’s the way a first-place team maintains a division lead down the September stretch.
Napoli hit a mammoth home run on the first pitch of the fifth inning to put the Indians in front, and five relievers allowed only one hit over five scoreless innings in a 5-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Friday night to stay six games ahead of Detroit in the AL Central.
“It has to take all of us to do it. I’m in a position where I can, at any time, change a game, and I know that. I’m not going up there just trying to hit singles,” Napoli said. “But it starts with the guys … to get us to that point.”
The Indians won for the ninth time in their last 11 games, despite the removal of Salazar after four innings due to tightness in his right forearm as a precaution. Salazar was on the disabled list for elbow inflammation a month ago, but manager Terry Francona said this issue was muscular and not structural.
“We’ll see how he feels and then we’ll go from there,” Francona said.
Napoli’s drive off Tyler Duffey (8-11) landed in the third deck above left field three sections over from the foul pole.
“He was obviously sitting on it,” Duffey said.
The homer, Napoli’s 32nd, was estimated by the Twins at 456 feet.
“I can’t even hit a golf ball that far,” Francona said.
That followed Byron Buxton’s two-out, two-run homer that tied the game against Salazar in the fourth and glanced off the back wall of the Twins bullpen in left-center. The 22-year-old Buxton has five of his eight career home runs in the eight games since his recall from Triple-A on Sept. 1.
Joe Mauer also went deep and Brian Dozier added an RBI double, but the Twins lost for the 23rd time in their last 29 games.
The Indians scored four runs in the third inning against Duffey, whose low throw to second base on a comebacker by Francisco Lindor not only cost him a potential double play but contributed in a major way to the rally. Lonnie Chisenhall added a two-run double, and Tyler Naquin tacked on an RBI single.
Salazar has not won in seven starts since July 19. One of the four runs the right-hander allowed was unearned due to a fielding error by second baseman Jason Kipnis on the speedy Buxton’s bouncer, but his ERA after the All-Star break is still 7.44.
Joe Colon (1-1) completed the fifth inning for the victory and Cody Allen finished the ninth for his 27th save in 30 attempts, as the Indians started their final stretch of 23 games, all intra-division affairs. They’re only 9-8 against the Twins, who are on track for 100-plus losses.
Napoli already has a career high in home runs, and his latest long ball pushed his RBI total to 93, surpassing his previous career high set in 2013 with Boston. Napoli has three homers in the last five games.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “I was going through periods where I was just trying to grind out at-bats until I could find it.”
The Twins lead the league with 110 errors, already their highest season total in five years and on pace for their most since 1980. They made three highlight-reel plays, diving stops of grounders by Mauer at first and Miguel Sano at third and a sliding catch by Max Kepler in right, but the mistake by Duffey made a bigger impact.
“The errors are concerning,” manager Paul Molitor said.
Indians: Roberto Perez, sharing the catcher role with Chris Gimenez while Yan Gomes (separated shoulder) is working his way back on a rehab assignment, struck out a season-high three times.
Twins: RHP Trevor May (back strain) and LHP Tommy Milone (biceps tendinitis) were reinstated from the DL before the game.
The Indians will send rookie RHP Mike Clevinger (2-2, 5.30 ERA) to the mound for the middle game of the series. His seventh major league start will come against LHP Hector Santiago (11-8, 4.91 ERA), who in his last turn recorded off his first victory for the Twins in six starts since arriving by trade.