And even after taking the middle game of the set, the optimism hadn't really increased with Indians ace C.C. Sabathia taking the mound in the finale on Sunday. But after struggling to get anything going against Sabathia for the first seven innings, the Twins staged an eighth-inning comeback off the left-hander to capture a 4-1 victory over the Tribe at Jacobs Field.
So rather than leaving Cleveland with a second straight series loss and falling even further behind in the division, Minnesota somehow managed to eek out two wins and change its momentum.
"It's a small step for us," closer Joe Nathan said of the series victory. "Coming off a real bad series against Toronto and to come in here, a place we haven't played real well, and win two of three, that's pretty good."
A lot was made of these three games with the Indians and how it might impact the Twins' position heading into Tuesday's trade deadline. A series victory could let the club seek another bat to add to its lineup. A series loss could let the club drop even further behind in the division hunt.
And don't think that this win on Sunday wasn't an effort by the team to send a message to its general manager.
"No one has given up in this clubhouse," Nathan said. "Even against a tough pitcher like C.C., guys kept at it. It looked like he had us numbered throughout the whole game, so to scratch some runs off him was big."
Sabathia had dominated the Twins' lineup for the majority of the afternoon. He had allowed just four hits and struck out 10 batters over the first seven innings while holding Minnesota scoreless.
But then came the top of the eighth. Trailing, 1-0, the Twins were able to not only deliver key hits when needed, but they also capitalized on Cleveland's mistakes.
The team's rally began when Sabathia drilled Jason Tyner with one out in the inning. Mike Redmond then came up to pinch-hit for Nick Punto. Despite being limited in game action recently due to an injured finger on his left hand, Redmond delivered a two-out double that carried just over the outstretched glove of right fielder Trot Nixon to score Tyner and knot the game at 1.
"We needed that spark, needed someone to get that big hit," Redmond said. "Sometimes that's the difference in winning series."
The breaks then continued to go the way of the Twins. Joe Mauer came to the plate, having struck out in his three previous at-bats, and on a 2-2 pitch he hit a ball to second baseman Josh Barfield, who found all sorts of trouble. Barfield recorded two errors on the play -- one fielding and one throwing -- which allowed Mauer to reach and pinch-runner Luis Rodriguez to score the go-ahead run from second base. Justin Morneau added an RBI double to left field to make it a 3-1 game.
"A big performance there at the end against one of the best pitchers in the league," Gardenhire said.
Lew Ford added a solo homer in the top of the ninth off Rafael Betancourt before Nathan came on to record his 22nd save of the season.
The comeback was too late to earn a win for starter Matt Garza, who matched Sabathia's brilliance in his outing. Garza struck out a career-high 11 batters and limited the Indians' offense to just one run on five hits over six innings.
Most importantly for the Twins, when it looked like disaster might strike Garza, he settled down to make big pitches. With two runners aboard and no outs in the first, Garza struck out the next three batters. He then gave up back-to-back hits in the second, which scored one run, but he recorded three straight outs once again to limit the damage.
"Not many [pitchers] are blessed with that arm that can reach back and throw fastballs and get out of things," Gardenhire said. "But he's one of those kids that can throw a fastball and get past good hitters. And that's kind of what he did. He reached back and let it fly."
Garza admitted after his outing that there was a little extra motivation to this start, knowing the situation his club now faces to get back in the division race. And beating one of the teams ahead of the Twins is a big first step.
Now, the Twins sit two games above the .500 mark (53-51) with 58 games remaining in the season. They are 7 1/2 games back of Detroit for the division lead and trail Cleveland by 6 1/2 games in the Wild Card hunt. It still is a steep hill to climb, but Minnesota isn't about to declare itself out of anything yet.
"We have two months to go, and a lot of things can happen in two months," Gardenhire said. "And there is not a double-digit lead. We've been under a double-digit lead before. People can write us off and do whatever they want. But it's going to be what we feel in this clubhouse and how much character we can show over the last two months to see what happens.
"We have to find a way to pick ourselves up and get on a roll. That's two good games here, so let's see if that's the start."