The Minnesota Twins go into their Thursday afternoon series finale with the Tampa Bay Rays knowing that, win or lose, they will leave St. Petersburg, Fla., in first place in the American League Central.
The bigger question is whether Rocco Baldelli's offensively challenged squad, which has dropped a season-high four games in a row, leave exit a winning record.
The Rays, meanwhile, will attempt to sweep the three-game set and build on their five-game winning streak.
Minnesota, which began the season by winning its first four games and hasn't fallen below the .500 mark all year, enters the Thursday contest with a 31-31 record and remarkably with a 2 1/2-game lead over the second-place Cleveland Indians.
The Twins, who have managed just five runs and 26 hits over their past five games, lost 2-1 on Wednesday when the Rays' Randy Arozarena hit his first career walk-off home run leading off the bottom of the ninth against closer Jhoan Duran.
Minnesota finished with just three hits, all singles, off six Tampa Bay pitchers.
Royce Lewis broke the Twins' 18-inning scoreless streak with an RBI single in the ninth to tie it, and Minnesota loaded the bases with one out after that. However, Jason Adam got Ryan Jeffers to ground into an inning-ending double play started with a nifty backhand grab by third baseman Isaac Paredes and featuring a strong turn at second base by Taylor Walls.
"Hitting is contagious," Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, who went 0-for-4 and struck out twice, said, according to the (Saint Paul, Minn.) Pioneer Press. "It seems like right now, it's a virus out there. We've got to try and figure it out as a team."
Minnesota starting pitcher Pablo Lopez, who gave up just one run on five hits over seven innings, added, "It's a little frustrating because we know the type of team we are. We know the quality we have from both the pitching and hitting. We've been in most of those games with the opportunity to win, and unfortunately, we haven't been able to finish the job."
Duran, known for his 105 mph fastballs, surprisingly started Arozarena with a pair of splitters to begin the bottom of the ninth. The second one, clocked at 98.6 mph, hung in the middle of the plate and Arozarena drove it 385 feet into the bleachers in right for the game-winner.
"That's unbelievable," Adam said. "Duran's got tremendous stuff. Randy's a great player. We all know that. He lives for the big moment."
Arozarena said, "I was just hoping to connect on something hard. I knew he throws hard so I was just trying to catch up to it."
It was the 12th home run of the season for Arozarena, tying him with Yandy Diaz for the team lead.
"He's got a knack for it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Arozarena's big hit. "He's a really good player who seems to elevate his game when we probably need it most. He was the right guy up there. Duran is really talented, a big arm, but Randy's got a quick bat and knocked it out of the ballpark."
Minnesota will turn to right-hander Bailey Ober (3-2, 2.33 ERA) to try to snap the losing streak before heading to Toronto for a three-game series with the Blue Jays. Ober has never faced the Rays in his career.
Tampa Bay likely will call up right-hander Yonny Chirinos from Triple-A Durham on Thursday and give him the start. Chirinos (2-1, 2.79 ERA) is 0-1 with a 5.40 ERA in two career starts against Minnesota but hasn't faced the Twins since 2019.
--Field Level Media