(Sports Network) - One of the American League's worst teams during the season's first half, the Cleveland Indians, have suddenly become one of baseball's hottest clubs since the All-Star break. The red-hot Tribe will attempt to lock down a seventh straight victory and record a three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins when the two AL Central inhabitants face one another today at Target Field.
Cleveland has won each of its first six contests of the second half, its longest win streak since a seven-game tear from September 15-22, 2008. The surge has come against pretty good competition as well, as the Indians won all four meetings with contending Detroit before their back-to-back bestings of the defending AL Central champion Twins.
"We're playing really good baseball," designated hitter Travis Hafner said after last night's 4-3 victory over Minnesota. "Our starting pitching has been really good, and our bullpen has been lights out. It seems like we're able to get some key hits, a lot of two-out RBI."
Hafner came up with a big hit on Tuesday, an RBI double off Twins reliever Jose Mijares (1-1) in the top of the eighth inning that snapped a 3-3 deadlock. Joe Smith then held Minnesota scoreless in the bottom of the frame before closer Chris Perez finished off the win with a 1-2-3 ninth.
Minnesota had knotted the score at 3-3 on consecutive run-scoring singles by Denard Span and Orlando Hudson in the seventh. Both hits came against Rafael Perez (3-0), who came on in relief of Indians starter Justin Masterson and wound up with the win despite failing to protect his team's lead.
Masterson was charged with three runs allowed over 6 1/3 innings and struck out seven batters in an otherwise-solid performance. Shelley Duncan had a two- run single for Cleveland, with both Hafner and rookie catcher Carlos Santana collecting a pair of hits on the evening.
Minnesota is tied with the Tigers at 3 1/2 games behind Chicago for first place in the AL Central after Tuesday's setback. The Twins had won three straight meetings with the White Sox over the weekend prior to this series.
Coming off very encouraging last start, Francisco Liriano will attempt to enable Minnesota to avert a series sweep when he takes the mound this afternoon.
Liriano recorded four losses and a no-decision over a rough five-start stretch to finish out his first half, while compiling a poor 6.75 earned run average during that period. A few extra days of rest seemed to benefit the talented southpaw, however, as he returned to the win column with a sharp performance against the division-leading White Sox this past Friday.
Chicago managed just two runs and six hits in 7 2/3 innings against Liriano, with the Minnesota hurler registering eight strikeouts in the 7-4 verdict. The strong effort lowered the Dominican native's ERA to 2.83 in nine starts at Target Field, where he's posted a 4-3 record thus far at the first-year park.
In his final outing prior to the break, Liriano was rocked for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings of a July 9 defeat at Detroit.
The 26-year-old owns a 4-3 mark with a 3.61 ERA over 10 career appearances (eight starts) against Cleveland, and bested the Indians twice earlier this season. In an April 21 clash at Target Field, Liriano fired eight scoreless innings in leading the Twins to a 6-0 win.
Jake Westbrook gets the call for Cleveland today and like Liriano, had a successful showing in his first start after the All-Star break. The veteran righty held Detroit to two runs and struck out five batters through 5 2/3 effective innings on Friday for his fourth victory in six decisions.
After making a mere five starts over the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery, Westbrook has put up decent numbers for the last-place Indians and drawn interest from contending teams as the trade deadline approaches. The 32- year-old improved to 6-5 with a 4.67 ERA in 19 starts with Friday's result.
Westbrook will be facing the Twins for the first time since the 2008 campaign today and is 7-9 with a 3.62 ERA in 23 career encounters (17 starts) with Minnesota.
These divisional foes have now split eight overall matchups so far in 2010, with the Indians having won three of the five games played between the clubs at Target Field.