Johnny Cueto shines again, Luis Robert hits slam in opener of key series for White Sox

With first-inning RBI singles by Jose Abreu and Andrew Vaughn and a grand slam in the fourth by Robert that KO’d Twins right-hander Sonny Gray, the Sox made an electric first impression.

SHARE Johnny Cueto shines again, Luis Robert hits slam in opener of key series for White Sox
White Sox pitcher Johnny Cueto throws during the first inning Thursday in Minneapolis.

The White Sox’ Johnny Cueto lowered his ERA to 2.80.

Jim Mone/AP

MINNEAPOLIS — Reliever Joe Kelly has pitched in eight postseasons. So he understands the importance of games in July.

“It’s a big series,” Kelly said of the White Sox’ four-game set against the first-place Twins at Target Field, which opened Thursday with the Sox five games off the lead. “We don’t have that much time left. And these games count as two.”

So it goes with division games. The Sox, who won 12-2, would fancy a sweep but need to stop settling for series splits like the one they took against the Guardians this week.

“Everyone is starting to realize we’re getting guys back health-wise and we’re starting to play more consistent baseball,” Kelly said. “Now we need to push it to that extra gear, extra level and play better as a team.”

With first-inning RBI singles by Jose Abreu and Andrew Vaughn, the latter on a broken-bat lucky bouncer off second base, and a grand slam in the fourth by Luis Robert that KO’d Twins right-hander Sonny Gray (4-3), the Sox made an electric first impression.

Tim Anderson, batting .208/.256/.234 in his previous 19 games, singled twice, reached base his first four times up and scored three runs, the first time on a sharp single by Abreu, who has hit safely in 19 of his last 20 games.

Robert’s 452-foot blast on a hanging slider was the Sox’ first slam of the season. He also doubled and collected five RBI with his third consecutive three-hit game that raised his average to .301. Vaughn homered in the seventh to make it 9-1, and catcher Seby Zavala hit a three-run homer in the ninth against position player Nick Gordon.

“Coming into that stretch of these last three series, we knew that every game would be important,” Robert said.

Meanwhile, sneaky righty Johnny Cueto (4-4) pitched six innings of one-run ball, working out of four jams. Cueto threw 118 pitches and lowered his ERA to 2.11 over his last six starts covering 38„ innings. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 11 of his 12 appearances, including 10 starts. He lowered his ERA to 2.80.

Remarkably, after a laborious fifth inning that hiked his pitch count to 103, Cueto returned to the mound for the sixth inning with a seven-run lead and struck out Alex Kirilloff, Jose Miranda and Gio Urshela. He finished with seven hits and two walks allowed and five strikeouts.

“I was feeling good,” Cueto, 36, said. “At that point, I was just getting warm.”

“After the fifth, he said, ‘I got one more,’ ’’ manager Tony La Russa said. “And I said if somebody gets on base, you’re out. And nobody got on base. Then we started calling him Roberto Duran. No mas. He’s amazing.”

Left fielder AJ Pollock caught Luis Arraez’s fly ball and threw out Urshela at home in the second, a big double play at the time.

“Two games in a row, the defensive player of the game was Pollock,” La Russa said.

The game ended with some fireworks when the Twins’ Gilberto Celestino bumped into Zavala, who was trying to field a dribbler in front of the plate. After Celestino was called out, he had words for Zavala. Reliever Jose Ruiz then had words for Celestino, and the benches and bullpens emptied. No punches were thrown, and the situation quickly was defused.

“Nothing really happened,” Zavala said. “We just wanted to high-five each other after the game. End of the game, dugouts came out, just wanted to see how everyone was doing.”

And how was everybody?

“I think everybody is good,” Zavala said.

On this night, the Sox were especially good.

Three games remain in the series.

“Everybody is just committed to take our best shot and see what our record is come Sunday,” La Russa said. “You’re going to see our best shot. That’s the way this club has been. They know we’re in a position where we can’t afford to back off.”

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