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

MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Kelly has pitched in eight postseasons. Which means 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 would fancy a four-game 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 before the Sox walloped the Twins 12-2. “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, the Sox made an electric first impression in this series.

Anderson, batting .208/.256/.234 in his previous 19 games, singled twice and reached base his first four times up and scoring three runs, the first time on a sharp single by Jose 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. Andrew Vaughn homered in the seventh to make it 9-1.

Meanwhile, sneaky right-hander Johnny Cueto (4-1) pitched six innings of one-run ball, working out of crooked-number possibility trouble in four different innings, leaving the bases full in the first and stranding Byron Buxton after he led off the third with a triple on which Robert didn’t make a good read in center field.

Cueto threw 118 pitches, tied for fifth in the majors this season, and lowered his ERA to a 2.11 ERA over his last six starts covering 38 1/3 innings, continuing as a steady force in the Sox rotation. Cueto has allowed three earned runs or less in 11 of his 12 appearances, including 10 starts. He lowered his ERA to 2.80.

Remarkably, after laborious fifth inning that hiked his pitch count to 103, Cueto returned to the mound for a 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.

The 36-year-old master of changing speeds, locating with an assortment of pitches and deliveries, Cueto has become must-see pitching for others on the Sox’ pitching staff.

“One of my favorite things to do is watching Johnny pitch,” Kelly said. “Cueto picks hitters apart and they get frustrated. Hitters get mad when he’s hesitating and quick pitching, then they want to hit homers and they pop up.”

Cueto got mad when Jose Miranda’s bloop single dropped in front of Robert, who didn’t get a great jump, leading off the second. After Urshela’s double scored Miranda from first and Ryan Jeffers dropped another bloop single into left, left fielder AJ Pollock lightened Cueto’s mood by catching All-Star Luis Arraez’ fly ball and throwing out Urshela on a close play at home.

“I love to watch him,” said Jimmy Lambert, who relieved Cueto and pitched a scoreless seventh with two strikeouts. “He’s unique. He’s been doing it a long time, and you appreciate a guy who attacks hitters.”

The Twins used position player Nick Gordon to pitch the ninth. He gave up a three-run homer to Seby Zavala.

The Sox are within four games of Minnesota. Three games remain in the series.

“Everybody is just committed to take our best shot and see what our record is come Sunday,” manager Tony 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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