Cole De Vries fared well early, but he struggled his second time through the order, and Minnesota's offense was held in check by Scott Kazmir in a 5-1 loss to the Indians in a game that was delayed more than two hours because of rain at Target Field.
It leaves Gardenhire stuck at 998 wins with one game left to go in the season, and his 1,000th win with the club is no guarantee, as he's not under contract for next year. His fate is expected to be decided as early as Monday.
"It's frustrating and flustering," Gardenhire said. "We haven't played good and it has not been fun. I wish I could have all the answers, but the guys are out there and they're not feeling too good right now. They were pushing to try to win a ballgame.
"I had more than one of them apologize to me. I don't need that. I know what they're giving me. They're giving me effort. They've come to play, but we just weren't good enough this year."
The Indians, meanwhile, now are atop the American League Wild Card standings with the win, leading both the Rays and Rangers by one game. Cleveland guaranteed itself at least a spot in a tiebreaker game for the Wild Card with the win.
"We're in a good place right now," Kazmir said. "I feel like we're still very hungry, so we're going out there every day and grinding at-bats and making quality pitches. That's kind of, for the past couple of weeks, the way we've been playing. I think that's something we can carry into the postseason."
De Vries started out the game on a roll, retiring the first 11 batters he faced while setting a new career high in strikeouts with seven. But he gave up a two-out single to Jason Kipnis in the fourth and Carlos Santana promptly followed with a two-run blast to give the Indians the lead.
De Vries retired the first two batters he saw in the fifth, but then ran into trouble again. He gave up back-to-back singles to Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles before Michael Bourn laced a two-run triple off the wall in right field.
The Indians also appeared to catch a break, as Aviles was ruled safe at home by home-plate umpire Larry Vanover even though replays showed he missed home plate with his slide and was tagged out by Eric Fryer. Nick Swisher followed with a walk before Kipnis brought home another run with an RBI single.
Gardenhire argued the play at the plate to no avail, as Vanover insisted that Aviles touched home plate with his feet-first slide.
"I could see it from my angle and told him [Aviles] never got there and stopped short," Gardenhire said. "He just said he thought he got the plate. That's all he told me."
It left De Vries with another subpar outing, as he gave up five runs on six hits and a walk over five innings to finish his season with a 10.80 ERA in four appearances, including two starts this season.
"It's tough when a call like that costs you two runs and 15 pitches," De Vries said. "I feel like the game would've been really different. Whether we would've won it or not, who knows? But if we get out of the inning 15 pitches less and two runs less, I just think that play was a deciding factor that didn't go our way."
De Vries was outpitched by Kazmir, who surrendered just one run on six hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts over six strong innings.
The Twins scored their one run against Kazmir in the fourth inning on a two-out RBI single from Fryer. But they stranded two runners, as Pedro Florimon flied out to left field on a nice running catch from Michael Brantley.
It was another struggle offensively for the Twins, who struck out 13 times and went just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position en route to their 19th loss over their last 23 games.
"It's definitely disappointing," Fryer said. "We wanted to finish strong and get 1,000 for [Gardenhire] this year. In the offseason, anything can happen. So we were pulling hard, especially this series, to get a couple wins, but it didn't pan out. Obviously, there's no doubleheader tomorrow, but hopefully we'll get No. 999 for him."