Covering the Bases: Game 158

925SwishKipFinal: Indians 7, White Sox 2

FIRST: The next four games will decide the Indians’ fate in the American League Wild Card race.

After routing the White Sox, improving Cleveland’s record to 17-6 this month and to 17-2 against Chicago this year, the Indians packed their bags and readied for the road ahead in Minnesota. It might’ve seemed like an opportune time for manager Terry Francona to meet with his players and give a speech to rally the ol’ troops.

Nooo,” Francona said. “No, I want to stay out of the way, man. I don’t want to mess it up. They’re doing just fine. They’re doing OK.”

And what are Francona’s thoughts on the upcoming trip to the Twin Cities?

“They have a place where I always buy shirts,” replied the manager.

If that doesn’t sum up Francona’s horse-blinders approach to managing, I don’t know what will.

Here’s what we know. We know the Indians are one game behind the Rays for the AL’s top Wild Card and one game ahead of the Rangers for the second. We know that Cleveland just went 6-0 on its homestand, sweeping away the Astros and White Sox to set up a third straight meeting with a team playing for a top Draft pick next summer.

“We did what we needed to do,” Francona said.

And We know that the Indians are exactly where they want to be at this moment.

“You’ve got to be excited,” Indians veteran Jason Giambi said. “Any time that you have control of your own destiny, that’s what it’s all about. We’ve just got to go out there and play baseball. We don’t have to scoreboard watch. We don’t have to do anything but go play baseball.”

The Twins can be a pesky club, and no one should underestimate the fight in a team managed by Ron Gardenhire, but Minnesota is also playing poorly right now. Over their last 15 games overall, the Twins’ pitching staff has posted a 6.60 ERA, 1.66 WHIP and a 1.61 K/BB ratio. In the past 13 home games, the Twins’ offense has hit .245 with an average of 2.6 runs and 12.5 strikeouts per contest.

“Every team is a Major League Baseball team for a reason,” Indians left fielder Michael Brantley said. “They’re going to have good players on the other side. Our job is to be better than them that day. We took care of our business at home this time and played great in front of a great fan crowd. It was nice.

“Now we just have to go on the road and continue to do what we’re doing.”

Notes from Wednesday’s win…

  • At 88 wins, the Indians have improved by 20 wins over last season (68-94). Excluding strike-shortened years, that puts this team into a tie with the 1915-16 teams for the second-largest year-to-year win jump in the franchise’s 113-year history. The record is a 24-game improvement from 1985 to 1986.
  • With a 17-2 record against the White Sox this season, the Indians became the fifth team since 1969 to achieve 17 wins over one opponent in a single year. The others: 1974 Braves (vs. Padres), 1986 Mets (over Pirates), 2006 A’s (over Mariners), 2013 Rangers (over Astros) and your Indians.
  • Cleveland has 14 consecutive wins over the White Sox, marking a franchise record against Chicago. It’s also the first 14-game winning streak over a single opponent for the Tribe since running off 14 straight against the Kansas City A’s in 1960.
  • The Indians ended the planned regular-season schedule with 51 wins, marking the most at home since also having 51 in 2007, which was a pretty good year for the Tribe

SECOND: The Indians again benefited from the September resurgence of Nick Swisher (two-run homer in fifth) and Asdrubal Cabrera (two-run single in seventh), but it was Brantley who served as the catalyst for Cleveland’s lineup once again.

Filling in at leadoff for Michael Bourn — sidelined for the moment with a sprained right wrist — Brantley went 3-for-5 with an RBI single and a double. It marked his third consecutive three-hit game for the Indians, who have won 11 of 13.

“It’s nice, because he sprays the ball all over the field,” Francona said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a righty or a lefty. With Bourny out, he hits leadoff. You can hit him anywhere in the order. It’s nice to have him heating up.”

Brantley has hit .692 (9-for-13) in his last three games with five RBI, .588 (10-for-17) with two homers and seven RBI in his last four games and .486 (17-for-35) with eight RBI in his past nine games for the Tribe.

In each of the past three games, Brantley has actually achieved at least three hits and one RBI, which has only been accomplished by an Indians hitter in at least three straight games 20 times since 1916. The team record in that time period for consecutive games with at least three hits and an RBI is four (Minnie Minoso, 1959; Ken Keltner, 1939; Joe Vosmik, 1935).

THIRD: Rookie right-hander Danny Salazar gave the Indians a solid effort against the White Sox, limiting them to two runs on six hits in 5.1 innings. Salazar ended with eight strikeouts and one walk in the effort and finished with 89 pitches.

Salazar said it has been nice not to feel so restricted with his pitch count.

“Yeah, now I don’t look at the scoreboard,” Salazar said with a smile.

Salazar now has a rate of 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings through 10 starts this season. That is the highest-single-season rate among all Indians pitchers with at least 3 starts, dating back to 1901.

Here is the list of those with a K/9 higher than 10.00 for a single-season (min. 3 starts):

11.25: Salazar, 2013
11.03: Bob Feller, 1936
10.71: Sam McDowell, 1965
10.54: Herb Score, 1958
10.42: McDowell, 1966
10.15: Barolo Colon, 2000

“I think the mound if the most comfortable place in the world for him,” Francona said. “This kid has come a long way. I don’t think any of us hold our breath. We think this kid is part of what we’re doing. It’s fun. I think he’s done a tremendous job.

“He’s very poised. If I had his stuff, I would be, too.”

HOME: With a five-run cushion in the ninth inning, the Indians ran into the perfect opportunity for sinkerballer Justin Masterson to make his return from the strained left oblique he suffered on Sept. 2. Masterson jogged in from the bullpen and received a standing ovation and loud cheers from the crowd on hand.

“That was kind of cool,” Francona said of the fans’ response.

Masterson struck out two, allowed one hit and induced a groundout to seal the victory. He was around 93-94 mph with his fastball and logged 17 pitches, including a sharp slider.

“It was nice,” Masterson said. “I warmed up nice and came out and tried to throw 300 mph. But it worked out well.”

Masterson will continue to be utilized as a reliever, at least for the rest of the regular season.

“It kind of went to our ace getting hurt to all of a sudden having a weapon,” Francona said. “And we will use him. We just need to get him as many outings as we can that make sense, while winning and managing the game. He can be a big part of what we’re doing.”

EXTRA: The Indians drew 30,942 in the home finale to finish the season with 1,572,926 in announced attendance this season. That is a 9.8 percent decrease in attendance from 2012, even though the team currently has a 23-percent increase in wins. Let’s put any negatives aside, though, to focus on the strong turnout in these past few home games, and how much it meant to the players.

“It was great. It was amazing,” said Bourn, who has been vocal about the attendance this season. “It was amazing for the fans, amazing for us. It was something good to be a part of and we hope that it ain’t the last game here.”

Giambi, who received a much-deserved standing ovation as he stepped to the plate in the second inning, was also pleased with the turnout.

“That’s exciting,” Giambi said. “I know they’ve been watching, because I’ve walked around town and everybody has been unbelievable. I know TV ratings are through the roof. It’s exciting to have them come, it definitely is. I’ve always said, when this place gets people in it, there’s some energy.”

Francona echoed that sentiment.

“It was really kind of electric,” said the manager. “Hopefully we’ll play more games here, because I think they showed their appreciation of our team’s effort, and they seemed very excited. It’s a lot of fun when it’s like that here.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 89-69 (+1)
2. Cleveland 88-70 (–-)
3. Texas 87-71 (-1)

ON DECK:

Indians (88-70) at Twins (66-92)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field

–JB

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