The Cleveland Indians have every intention of making the American League Central a three-team race.
With its 6-1 victory over the Royals in Friday’s series opener before 31,341 at Kauffman Stadium, the Indians compressed the standings. They closed to within 4 1/2 games of the first-place Royals, who dropped to 74-60.
The Tigers crept ever so close by beating the White Sox. Detroit, at 73-60, sits in second place by a mere half-game.
A week ago, the Indians trailed by seven games, about where they’d resided in the standings over the past two months. But in the last week, they’ve feasted on the Astros and White Sox, and by taking Friday’s game against the Royals have won five of the last six.
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The Indians could be following a familiar path. On Aug. 31 last season, they were 8 1/2 games out of first and 4 1/2 games behind the second wild-card spot. But nobody was hotter in the end. The Indians won their final 10 games and became the American League’s top wild-card team.
“We worked together well last year,” Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar said.
This year looks just as promising, especially if the Indians can do some damage in this series and the next, against Detroit. Salazar did his part Friday, keeping the Royals’ bats mostly silent through his six innings before the game was delayed for 44 minutes by rain.
The Royals are putting the finishing touches on what is already their worst week in the past two months. Starting with Sunday’s loss in Texas, the Royals have dropped four of six and needed two late-innings rallies against the Twins to keep from losing more ground.
They’ve played from behind most of the week, and Friday was more of the same as the Indians did their damage early against Royals starter Jason Vargas.
The Royals did avoid their first shutout in more than a month when Alcides Escobar delivered the third straight single in the ninth, scoring Christian Colon. It was Escobar’s fourth hit, a singular offensive force for the Royals.
There were chances. Three times in the first eight innings, the Royals had two on, but they couldn’t score. All three ended with a ground-out into the shift in short right field, once by Mike Moustakas, twice by Alex Gordon.
“Just couldn’t get anything going offensively,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
The Indians put stress on Vargas through most of his six innings and cashed in early. Their three-run strike in the third was built on Vargas’ throwing error, continuing a troubling trend for Royals pitchers.
Vargas fielded Tyler Holt’s bunt in front of the plate, and a good throw would have resulted in a bang-bang play. But Vargas chucked it past Billy Butler at first, and Holt scampered to second. Holt scored from there when Jose Ramirez lined a sharp single to left.
Defense by pitchers has been an issue all season for the Royals, who otherwise have been superb in the field. The error was the 78th this season and 20th by a pitcher.
“The throw that I made wasn’t very fundamental,” Vargas said. “I don’t know how close it was, but it wasn’t a very sound play.”
The singles by Ramirez and then Carlos Santana and a fielder’s choice ground out by Jason Kipnis scored runs as the Indians took a 4-0 lead.
In the second, Zach Walters, who came to the Indians from the Nationals in the Asdrubal Cabrera trade, made his first double of the season count. The shot scored Kipnis, who had singled.
“Those two innings needed to be tightened up more than they were,” Vargas said.
For good measure, Santana walloped another out of Kauffman. Santana, who hit five homers over a three-game stretch the last time he was here, had hit only one in the 27 games since. His two run-shot in the ninth off Francisley Bueno capped a ground-losing night for the Royals.