CLEVELAND: Just six days earlier, the ceiling of the baseball world was crashing in on the struggling Indians.
The weight of vying with the division heavyweight Detroit Tigers seemed too much to bear, leaving the Indians stumbling out of a four-game series at home in which they escaped with just one victory and three blowout losses.
But the Indians did exactly what they did in halting a rough skid in June: they picked themselves up and came back swinging. After the nightmare series against the Tigers, the Indians staggered to their feet and took two of three games from the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.
Then they completed the 10-game homestand Sunday by rallying for a 6-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals that clinched a series sweep and propelled the club into the All-Star break riding a four-game winning streak.
“It was nice that we could help the city of Cleveland step back off the ledge after the Detroit series,” Tribe second baseman Jason Kipnis said while he and pitcher Justin Masterson packed their bags and headed to New York to take part in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
It was fitting that Kipnis provided the perfect colorful quote to wrap up a wild and wacky first half that concluded with a surprising 51 wins. For, it was he who put the Indians on the board first Sunday against Royals starter James Shields. Kipnis started the day with a first-inning sacrifice fly. He finished 2-for-2 with a double, a run scored, two RBI and two walks.
“What a way to end the first half!,” tweeted Kipnis (@TheJK_Kid) after the game. “Picked up some big games and now for much needed break! See you back on Friday Tribe fans! #sweep.”
Kipnis’ school’s-out-for-the-summer kind of giddiness didn’t seem all that likely earlier in the day when Tribe starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez displayed from the get-go that it was likely going to be one of his “Bad Ubaldo” outings — as fans have come to call his Jekyll-and-Hyde propensity on the mound.
The right-hander promptly found himself knee deep in base runners just three batters into the game after giving up singles to two of the first three batters he faced. He escaped from the early jam unscathed with the aid of a double play, but wasn’t so lucky in the second and fourth innings, allowing two runs in each.
“The two innings they scored a couple runs, for some reason they got the leadoff guy on base and that got me in the stretch and I was a little bit uncomfortable throwing strikes from there,” Jimenez said. “What can I say? My [stuff] wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. My breaking ball would kind of go and then come back.”
But the Tribe broke through against Shields again in the third inning to retake the lead, 3-2, on back-to-back, two-out base hits by Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana, who went 3-for-3 on the day.
But how did Jimenez thank his teammates for handing him another lead in the bottom of the third? By giving it right back to the Royals in the top of the fourth on two runs aided by a walk, two singles and a Santana throwing error.
By the time Jimenez rebounded to get the final two outs of the inning and hold the Royals to a 4-3 advantage, rookie right-hander C.C. Lee was stirring. Jimenez went back out to the mound to start the fifth inning. But as soon as he dished up his eighth hit in just four-plus innings via a Billy Butler single, Indians manager Terry Francona was ready with the hook.
“I was really proud of our guys because going against Shields, with Ubaldo falling behind, then we battle back, fall behind again — but we kept battling,” Francona said. “Because of that, we go into the break with a nice win.”
Lee, another young pitching prospect to make his big-league debut with the Indians among a handful the last couple of weeks, walked the first hitter he faced. But he quickly regrouped to induce two easy flyouts sandwiched around an infield pop-up to escape, and went on to toss 1⅓ scoreless innings.
“[Lee] looked a little nervous, which I think was to be expected,” Francona said. “But his stuff was exceptional … all he needs is experience, and we’re happy to give it to him.”
In the bottom of the sixth inning, the Royals went to their bullpen after Shields had yielded three runs on seven hits and three walks through five innings in the no-decision. But for the third consecutive time that the Indians faced left-hander Tim Collins, they quickly chased him from the game by reclaiming the lead.
Lonnie Chisenhall, the star of Saturday’s win after notching his first career grand slam, patiently worked a walk. Drew Stubbs followed with a base hit to left field. Michael Bourn moved the runners over with a textbook sacrifice bunt that he nearly beat out. Instead it set up Asdrubal Cabrera’s two-run double up the right field alley for another Indians lead.
The sixth-inning rally continued against another Royals left-hander, Everett Teaford, with Kipnis’ second RBI coming on a single that produced the inning’s third run for a two-run cushion enjoyed the rest of the way.
The Tribe’s clutch and constant hitting came from several contributors Sunday. But just as important was more proof that the bullpen has settled back into its late-inning roles, anchored by new eighth-inning setup man Joe Smith and back-from-the-brink closer Chris Perez.
That alone, ought to give fans plenty of reason to remain away from the edge when the season resumes Friday in Minnesota.
“We told the guys the other day, ‘you don’t cruise into the break,’ ” Francona said. “You go 100 miles an hour and then you take your break. That’s what we did and now we’re gonna enjoy it.”