By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sports writer
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MINNEAPOLIS: After waiting a harrowing 90 minutes to be rescued from a broken elevator Thursday night, sitting through a two-hour, 26-minute rain delay before Saturday’s game barely ranked as an inconvenience to Scott Kazmir.
It took fire department personnel and elevator mechanics an hour and a half before Kazmir was pried loose from the steel grip of malfunctioning Elevator No. 2 at Minneapolis’ swanky JW Marriott hotel. So, hanging out in the warm, dry and comfortable confines of Target Field’s visiting clubhouse until the rain let up Saturday afternoon was no big deal in comparison.
The veteran left-hander limited the Minnesota Twins to one run while scattering six hits and striking out 11 over six innings to lead the Tribe to a 5-1 victory, their ninth consecutive win.
“Today’s [waiting] was nothing,” Kazmir said. “I get out on the mound and have so much open space, I felt so much better.”
Over his last two starts, Kazmir has racked up 21 strikeouts.
“It’s all about fastball command,” he said. “I’ve been able to attack the strike zone and expand. … I’ve just been going out there and getting [opposing batters] into swing mode. Once I get two strikes, I’m able to sit them down.”
In the American League wild-card race, the Indians (91-70) took a one-game lead over Tampa Bay and Texas, which are both 90-71. The Tribe clinched at least a tie. With a win today against the Twins, the Indians will make the postseason for the first time since 2007.
While the extra-game cushion is nice, Indians manager Terry Francona and several players said that they’d prefer to take care of business today.
“All we have to do is show up [today] and win one game,” Francona said. “It’s exciting, it’s fun. … We just need to be one run better tomorrow and go from there.”
If the three teams are tied after today, the Indians would host the Rays on Monday — with the winner going to the postseason.
Both reliever Joe Smith and right fielder Nick Swisher noted how relaxed the atmosphere in the Tribe’s locker room was during the first three wins against the Twins in the four-game series.
“Look around. It’s pretty relaxed in here right now,” Smith said. “I think that’s good because everybody knows we gotta win tomorrow. We want to win tomorrow. I mean, why not? Let’s finish off strong. That’s what good teams do when you play teams you know you’re supposed to beat, you beat ’em. We’re doing it the right way and need one more.”
Added Swisher: “I don’t think anybody’s thinking about [having a game cushion] right now. I think everybody’s just thinking about tomorrow, getting that win. We’re just kind of going about our business, coming to the ballpark every day and just playing hard.”
One glance at Twins starter Cole De Vries’ ERA — 11.70 entering the game — indicated it might be another big day at the plate for the Indians. Yet the right-hander dominated the Tribe batsmen the first time through the order, retiring the first 11 batters he faced — seven via strikeout — and did not allow any ball to be hit out of the infield.
“When he came in [to Saturday’s game], he had eight walks in eight innings,” Francona said of De Vries. “But against us, he came in and established strikes with both his breaking ball and his fastball. He really kind of sliced right through us the first time through the order.”
Whatever issues the Indians offense had with De Vries were solved when they faced him the second time through the order.
With two outs in the fourth inning, Jason Kipnis hit a single into shallow left center field for the Tribe’s first hit of the game. The Indians’ next batter, Carlos Santana, opened the flood gates by drilling a 405-foot homer to right field that handed the Indians a 2-0 lead.
“Carlos’ swing was huge,” Francona said. “[De Vries] got us good the first time through the order, then Carlos hit that ball and helped loosen up everything. We made good use of our hits. We didn’t have a ton, but I think we got them all with two outs.”
Minnesota got a run right back in the bottom of the inning when Eric Fryer smacked a two-out RBI single to right field to trim the Indians’ lead in half. But with two on and two out, outfielder Michael Brantley helped Kazmir get out of the jam and avoid more damage with a running catch in the left-center gap that robbed Pedro Florimon of extra bases.
As tends to happen when teams are on a roll, a controversial play at the plate went in favor of the Indians in the fifth inning. Home plate umpire Larry Vanover ruled a sliding Mike Aviles safe at home plate despite the throw beating him and replays showing catcher Fryer tagged him on the back of the foot. The result was a Michael Bourn two-run triple that gave the Tribe a 5-1 advantage.
Although the Indians managed just one more hit the rest of the way against three Minnesota relievers, it didn’t matter. After Kazmir’s outing was done, Tribe relievers Marc Rzepczynski, Cody Allen and Smith combined to hold the Twins offense hitless over the final three innings to preserve the four-run deficit.
“We’re in a good place right now,” Kazmir said. “We’re still hungry out there every day and grinding at-bats and making quality pitches. That’s the way we’ve been playing the past couple of weeks and it’s something we can carry on to the postseason.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.