By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
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CLEVELAND: Apparently, the Indians sensed that, for a change, the Houston Astros were in no mood to self-destruct. So they delivered a lethal blow themselves.
There’s no way to know whether the Tribe’s three-run rally in the first inning took the fight out of the visitors or after 103 losses, there was any fight left in them. Either way, the Astros fell 4-1 Saturday night at Progressive Field.
The win allowed the Indians to keep pace with the Rays, who hold the American League’s No. 1 berth in the wild-card race. Wild card No. 2 belongs to the Tribe by the thinnest of margins — one-half game — over the Rangers.
In the first two games of the series, the Astros helped ensure their own demise by running themselves out of innings and committing errors, but only errors that led to runs.
Some teams manage to botch a play now and then without jeopardizing their chance to compete. The Astros don’t seem to be one of those clubs.
Things were a little different Saturday night. The Indians came out blasting. Michael Bourn led off the first inning with a double and stopped at third on Nick Swisher’s single.
Jason Kipnis brought Bourn home with a sacrifice fly and with two out, Michael Brantley whistled a drive into the stands in right for a two-run homer, his ninth of the season.
Scoring first can alter the attitude of an opponent, even if that team has eight at-bats left.
“I always try to do it,” Bourn said of getting on base, especially early. “When you jump on somebody early and put them in a hole, it makes it tough for them to climb out.”
Or as manager Terry Francona said, “When Bourn gets on base, we’re a whole different team.”
A three-run deficit seems like an almost monumental obstacle to overcome for the Astros, who have scored two runs in the first three games of this series and rank fourth from the bottom among American League teams in runs.
Scott Kazmir made certain that the Astros had a huge mountain to climb, delivering seven strong innings. He gave up no runs, four hits, one walk and struck out 10. But when Kazmir yielded a double to L.J. Hoes leading off the eighth, Francona went to his bullpen.
Whether that was truly necessary doesn’t really matter. It’s late in the season, every starting pitcher can use a little break, and Francona has more relievers in his bullpen than the Browns have draft choices in 2014.
Nevertheless, Kazmir’s outing was impressive. In the first four innings, he allowed only one runner, who was wiped out by a double play. Only two runners reached second during his tenure: Chris Carter, who advanced from first on a groundout in the fifth, and Hoes in the eighth.
In Kazmir’s past four starts (22 innings), he has struck out 32 and walked two.
“I remember watching Kazmir the first day of spring training,” Francona said. “I was talking to Mickey [pitching coach Mickey Callaway]. I remember thinking, “If this works, what a find.’ One thing about Kazmir, the bigger the game — he’s not going to shy away.”
By the time Kazmir went to the mound in the second inning, he had a three-run lead, and he knew what he was supposed to do.
“When you get an early lead, you want to attack the strike zone,” he said. “My fastball command was great. I was throwing first-pitch strikes, so I was able to expand the zone.”
The Tribe wasted two prime scoring opportunities.
With two out in the second, the Indians loaded the bases on Bourn’s second double and two walks, but Carlos Santana grounded out.
In the seventh, the Tribe loaded the bases with one out, but Lonnie Chisenhall mis-hit a ball in front of the plate, and catcher Cody Clark started a double play that ended the inning.
Francona and the players were pleased that the largest crowd since Sept. 1, numbered at 26,611, showed up on a fireworks night.
“We had a good crowd out there tonight,” Bourn said. “We enjoyed it. That kind of energy from a crowd helps us.”
Added Francona: “I think the players welcomed that. It created a little extra energy.”
In a departure from form, Indians officials are expecting a crowd similar in size to Saturday night for this afternoon’s series finale.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.