By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: The Houston Astros might go down as the most beloved Indians opponent of the past decade or longer.
Not only does their rebuilding plan put them in a class by themselves for ineptness, but also their timing was perfect for the Tribe’s postseason aspirations.
Just when the Indians needed to string wins together, the Astros showed up at Progressive Field for a four-game series that ended Sunday with a 9-2 triumph by the home team.
That made it 4-for-4 against the 105-loss Astros, who seem likely to break the franchise record of 107 defeats and probably with relative ease.
Of course, nobody in the Tribe clubhouse would commit the faux pas of admitting that the Astros are not fit competition.
“I don’t care who you play, it’s hard to sweep four games,” Michael Bourn said. “The biggest key to doing it is to play one game at a time. If you look past the game you’re playing, it’s not good. Worrying about the next day is not good.”
That view reflects the teachings of manager Terry Francona, who stresses a one-game at a time, tunnel-vision approach.
In the postgame news conference with Francona, someone asked if the Indians did what they were supposed to do against the Astros.
“That’s a good way to put it,” Francona said. “We won a couple of close ones, and we kept playing.”
Who can argue with success? The Tampa Bay Rays still hold the No. 1 wild-card spot by one-half game over the Indians. But four other teams that have been the primary contenders for the top two positions are beginning to fade.
The Kansas City Royals, who had been the longest shot on the board among the favored five, have leapfrogged over the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, but remain 3½ games behind the Indians.
The Yankees are four games back and the Orioles 4½. The Texas Rangers remain the Tribe’s toughest competition, inasmuch as they are 1½ games behind the Indians — and maybe the best news of all for them — the Rangers’ next opponent is the Astros.
But not to worry, Tribe fans. The Indians play their final two home games against the Chicago White Sox, whom they have beaten 15 out of 17.
Francona, of course, doesn’t want to hear it. That is getting too far ahead of the story.
The victory Sunday had much to do with an offense that produced four extra-base hits, which affected the scoring, and the pitching of Corey Kluber and seven members (only half) of the bullpen.
Starting with the longest hit of the day, Carlos Santana blasted his 19th home run of the season in the eighth inning to add to the overkill.
Bourn delivered a two-run triple in the four-run sixth, which put the game away. Santana also doubled in the fourth inning to drive in the Tribe’s first run of the game, and Jason Kipnis, as part of a three-hit afternoon, doubled in the sixth.
Michael Brantley did not produce an extra-base hit, but he had three singles, two of which drove in runs. He needs two more RBI to reach 70 for the season.
“He’s a plain old good hitter,” Francona said. “He doesn’t try to do too much. Maybe he’s not a 120-RBI guy in the five hole, but you know you’re going to get really good at-bats when he’s up there.”
Then there was the pitching.
“I don’t think it starts and ends with pitching,” Francona said. “But it does start with pitching.”
He meant Kluber (10-5, 3.61 ERA), who worked 5⅓ innings and allowed two runs, six hits and one walk, striking out six.
“I think he was real strong today,” Francona said. “But he is not in midseason form as far as his command. He missed some pitches on the plate and off the plate. He’s still clawing his way back.”
Kluber was on the disabled list from Aug. 6 to Sept. 7 with a sprained middle finger on his pitching hand. This was his fourth start since being activated. During this brief span, he has compiled a 4.05 ERA, but the Tribe has won all four games.
Since June 11, the Indians are 12-3 in games started by Kluber.
“Physically, I feel fine,” Kluber said. “But I don’t feel like I’m there yet. It’s just a matter of repetition.”
Like getting to play four games in a row against the Astros.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ. and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.