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 standing. They closed to 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 standing 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 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.
Meanwhile, 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.
The Royals have played from behind most of the week and Friday was more of the same as the Indians did their damage early.
The game was delayed by rain for 44 minutes, but the break in the sixth inning didn’t alter fortunes.
The Royals avoided their first shutout in more than a month when Alcides Escobar delivered the third straight single in the ninth to score Christian Colon. It was Escobar’s fourth hit, a singular offensive force on an otherwise quiet night for the Royals.
Three times in the first eight innings, the Royals put two runners on in a frame, and the end results were identical.
Josh Willingham walked and Lorenzo Cain singled with two outs in the second. But Mike Moustakas pulled a hot grounder into the shift. What would have been an RBI single in the pre-shift days became a harmless groundout Friday.
In the fifth, Moustakas opened the inning with a walk, and Escobar delivered a two-out single. Alex Gordon ended the threat by grounding to second.
The same cast returned two innings later, only this time Moustakas was beaned by pitch. Escobar singled with two outs and Gordon stepped in against lefty Marc Rzepczynski, summoned specifically to face the Royals’ home run leader.
Gordon offered at the first pitch and once again hit into the teeth of the shift, a one hopper to Kipnis, the second baseman standing in shallow right field.
The Indians put stress on Royals starter Jason Vargas through most of his six innings and cashed in early.
The Indians’ 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 and Holt scampered to second, and scored from there when Jose Rameriz’s 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.
Singles by Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana and a fielder’s choice ground out by 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 Astrubal Cabrerra trade, made is first double of the season count. The shot scored Kipnis, who had singled.
For good measure, Carlos Santana walloped another out of Kauffman. Santana, who hit five home runs over a three-game stretch the last time Cleveland visited Kansas City, had hit only one in the 27 game since. His two run-shot in ninth off Francisley Bueno capped a miserable night for the Royals.