ST. PETERSBURG -- Ji-Man Choi squatted and grimaced in pain upon reaching first base in the second inning for the Rays on Monday night. One of Corey Kluber's cutters tailed too far inside, striking him on the leg and ending a turbulent outing for the Tribe's ace.
A swift meltdown by Kluber initiated a long night for Cleveland's bullpen, which turned in a valiant effort before Choi delivered a bruise of his own. In the ninth inning, the Rays' designated hitter drilled an offering from Indians closer Brad Hand out to right for a two-run homer that dealt the Tribe a 6-5 loss in walk-off fashion.
It was a crushing conclusion to what had been a strong night for the Cleveland relief corps.
"That's a lot to ask," manager Terry Francona said. "If somebody has a hiccup, you lose."
With the loss, the American League Central-leading Indians made it highly improbable that they will be soaking the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field with champagne this week. With its magic number trimmed to four -- thanks to a Twins loss Monday -- Cleveland can potentially clinch its third straight division title Wednesday, but the Tribe plays in the afternoon, while Minnesota plays a night game.
Kluber cruised through the first four batters he faced, striking out three in that stretch before the wheels came off in the second. In a span of eight batters, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner allowed four runs on five hits, including a two-run homer to Jake Bauers. The finishing touch to that ugly run was the errant cutter that struck Choi with the bases loaded, giving the Rays a 4-1 lead.
After Kluber logged 55 pitches in 1 2/3 frames, Francona handed things over to the bullpen.
"I just wasn't able to get that last out," Kluber said.
The Indians' bullpen has endured its share of problems this season, but the group did what it could to buy the lineup time. Jose Ramirez came through with a bloop RBI double in the fifth and Brandon Guyer delivered a two-run, pinch-hit double in the sixth to pull the game into a 4-4 deadlock. Ramirez then stole two bases and scored on an infield hit to give the Indians the lead in the seventh.
Tyler Olson took over for Kluber and registered four consecutive strikeouts, including one to C.J. Cron to escape a bases-loaded jam in the second. Beginning with that punchout, the Cleveland bullpen held Tampa Bay's lineup to a 1-for-21 showing heading into the ninth inning.
"We put together a lot and battled through some good innings," said left-hander Andrew Miller, who worked a clean sixth. "It's something we're certainly capable of and it's a good thing. The idea is for all of us to go in the right direction at the right time."
Between Olson and Miller, lefty Oliver Perez and righty Dan Otero, the 'pen held the Rays in check. Neil Ramirez handled the seventh and Cody Allen dodged trouble in the eighth. In the decisive inning, Hand took over and recorded the first two outs with no issues.
Then, Hand spun a 1-2 slider to Tommy Pham that appeared to be low in the strike zone. Home-plate umpire Carlos Torres deemed the pitch a ball and Pham capitalized by sending the next offering through the hole on the right side for a two-out single.
"He made a really good pitch the pitch before and didn't get the call," Francona said.
That set the stage for Choi, who sent an 0-1 fastball towering to right field, eliciting a collective gasp from the crowd. The Rays players then poured out of the first-base dugout in celebration after the ball dropped over the wall for the game-winning blow.
One hiccup, and the Tribe lost.
"I put them in a bad spot, needless to say," Kluber said. "They came in and put up zeros, inning after inning."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
J-Ram runs wild: Rays reliever Chaz Roe opened the seventh by hitting Ramirez with a pitch, setting the stage for the Tribe third baseman to create a run with his legs. First, Ramirez stole second and third base, giving him an AL-leading 32 thefts on the year. Then, when Yonder Alonso chopped a pitch to second baseman Brandon Lowe, Ramirez bolted for the plate, using a headfirst slide to narrowly beat the throw to catcher Nick Ciuffo. That gave the Tribe a 5-4 lead that held until Hand's final pitch.
"He doesn't ever stop playing the game," Francona said. "Unbelievable. He, like, wills himself to try to help us win. That's impressive, because everybody that's been around Josey knows he's going to hit. But, when he's not swinging like he can, he still impacts the game."
Miller time: In the sixth, Francona handed the ball to Miller, who was activated from the disabled list prior to the game. Miller needed only 12 pitches (10 strikes) to face the minimum, finishing with two strikeouts and one ground out in an overpowering return to the mound.
"I finally had it all put together," Miller said. "Hopefully, it's a good building block and it's something to get better off. … Today was a really good start, so I'm happy with it. The idea is to keep it there and try not to do too much."
This marked the Indians' 11th walk-off loss this season, the second-most in the Majors behind only Minnesota (12). Cleveland's club record for walk-off defeats in a season is 12 (2006, 2004 and 1967). The Indians are tied with the Twins for the most walk-off homers allowed this season (eight).
Rookie right-hander Shane Bieber (9-3, 4.63 ERA) is scheduled to start Tuesday, when the Rays host the Indians at 7:10 p.m. ET at Tropicana Field. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is also expected to be activated from the disabled list and in the lineup at third base. Tampa Bay will send righty Tyler Glasnow (1-5, 4.64) to the mound.