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Kluber stumbles in 8th as Tribe falls to Yanks

Indians ace strikes out 9 but allows decisive RBI double to Hicks
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- Given their commanding lead atop the American League Central, the Indians knew this series against the Yankees would provide a better litmus test for their October chances. There is also the backdrop of New York stunning the Tribe in the postseason last fall.

Inside a packed Progressive Field on Thursday night, the opener of this four-game set lived up to its blockbuster billing, but the Indians were hung with a 7-4 defeat. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor showed why they are arguably baseball's best offensive duo, but the Yankees got to ace Corey Kluber in the end.

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CLEVELAND -- Given their commanding lead atop the American League Central, the Indians knew this series against the Yankees would provide a better litmus test for their October chances. There is also the backdrop of New York stunning the Tribe in the postseason last fall.

Inside a packed Progressive Field on Thursday night, the opener of this four-game set lived up to its blockbuster billing, but the Indians were hung with a 7-4 defeat. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor showed why they are arguably baseball's best offensive duo, but the Yankees got to ace Corey Kluber in the end.

View Full Game Coverage

Video: NYY@CLE: Ramirez connects on 99-mph pitch for a HR

The decisive blow arrived in the eighth, when Indians manager Terry Francona opted to stick with Kluber with his pitch count sitting at the century mark. The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner opened the inning by walking Didi Gregorius and later allowed a go-ahead RBI double to Aaron Hicks, ending the pitcher's night.

"I thought he was fine," Francona said. "I thought he was throwing the ball well. There's been some instances where I think we've given guys some wiggle room, but I thought he was in command of what he was doing."

Video: NYY@CLE: Hicks lines a go-ahead RBI double in the 8th

That may be true, but Francona's hands have also been tied some due to a bullpen with the Majors' highest ERA (5.39). The late-inning struggles -- Cleveland has a minus-34 run differential from the seventh inning on -- have played a role in the team's starters averaging 98.8 pitches per game (second most in MLB).

Prior to the eighth-inning breakthrough, New York (61-31) struck for four runs off Kluber across the third and fourth innings. Brett Gardner pulled a pitch from Kluber just over the right-field wall in the third for a two-run homer, and Gregorius added a leadoff blast in a two-run fourth.

Dating back to last year's AL Division Series, which New York won after Cleveland took a 2-0 lead in the series, Gregorius has three homers in his last two games against Kluber.

Overall, Kluber was charged with six runs on eight hits in 7 1/3 innings, in which he struck out nine and walked two. The ace has allowed six runs in an outing twice in his past four starts, posting a 6.14 ERA during that stretch of outings.

Video: NYY@CLE: Kluber strikes out Bird swinging in the 2nd

Gardner added a second home run off Indians lefty Tyler Olson in the ninth.

In the hours before Thursday's game, Francona offered high praise for the season Yankees ace Luis Severino has put together. Then Cleveland's lineup showed that it was more than up to the task, chasing the big right-hander from the contest after a season-low-tying five innings. Severino allowed four runs and ended with just one strikeout for the first time since Sept. 26, 2016.

Lindor led off the first inning with a double off the right-field wall and came around to score on a single by Ramirez. Edwin Encarnacion later delivered a solo homer over the 19-foot wall in left, marking the first shot off Severino in a first inning since Aug. 28 last season. Yonder Alonso tacked on an RBI single against Severino in the third.

Video: NYY@CLE: Encarnacion crushes a solo homer in the 1st

With two outs in the fifth, Ramirez crushed a pitch from Severino out to right field for his 28th home run of the season for the Indians (50-42). That marked the fourth blast in the past three games for Ramirez, who is now tied with Boston's J.D. Martinez for the Major League lead.

"This is a very good team. They're in first place," Severino said. "They took pretty good at-bats against me and they fouled a lot of pitches. … I threw a lot of good [sliders]. I threw a lot of bad ones. They didn't swing. I thought the shape was good -- of the slider. I don't know if they were expecting that pitch or something like that."

After Severino's exit, New York's bullpen applied the clamp, holding the Tribe hitless over the last four frames.

"We did a great job against Severino," Francona said. "I mean, he's got exceptional stuff. We scored, we made him throw pitches, we got him out after five. But their bullpen is also exceptional. They brought in four guys that are pretty good and they kind of did a number on us."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Ramirez sets record: The switch-hitting Ramirez followed his first-inning RBI single with a two-out, game-tying homer in the fifth. The blast gave Ramirez the most homers before the All-Star break (28 in 92 team games) in Indians history, topping the 27 that Albert Belle launched in 85 games in 1996.

"We all knew he was a really good player," Kluber said. "To be a finalist for the MVP last year, it speaks for itself." More >

Video: NYY@CLE: Ramirez's 28th HR sets club mark before ASG

Kluber vs. Didi: Watching Gregorius belt two homers off Kluber in Game 5 of the ALDS last year is a painful memory for Tribe fans. There may have been some flashbacks in the fourth, when Gregorius sent a 1-1 cutter low in the zone out to right-center for a leadoff homer, which tied the game at 3. Kluber allowed one more run in the frame, but then escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam by striking out Austin Romine and creating a double-play lineout from Neil Walker.

Video: NYY@CLE: Alonso snags line drive, turns key DP in 4th

"Just a backdoor cutter like we had to a couple guys earlier in the game," Kluber said. "It ended up starting where we wanted to finish." More >

Video: NYY@CLE: Gregorius hammers a solo homer to center

SOUND SMART
When Lindor crossed the plate in the first inning, it marked his Major League-leading 83rd run scored. That also set a new club record for runs scored before the All-Star break. The previous mark was held by Kenny Lofton, who scored 82 runs in 83 games before the break in 1994.

Video: NYY@CLE: Ramirez smacks an RBI single to right in 1st

Lindor's first-inning double gave him 54 extra-base hits on the season. That is a new first-half record for an MLB shortstop, surpassing the 53 churned out by Baltimore's Miguel Tejada in 2005.

Video: NYY@CLE: Lindor rips 54th extra-base hit before ASG

MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Following his run-scoring double in the eighth, Hicks stole third base off Indians lefty Oliver Perez and catcher Yan Gomes. Francona challenged the safe call, but the ruling was confirmed after a replay review. Greg Bird then hit a sac fly, giving the Yankees an important insurance run and putting the final touch on Kluber's line.

Video: NYY@CLE: Hicks steals third following review in 8th

HE SAID IT
"As far as I'm concerned, we're focused on our team and how we can be the better team. We know we're good enough to compete with anybody in the league. It's about playing our brand of baseball and getting to the point where we're firing on all cylinders." -- Trevor Bauer, on whether facing the Yankees is a measuring stick for the Indians

"I felt fine. We talked after the seventh and they asked me if I was good and I said, 'Yeah.' I felt fine. It's just, leadoff walks aren't a good thing and then Hicks had a good at-bat and was able to foul off some pitches." -- Kluber, on staying in for the eighth

UP NEXT
It will be a battle of rookies at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday, when Shane Bieber (4-1, 3.47 ERA) of the Indians takes on Domingo German (2-4, 5.06 ERA) of the Yankees at Progressive Field. Bieber has a 2.41 ERA in three home starts this year, and his 36 strikeouts are the third-highest total in a pitcher's first six career outings in Indians history.

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Corey Kluber