'Mr. Smile' HR helps Tribe gain in Central race

Indians roll behind 4-run 2nd inning to open Players' Weekend

August 24th, 2019

CLEVELAND -- Call it “Escape from New York: The Cleveland Indians Story.”

After landing around 4 a.m. ET following a long, strange trip to multiple boroughs of the Big Apple, the Tribe returned to Progressive Field on Friday and got back to its winning ways with a 4-1 victory over the Royals in the Players’ Weekend opener. Wearing all-black unis, the Indians buried the ghosts of their 2-5 bummer in the Bronx and Queens and they moved to 2/12 games back in the American League Central race with the first-place Twins' 9-6 loss to the Tigers.

Spending an entire week in the City That Never Sleeps had made for one of the team’s strangest scheduling quirks in recent memory and ultimately caused some restlessness for the fanbase, too.

“It was tough being in New York for a week,” catcher said. “It was exhausting, and everybody had their family over there. I think everybody wanted to get out of New York and come back home.”

The trip had been costly both from a competitive and a personal finance perspective. Tribe manager Terry Francona had family with him, and that led to a particularly enormous room service bill at the team’s Manhattan hotel.

“I almost cried,” the skipper quipped.

The baseball wasn’t much better. The Indians erupted for 19 runs in the opener of a four-game set with the Yankees, but then they scored just 20 runs in the remaining six games against the Yankees and Mets. The bats were a little flat, and the gloves were worse. Most notably, perhaps, the struggles of closer , who extended his blown save streak to three, became a creeping concern.

But home cooking -- and, in this season, Royals cooking -- can be good for the soul. So it was here, with “Bro” Hand nailing down his 30th save of the season and the Indians backing another strong outing from rookie Zach "Sac" Plesac (one run on four hits with two walks and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings) with some early runs.

The offense awoke -- momentarily, at least -- in the second inning against Royals starter Jakob Junis. After a Franmil “La Mole” Reyes double put two runners in scoring position, Tyler “Billy” Naquin ripped a two-run single to right.

Then “Mr. Smile” himself, Francisco Lindor, more than lived up to the demands of his role as the team’s Players’ Weekend ambassador by launching a two-run shot -- his 22nd of the season -- to right.

“I think we did a great job coming out, we weren’t flat,” Plesac said. “We brought energy before the game. You could tell we weren’t tired.”

Plesac continues to be a revelation, especially as he faces division rivals multiple times and looks no worse for the wear and tear. On this night, he once again demonstrated one of the better pickoff moves in MLB (when he nabbed Brett Phillips at first base in the third, it was his MLB-high sixth pickoff in just his 16th start), terrific athleticism and his pure ability to compete.

“He does a good job of mixing his pitches,” Royals right fielder Bubba Starling said. “He kind of nibbles with his offspeed stuff, gets you going, and then sneaks a fastball on you."

The offense quieted after the early outburst, and the Royals got a run on the board in the sixth. But the bullpen came through. And that was particularly sweet relief from Hand, who didn’t let a perfectly placed ground-ball single from leadoff man Alex Gordon in the ninth rattle him. Hand got the double-play ball from Cheslor Cuthbert and the game-ending groundout from Starling.

Hand said he had identified a slight flaw in his delivery.

“When you blow a few in a row, you want to keep getting out there,” he said. “Keep getting opportunities and right the ship. Obviously my past few haven’t been great. Just gotta grind and keep with it and keep the same mentality.”

That worked for the Indians, at large, in this one. They’re out of New York. And perhaps back on track.