Tribe handles White Sox, holds steady in playoff race
Indians beat rivals 14th straight time, maintain grip on 2nd Wild Card
CLEVELAND -- Equipment bags rested on the ground in front of each locker around the Indians' clubhouse on Wednesday night. Cleveland's players hurried to pack for their final trip of the regular season, knowing that the next four days can either bring on a long winter or the postseason.
Indians manager Terry Francona did not deem a speech necessary.
"No, I want to stay out of the way, man," Francona said. "I don't want to mess it up. They're doing just fine."
On Wednesday, Cleveland closed the home portion of its planned regular-season schedule with a 7-2 victory over the White Sox. Rookie Danny Salazar turned in a solid outing, Michael Brantley and Nick Swisher powered the offense and the Indians rolled to their team-record 14th consecutive victory over Chicago.
The win allowed the Tribe to hold its ground as one of the two teams primed to punch a ticket to the playoffs via the American League Wild Card. With four games left to play against the Twins in Minnesota, the Indians are one game behind the Rays, one game ahead of the Rangers and in possession of the second AL Wild Card spot.
Cleveland (88-70) is right where it wants to be heading into its final series.
"You've got to be excited," Indians veteran slugger Jason Giambi said. "Any time that you have control of your own destiny, that's what it's all about. We've just got to go out there and play baseball. We don't have to scoreboard watch. We don't have to do anything but go play baseball."
Right now, the Indians' confidence is soaring after improving to 17-6 in September in the wake of a 6-0 homestand that gave the team 11 wins in its past 13 games. Cleveland's 14-game winning streak against Chicago marks the first time that the Indians have won that many consecutive games over one team since doing so against the Kansas City A's in 1960.
With a 17-2 record over the White Sox this season, the Indians are one of just five teams since 1969 to pile up 17 wins in one campaign against a single opponent.
"They just outplayed us," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Any time even when we had leads late, they just seemed to fight and kind of have the ability this year to come back late. A few walk-offs and things like that. They are kind of hitting their stride here."
The Tribe's 51 wins at home this season are its most in one season in front of the local audience since also rattling off 51 in 2007. In that season, Cleveland came within one win of reaching the World Series, but was taken down by Francona and the Red Sox. Here, six seasons later, Francona is trying to lead the Indians to their first postseason berth since that year.
In his first year at the helm in Cleveland, Francona has helped orchestrate one of the greatest year-to-year turnarounds in the franchise's long, storied history. With a 20-win improvement over last season, the Indians are tied with the 1915-16 teams for the second-largest win jump in team annals. Excluding strike-shortened years, the Tribe's record is a 24-win upgrade from 1985 to '86.
"It's very exciting to go play games that are this meaningful," Francona said. "This is as good as it gets."
The White Sox (62-96) flirted with a lead in the second inning, when Avisail Garcia drilled the first pitch he received from Salazar, sending it deep into the left-field bleacher seats for a leadoff home run. Cleveland quickly faced a 1-0 deficit, but the club wasted little time in responding.
"They've been doing an awesome job," Salazar said. "Everybody is playing hard out there, making plays, and that's good. We want to go to the postseason."
With two outs and a runner on first base in the home half of the second, Drew Stubbs pulled an offering from Chicago's Dylan Axelrod sharply up the line. Third baseman Marcus Semien could not handle the grounder, leading to a fielding error that allowed Lonnie Chisenhall to score from second base and pulling the game into a 1-1 tie.
Brantley kept his recent roll going when he followed with a run-scoring single up the middle that pushed the Indians ahead, 2-1. Brantley, who has three hits in three consecutive games for Cleveland, came through again in the fifth with a one-out double off the base of the wall in right field. Swisher took full advantage, crushing a pitch from Axelrod out to center for his 21st home run of the season.
"Right now, we're clicking, and that's outstanding," Brantley said. "We're getting big hits when we need them."
Chicago later tacked on a second run against Salazar, who struck out eight in his 5 1/3 innings, but Cleveland kept piling on to cruise to the win.
Stubbs contributed a sacrifice fly against Axelrod in the sixth to extend the Indians' lead to 5-2. In the seventh, Asdrubal Cabrera used a two-run single off reliever Jake Petricka with two outs to spread Cleveland's cushion to five runs.
Armed with that breathing room, Francona turned to sinkerballer Justin Masterson for the ninth inning, marking the pitcher's first appearance since suffering a strained left oblique on Sept. 2. The crowd rose to its feet and roared as Masterson jogged in from the bullpen for the first time since July 9, 2011, and he showed his appreciation with two strikeouts and a groundout to seal the win.
"It kind of went from our ace getting hurt to all of a sudden having a weapon," Francona said. "And we will use him."
Masterson will stay in the bullpen for now, but if the Indians can extend their run into the playoffs, he might return to the rotation.
For now, Cleveland is focused on the next four days.
And the club wants to secure more home games before the year is done.
"We better," Giambi said. "We better."