CLEVELAND -- The Indians have had quite the flare for the dramatic this week. After back-to-back victories on walk-off homers on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was Cesar Hernandez's turn to hand the Tribe its fourth walk-off of the year on Friday night.
Cleveland had been held hitless through 6 1/3 innings, and the bats were finally able to capitalize in the ninth. The Tribe entered the frame trailing by two, but an RBI double by Jordan Luplow and an RBI single by Delino DeShields set Hernandez up to deliver the walk-off double down the right-field line to hand the Indians a 4-3 victory over the Pirates at Progressive Field. The Indians have gone 8-1 since snapping their eight-game losing skid.
“After the eight-game losing streak, obviously don't want that to happen and it's magnified during a shorter season,” DeShields said, “but we knew we were better than that, and we just kept telling ourselves to keep the energy up, don't panic, we have a good ballclub. And yeah, we're just stringing together hits, making pitches, coming up with hits. It's a good time for us to be playing baseball right now, especially going in the playoffs."
The win moved the Tribe (34-24) into a tie for second place in the American League Central with the White Sox (34-24) and just one game back of the first-place Twins (35-23). If the Tribe can move into second place by Sunday, it would likely end up in the top four postseason seeds, which would earn the club home-field advantage. Cleveland holds the tiebreaker over Chicago, but not Minnesota.
But the Indians aren’t just hoping for home-field advantage; the team is trying to win the division.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” said Indians starter Carlos Carrasco, who gave up a two-run homer in six innings. “That’s why we play so hard right now. Those four games we played against the Chicago White Sox were great. That’s where everything’s coming from, and that’s what we want. We want to win the division.”
The Indians’ victory on Friday surely didn’t come easy. A bunt single by DeShields in the seventh broke up a no-hitter (unbeknownst to DeShields), as the offense still battled through its season-long woes. But the difference over the past week is that the Tribe has shown more fight and resiliency than it has all year.
"By any means the game was not going great,” Indians acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “It was a weird game. Many walks, a lot of runs left on base, but at the end of the day, they still fought. We were close enough that we were able to cash that one in in the last inning.”
Alomar explained before the game that he didn’t believe regular-season momentum carries into the postseason, but he clarified that it’s important to play as fundamentally sound in the games leading up to the playoffs. The Tribe didn’t quite live up to those standards for all nine innings.
After Pirates starter Mitch Keller walked the first three batters in the first inning, he was able to escape with a double play and a groundout on just two pitches, allowing only one run in the inning. The Tribe left the bases loaded in the third, and Francisco Lindor ran into an out by overrunning second base in the fifth.
While the team still has offensive and baserunning miscues to iron out over the final two games, the biggest takeaway from its 8-1 stretch is the success it has had from the top of the order. After Lindor began settling in once he returned to his leadoff spot and José Ramírez has made a strong push to win the AL MVP Award, Hernandez continues to prove how crucial of an offseason signing he was for the club.
No matter if he hits first or second, Hernandez has brought consistency to a lineup that’s desperately needed it. He entered the night batting .346 with an .816 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. On Friday, Hernandez proved just how valuable he can continue to be as the postseason draws closer.
“He’s great, man,” Alomar said. “The situations that you need a guy to get a key hit in with two outs, he’s been the guy. … His approach is long at-bats, see the ball, hit the ball where the ball is pitched, and he can do many things. He can bunt. He’s a professional player, man.”