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Clevinger for 5, then 'pen a postseason preview?

Indians rookie allows two runs on four hits before bullpen closes door on Royals
MLB.com @MLBastian

CLEVELAND -- The handshake might have arrived earlier than Mike Clevinger wanted, but the Indians rookie had no issue with handing the ball to the bullpen. Given the way Cleveland's relief corps has operated of late, the qualifications for a quality start might as well be reduced to five innings for the Tribe.

On Thursday night, Clevinger provided an effective five-inning performance for the Indians in a 5-2 victory over the Royals, helping Cleveland complete a sweep of the three-game set and trim its magic number to four for clinching the American League Central. Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen handled the last four frames, keeping Kansas City in check en route to a fifth win in six games.

Full Game Coverage

CLEVELAND -- The handshake might have arrived earlier than Mike Clevinger wanted, but the Indians rookie had no issue with handing the ball to the bullpen. Given the way Cleveland's relief corps has operated of late, the qualifications for a quality start might as well be reduced to five innings for the Tribe.

On Thursday night, Clevinger provided an effective five-inning performance for the Indians in a 5-2 victory over the Royals, helping Cleveland complete a sweep of the three-game set and trim its magic number to four for clinching the American League Central. Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen handled the last four frames, keeping Kansas City in check en route to a fifth win in six games.

Full Game Coverage

This may have been an October preview for an Indians club that has seen its rotation decimated by injuries.

Video: KC@CLE: Allen induces flyout, notches save in win

"We have the best shut-down bullpen in the league," said Clevinger, when asked about exiting the game after only 80 pitches. "I wasn't sad or mad about it."

One night earlier, Indians ace Corey Kluber left the game after 102 pitches, even though he easily could have logged a few more in his outing. After that win on Wednesday, Kluber said, "There's no second-guessing," because the Indians' bullpen has been so good of late. With so many weapons at his disposal, manager Terry Francona suddenly has the ability to shorten games.

Video: KC@CLE: Francona on Clevinger's start in 5-2 win

Leaning heavily on a talented bullpen has worked in postseasons past. Last year, the Royals had seven playoff games in which their starter lasted five or fewer innings, and Kansas City won the World Series. One fall earlier, the Giants had Madison Bumgarner powering their staff, but San Francisco also had six games of five or fewer innings from its starter on the way to a World Series title.

Cleveland is confident that Kluber can handle a high volume of innings, but Trevor Bauer is a wild card, and Josh Tomlin and Clevinger are clouded in uncertainty. In the wake of injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, there is added pressure on those last three, too. Against K.C., Clevinger answered the call by limiting the Royals to two runs on four hits.

If the Indians run into any rotation issues in October, Francona has the ability to rely upon a deep and versatile bullpen.

"I'm sure it's a nice luxury for Tito to have," Allen said. "The end of the game is tough, trying to piece together certain guys against certain hitters for a while, for four innings. It can be challenging, but we have the right pieces down there to do it."

On the season, the Indians' bullpen ranks first in the AL in ERA (3.29), as well as third in Fielding Independent Pitching (3.66) and opponents' batting average (.227). The group has really taken off since Cleveland acquired Miller from the Yankees in a blockbuster deal at the non-waiver Trade Deadline. Since Miller arrived at the start of August, Cleveland's cast of relief arms has arguably been the best in the league.

The five heavy lifters in the bullpen since Aug. 1 have been Miller (25 innings), Otero (25 innings), Zach McAllister (21 innings), Shaw (20 innings) and Allen (18 2/3 innings). In that time period, that group has combined for a 1.81 ERA with 119 strikeouts against 25 walks in 108 2/3 innings.

"Bringing in a guy like Miller into the bullpen has to help any bullpen," Otero said, "especially here, where you already had two stalwarts down there in Cody and Bryan, what they've done the last few years. I think Tito has the confidence in pretty much everyone down there. I don't think he shies away from anybody. He's shown that."

Otero entered Thursday's game in the sixth and blanked Kansas City over two innings, marking the eighth time this year the right-hander has turned in a multi-inning scoreless effort. While he was holding the Royals at bay, Carlos Santana launched a three-run homer in the sixth to put the Indians ahead for good, 5-2.

"Otero comes in and goes two," Francona said, "and just settles everything down for everybody else."

Video: KC@CLE: Otero fans Gordon in the 6th en route to win

Shaw breezed through the eighth inning unscathed and Allen followed suit with a one-two-three ninth. Miller was unavailable to pitch on Thursday, but his services were not required on this night.

"There's a whole lot of depth down there," Allen said. "Everybody is on board. We're just going to pitch where we need to. We've put ourselves in a spot to play deep into the postseason, hopefully. So, we're going to try to get outs whenever we're called upon and turn it over to the next guy."

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 listen to his podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cleveland Indians, Mike Clevinger