Danny Salazar made his case for a role on the Indians’ postseason roster with four and two-thirds innings of strong starting pitching and the Cleveland bats provided just enough offense as the Tribe held on for a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday night
The Indians (99-59) held off the Twins offense one night after it erupted for 17 hits against the Tribe pitching staff. With a chance to secure an on-the-field celebration of a trip to the 2017 playoffs, the Twins instead had to postpone their party for several hours until the Los Angeles Angels fell 6-4 in extra innings to the Chicago White Sox, punching Minnesota’s postseason ticket.
Salazar took the mound with his October at stake after a shaky up-and-down season saw his spot in the starting rotation disappear. While he may not have written his name in ink on manager Terry Francona’s 25-man roster for the American League Division Series, he made the decision to exclude him a little bit more difficult by handling the Twins for half of the night’s outs before turning the game over to the bullpen.
The Indians’ right-hander needed eleven pitches to breeze through the first inning, using his upper-90s fastball to strike out Brian Dozier before getting Joe Mauer to line to left. Jorge Polanco was cut down swinging on a Salazar changeup and Cleveland came to the plate to claim an early lead.
Adalberto Mejia, the young Twins left-hander, appeared to work out of early trouble, but the Indians got a pair of big two-out hits to get in front. Francisco Lindor walked to start the home half, but was doubled up on a double play ball by Austin Jackson. Jose Ramirez added to his growing doubles total with a shot to left and he scored with ease on a single to center by Edwin Encarnacion as the Indians moved in front, 1-0. Carlos Santana followed with a single, but Mejia struck out Jay Bruce to strand a pair.
Salazar gave up a two-out double in the second, but struck out the first and final batters of the frame. He struck out two more in the third, retiring the first two batters on Ks before a walk by Dozier. He would move no further as Mauer grounded to Santana at first. Salazar pushed his strikeout total to eight through four innings by retiring Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton swinging after Polanco grounded out to start the inning.
The Indians hit into their second double play of the game to end the third, but added another run in the fourth. Encarnacion singled to left and moved to second on a single by Santana. Bruce flied to right and Yandy Diaz struck out swinging to put the inning in jeopardy, but Jason Kipnis worked a walk to load the bases and Yan Gomes was hit by a 1-2 slider to force in the second run of the game to make it a 2-0 Indians lead. Twins skipper Paul Molitor had seen enough from Mejia, bringing in Ryan Pressly from the bullpen, and he did his job, getting Lindor to fly to left to leave the bases full of Indians.
Salazar returned for the fifth and retired the first two men he faced, including Eduardo Escobar swinging for his ninth strikeout of the night, before turning the game over to the bullpen. Mike Clevinger relieved while making his first back-to-back relief appearances in his new role for the postseason and gave up a two-out double off of the base of the wall in left to former Tribe backstop Chris Gimenez, but he kept the lead at two runs by getting another former Indians player, Robbie Grossman, to ground out to first.
The Indians would tack on a third run in the bottom of the fifth. Jackson singled to center off of Pressly and moved to second on a one-out walk by Encarnacion. Santana grounded into a fielder’s choice, with Encarnacion forced at second for the second out. Left-hander Buddy Boshers took over on the mound to face the left-handed hitting Bruce and got him to ground to third, but Escobar’s throw to Mauer was in the dirt. Mauer could not contain the throw on the scoop, allowing Jackson to score on the error to give Cleveland a 3-0 advantage.
Clevinger worked a clean sixth, getting a liner from Dozier and a pair of grounders.
Michael Tonkin replaced Boshers on the mound in the bottom of the sixth after he struck out Kipnis looking to start the home half. Tonkin engaged Gomes in a lengthy battle at the plate, with the Tribe catcher working the count full before sending the eighth pitch of the at bat into the bleachers in left for his 14th homer of the season, giving the Indians a 4-0 lead.
Andrew Miller worked a perfect seventh, striking out a pair, and Joe Smith got in an inning of work in the eighth, striking out one of his own to protect the 4-0 score.
Cody Allen came on for the ninth in the non-save situation to get some work. Dozier singled to start the inning, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and tagged up to third on a fly out to left by Mauer. Polanco sent the next pitch down the right field line and off of the foul pole for a two-run shot, cutting the Cleveland lead in half at 4-2. Allen struck out Rosario swinging for the second out before Buxton singled to center and took second base on catcher’s indifference. The Tribe closer, with the tying run at the plate in Max Kepler, got him to ground to short to end it.
Cleveland’s win protected their one-game lead over the Houston Astros, which once again dominated the rival Texas Rangers with a 12-2 win. In order to overtake the Indians for the American League’s top record, Houston will need to make up the one game difference in the standings as well as win one extra game, as Cleveland holds the tie-breaker between the two teams.
The Twins’ five-game winning streak came to an end, but their postseason drought also ended as the team completed an improbable one-year turnaround after a disastrous season just one season ago. They became the first team in Major League Baseball history to make the playoffs one season after finishing with at least 100 losses the year before.
Salazar’s case for a postseason role with the Indians was a strong one. He allowed just two base runners – on a double and a walk – and struck out nine Twins batters while needing 64 pitches to clear four and two-thirds innings. Clevinger (12-5) took home the win after working an inning and one-third of scoreless relief, allowing one hit himself. Indians pitching combined to strike out 13 batters and walk just one on the night.
Mejia (4-7) was saddled with the loss after allowing two runs on five hits in three and two-thirds innings of work. He walked three and struck out three to extend his winless streak another game. He has not won a game since July 3.
The heavy lifting for the Indians offense again started at the top of the order. Lindor, Jackson, and Ramirez each had a hit, with the top two hitters adding a walk each to their final line. Jackson, Ramirez, and Encarnacion each scored a run, with the Tribe slugger reaching base safely in all four trips (two singles, two walks) while scoring a run and driving one in. Santana had three singles on the night. Ramirez’s 53rd double of the season extended his AL lead.
The Indians and Twins will conclude their season series with a quick turnaround on Thursday afternoon. Cleveland will send right-hander Carlos Carrasco (17-6, 3.43 ERA) to the mound in search of his 18th win in his final start of the regular season. Minnesota, looking to get its rotation lined up for the AL Wild Card game, will bump Ervin Santana (16-8, 3.36) up a day so that he can pitch on normal rest against the second place club out of the American League East, either the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, on Tuesday when the two candidates meet somewhere off of the Atlantic for the right to move on to the ALDS. Santana is 2-0 against Cleveland this season, giving up just one run in 19 innings of work while striking out 16.
First pitch from Progressive Field is scheduled for a 12:10 PM ET first pitch Thursday.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images