Houston’s Charlie Morton gave up just one run in seven innings of work as the Cleveland Indians dropped their series opener with the Astros on Friday, 4-1.
While the Indians were one of the few teams that handled the future World Champions well last season, that was not the case on Friday as strong pitching shut down a Tribe offense that has been as inconsistent as they come. A tough matchup with Morton, who has emerged as a top quality starter in the game, went the way as the Astros as he paired with two relievers to hold the Indians to just a run on eight total hits.
The Astros took the lead in the third inning against Cleveland right-hander Mike Clevinger, who had not lost a start since July 31 of last season. Looking to remain perfect, he had to battle and got some help from his friends defensively, but they could not provide him enough at the plate to overcome a handful of Astros runs in support of Morton.
George Springer visited the Crawford boxes in the third inning to put Houston on top. Clevinger had worked around trouble in the first after loading the bases with one out, but got his first of three double plays on the night to keep the Astros off of the board. He struck out the side in the second, but Springer drove a 2-2 pitch with one out in the third into the seats in left to give Morton and the Astros a 1-0 lead.
Morton retired 12 of the first 13 batters in order, allowing only a leadoff single in the second to Edwin Encarnacion. He issued a walk to Jason Kipnis with one out in the fourth, but he would advance no further than first base. The 34-year-old set down the side in order again in the sixth and retired Jose Ramirez to start the seventh before Encarnacion delivered a big opposite field solo homer to tie the game. The Indians would get two more singles in the inning from Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes, but each hit was followed by a strikeout as Morton worked out of the jam.
Clevinger had to work hard throughout the game to keep the Astros at one, something he was able to do until the seventh. He got a double play liner to Ramirez to end the third and struck out the final two outs of the fourth after giving up back-to-back singles to Yuli Gurriel and Marwin Gonzalez. In the fifth, Tony Kemp singled to start the frame and stole second before a walk to Springer. Alex Bregman grounded sharply right at the third base bag, where Ramirez tagged the bag and fired to Kipnis to erase the two lead runners. Bregman would be picked off of first as Clevinger’s magic act continued. He set down the side in order for the second time in the sixth, but he lost the strike zone in the seventh, changing the game.
Gonzalez drew a leadoff walk and Derek Fisher did the same, putting two on for pinch-hitter Brian McCann. He popped to second, but Kemp, just recently called up from Triple-A Fresno, hit a double down the right field line that would have scored a pair had it not been for fan interference. Manager Terry Francona went to his bullpen, bringing on Neil Ramirez, who got the final three outs of the inning, but not before Springer’s fielder’s choice grounder to second scored a third run in the inning as Kipnis’ throw to the plate to nab Fisher was not in time, giving Houston a 3-1 advantage.
The Indians poised their biggest threat of the day in the final two innings against the Astros relief corps. With two outs in the eighth, Michael Brantley singled to center and Ramirez singled to short. Encarnacion walked to bring up Alonso, who popped out to short to end the rally.
The Astros tacked on another run in the eighth. Singles by Carlos Correa and Gurriel put two on against Ramirez, and Francona went back to the bullpen for Tyler Olson. He got Gonzalez to fly deep to right, allowing Correa to tag to go to third. Zach McAllister was summoned to face pinch-hitter Evan Gattis, who flied to right, deep enough to score Correa on the sacrifice fly to make it a 4-1 game.
Cleveland would get the tying run to the plate in the ninth against closer Ken Giles. Gomes reached on a one-out single and Greg Allen followed with a single against the shift to put two on. Rajai Davis fouled out angrily to first before Francisco Lindor’s swinging strikeout ended the ball game.
The Astros improved to 29-17 on the season, but just 13-10 at home. The Indians fell back below the .500 mark at 21-22, including a difficult 8-13 mark on the road this season. Luckily for the Indians, the top clubs behind them in the American League Central were all losers on Friday, with Minnesota falling to Milwaukee, Chicago dropping a 12-5 final to Texas, and Seattle edging Detroit 5-4.
MORTON MAINTAINS TRIBE
Morton may be the least intimidating of the names in the Astros starting rotation (based on prior reputation), but that has taken nothing away from his results on the mound. He once again pitched with a strong command of what was transpiring on the field. He retired 19 of the first 21 batters of the game, giving up just the single to Encarnacion (to extend his hitting streak to six games) and the walk to Kipnis through the first six and one-third innings before Encarnacion’s tenth homer of the season. While it looked as though he had just lost his chance to improve to 6-0 on the year, timely run support in the bottom of the frame while he was still the pitcher of record allowed for him to add to his season win total, matching two others for the league lead in the American League.
COMMAND CHECK FOR CLEVINGER
Clevinger did not have his best stuff on the night, but he did what good starting pitchers do and minimized the damage that he caused. Three double plays behind him helped to keep the Astros contained, but as has been the case at times for Clevinger this season, walks would come back to bite him. Coming off of his first start of the season with no walks, he gave up four on Friday, despite throwing just 38 of his 106 pitches for balls. He allowed eight hits, struck out six, and was charged with three runs in total while taking his first loss of the 2018 season.
“That’s unfortunate that happened,” said Francona about the two walks given up by Clevinger that came around to score in the game-changing seventh. “I didn’t think he just shied away though. I think he just missed his spots.”
“I feel like I was kind of erratic at times,” said Clevinger after the game. “I made some pitches, and the defense was there to back me up.”
The Indians and Astros will continue their long stretch of May games against one another on Saturday afternoon in a 4:10 PM ET start.
Kluber has won six of his last seven starts this season, including his last against Kansas City when he matched a season-low with four strikeouts while firing seven innings of two-run baseball (neither was earned). He is 5-3 with a 3.26 ERA against Houston in his career, but has lost each of his last two starts at Minute Maid Park. Keuchel, who is playing well again ahead of his free agency this fall, is the AL’s loss leader but has a 3.10 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP on the year. He has enjoyed pitching against Cleveland in his career, posting a 4-0 record with a 2.21 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in six games (five starts). He earned a win against Texas in his last start, allowing three hits and a walk in seven scoreless innings.
Friday morning we revealed this weekend’s set of Tribe Trivia questions. Following is the question and answer to the first of three trivia pieces, plus a reminder of Saturday’s question.
The Astros have three pitchers in their bullpen who have pitched in the Indians organization. One left via Rule 5 selection prior to pitching for the Indians, one was part of the Bauer trade with Cincinnati and Arizona, and the third was passed last season by Bryan Shaw for the all-time franchise record for career holds.
The Indians and Astros have four of the top eleven picks overall from the 2011 draft class on their rosters (two each) and all are serving big roles for their respective clubs.
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