For seven innings, the Cleveland Indians pitching staff performed just as they had over the last year and a half, riding strong starting pitching before turning the game over to the reliable arms in the bullpen.
Unfortunately for the Indians, this is 2018 and that reliable relief corps has been anything but. With six outs to go, the Houston Astros rallied back from a 2-0 deficit through seven innings with a four-run eighth and then tacked on seven more runs in the ninth to embarrass the Indians, 11-2, at Progressive Field on Friday night.
It was the worst kind of déjà vu for the Indians and their fans, as all were reminded that even Corey Kluber starts can be spoiled in the most monumental and unbelievable ways. The game played out as though it were two separate contests, with the Astros bats held in check by Kluber for six-plus innings before Andrew Miller stepped in to a tight spot in the seventh and slammed the door. Miller, however, was unable to lock the deadbolt on that door and the Astros came through like a battering ram to rob the Indians of a would-be win that should have evened up the series between the two clubs.
Kluber was not as dominant as he has shown himself to be throughout the season, but he did what good pitchers do – he minimized the damage. In five of the seven innings that he took the mound, the Astros had base runners, but he left with six and one-third innings of scoreless baseball under his belt and was in line for an eighth victory. That would be violently ripped from his possession as, for the umpteenth time this year, the Indians bullpen proved to be a stripped husk of its former reliable self.
Cleveland took the lead in the third inning against Dallas Keuchel, Astros left-hander and like Kluber a former Cy Young winner. The veteran southpaw worked around a big jam in the second after Edwin Encarnacion singled and Melky Cabrera doubled to the wall in center to start the inning, but back-to-back strikeouts and a grounder to first wasted the opportunity. The next time up, the team delivered with a two-out runner in scoring position, as Michael Brantley doubled to right against the shifted outfield (extending his hitting streak to 14 games) and Jose Ramirez chased him home with a double high off of the wall in left to give the Indians a 1-0 lead.
The Astros put up their first significant threat in the fourth. Alex Bregman led off with a single, but Kluber retired the next two. Marwin Gonzalez singled him to third, but Yuli Gurriel stranded the pair with a fly to right.
The Indians added to their lead in the bottom of the sixth, but missed a chance for more. Three straight singles by Encarnacion, Cabrera, and Yan Gomes loaded the bases. Jason Kipnis knocked one in on a fielder’s choice grounder, with Gomes forced at second for the second out. Kipnis moved to second on a passed ball and Rajai Davis would be walked to reload the bases, but Greg Allen struck out swinging to strand three.
Kluber faced trouble again in the seventh and would need help from the bullpen. After Kluber struck out Gonzalez to start the inning, Gurriel reached on an error at third by Ramirez. Singles by Evan Gattis and Max Stassi loaded the bases. Manager Terry Francona came out for Miller, who got pinch-hitter J.D. Davis to ground into a double play, leaving it a 2-0 game.
Things quickly unraveled for the Indians in the eighth. George Springer doubled and Bregman followed with a walk off of Miller. A two-run double from Jose Altuve tied the game at two. Francona returned to the center of the diamond and summoned Cody Allen, but there was no slowing the Astros down. After Allen retired the first batter that he faced, Gonzalez dropped down a bunt with Altuve at third. He beat the throw to the plate from Allen to put Houston up, 3-2. Gurriel followed with a single and Gattis was hit by a pitch to load the bases before Stassi forced in a run with a walk of his own to make it 4-2. Dan Otero became the third Tribe pitcher of the inning, retiring the final two batters in a ten-batter inning.
Oliver Drake and Josh Tomlin provided gasoline to the dumpster fire in the ninth. Drake gave up back-to-back one-out doubles to Altuve and Correa to score a run. A hit batter and a single loaded the bases before Gattis drove in two with a single. Stassi grounded into a fielder’s choice, with Gurriel thrown out at the plate for the second out, but Jake Marisnick drove in a run with a single to center. Tomlin faced the ninth man to bat in the inning, Springer, and saw his 2-2 offering turn into a three-run souvenir, making it an 11-2 game. He retired Bregman to end the second straight ten-batter frame for the ‘stros.
The Indians got a double and a walk in the ninth, but would not score against former Tribe reliever Tony Sipp.
The Astros are now 34-18 on the year and have won five straight. Their lead in the AL West remains at three games. The Indians have dropped two in a row and have fallen back below the .500 mark at 24-25. Luckily, they play in the awful AL Central, where they hold a game and a half lead over Minnesota, which has similarly lost two straight.
Kluber took the tough no-decision for the Tribe. He worked six and one-third innings, allowing seven hits on the night, but no walks and more importantly, no runs. He struck out seven and saw his ERA drop to 2.17 due to his scoreless outing. Keuchel took his own no-decision as his teammates got him off of the hook. He made a quality start, working six innings while allowing two runs on eight hits with a walk and five strikeouts.
Joe Smith earned the win in relief for Houston. He struck out the only batter that he faced in the bottom of the seventh before the Astros racked up runs in bunches. Miller took the loss and the blown save for Cleveland – he was charged with three runs on two hits and one walk in two-thirds of an inning. Allen was charged with one run in a third of an inning, while Drake was docked for six runs on five hits in his two-thirds worked in the ninth.
The Indians had plenty of opportunities early on to do damage, but could not deliver in the clutch, something that has plagued the team for stretches this year. They were just 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded ten men in the ball game. Brantley, Encarnacion, and Cabrera each had two hits on the night.
The Astros, meanwhile, cashed in often, going 7-for-15 with nine left on base. Springer led the offensive charge with three hits (including his eleventh homer), three RBI, and two runs scored. Gattis had three hits and drove in a pair, while Altuve had two doubles, two RBI, and two runs scored.
Cleveland will attempt to get back in the win column in a 7:15 PM ET start on Saturday night, as right-hander Carlos Carrasco (5-3, 3.65) pitches his second straight game against Astros righty Lance McCullers Jr. (6-2, 3.20). Carrasco gave the Indians a quality start in the outing, working seven and two-thirds innings while giving up three runs on eight hits, but the Indians could not do anything against McCullers, who allowed just one hit over seven scoreless innings.
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