The tables turn quickly at times in baseball. One day after blanking the Detroit Tigers by a 2-0 final, the Indians had the favor returned by the Tampa Bay Rays, who used a four-run seventh to complete a 4-0 shutout of Cleveland in Friday’s series opener from Tropicana Field.
In a matchup of two teams fighting for American League Wild Card playoff spots, the Rays captured a big win over the Indians in a well pitched game between both clubs for the first six innings. The Rays ran up the score in the seventh, scratching across a run off of starter Shane Bieber before Adam Cimber allowed the back-breaking blow on a three-run blast by former Indians first baseman Jesus Aguilar.
Austin Pruitt got the start for the Rays and shutout the Indians into the sixth. He allowed a two-out single to Carlos Santana in the first with no damage and worked out of a two-out jam in the second when Roberto Perez singled and Tyler
Naquin doubled to right, but Yu Chang was unable to get the runners in as he grounded out to Aguilar at first. Pruitt gave up a single to Oscar Mercado with one out in the third, but then settled in as he retired the side in order in the fourth and fifth before leaving after getting the first batter of the sixth.
Bieber was nearly unhittable after giving up a leadoff single to Eric Sogard to start the game. He struck out Tommy Pham and got Austin Meadows to pop out before picking off Sogard. He then fired 1-2-3 innings in the second, third, and fourth, capped by a stretch of five straight batters struck out. Ji-Man Choi ended the hitless drought with a one-out single to left-center in the bottom of the fifth, but he was stranded as Avisail Garcia struck out and Joey Wendle flied out deep to left.
Oliver Drake, the former Tribe reliever, replaced Pruitt in the top of the sixth and pitched well despite appearing to not be pitching from the rubber consistently. He got two fly outs in the sixth and worked around a one-out single by Franmil Reyes in the seventh to keep the game scoreless at the stretch.
Willy Adames reached safely on a single to center for the third Rays hit of the game in the bottom of the sixth, but he was stranded on two more outs in the air by the Tribe starter.
After six dominant innings of three-hit baseball, Bieber began to slip up a bit in the bottom of the seventh. Meadows and Travis
d’Arnaud both singled to start the frame, putting runners on the corners. Choi struck out swinging before Garcia singled through the left side, scoring Meadows with the first run of the game. Manager Terry Francona went to his bullpen for Cimber, who retired Wendle on a grounder back to the mound for the second out, but Aguilar came through in the clutch with a big fly to left on a 1-1 slider to blow the game open at 4-0. The Rays’ rally continued as Adames reached on a ground rule double to right. Sogard was intentionally walked, but Pham was cut down swinging on a diet of sinkers.
The Indians faced their third reliever of the game in Colin Poche in the eighth, down to their final six outs. Chang drew a leadoff walk on four straight balls, but he was erased on a double play grounder by Francisco Lindor. Mercado flied to center to end the inning.
Nick Wittgren retired the side in order for the Tribe in the bottom of the eighth, giving his offense three outs to score four runs. Andrew Kittredge was tasked with the job of keeping the Indians off of the scoreboard by manager Kevin Cash and did just that, after walking Santana to start the inning. As Poche did the previous inning, he got a big double play ball as Yasiel Puig grounded into a twin killer before Jason Kipnis flied to center to end the ball game.
The Indians dropped to 79-56 on the season, while the Rays moved to 78-58. The Indians trail the Minnesota Twins by four and a half games in the American League Central, but hold a half game lead over the Oakland Athletics for the top AL Wild Card spot. The Rays are a full game in back of the A’s and a game and a half in back of the Indians.
Bieber pitched a gem for six innings before running into trouble in the seventh. He lasted six and one-third innings, charged with three runs on six hits with no walks and nine strikeouts. He fell to 12-7 with the tough defeat. Cimber allowed two inherited runners to score on the Aguilar blast, which was his second since joining the Rays last month.
“I thought he pitched his heart out and it’s a shame he ended up getting the loss because he pitched great,” said Francona of the starter Bieber.
Pruitt shut down the Tribe with five and one-third shutout innings in his first start in more than two years. He gave up four hits and struck out six while keeping the Indians consistently off balanced. Drake earned the win as the pitcher of record in the bottom of the seventh after working an inning and two-thirds of scoreless, one-hit relief.
The Indians suffered another loss in the bottom of the fifth, when left fielder Tyler Naquin injured his knee tracking down Wendle’s fly ball for the final out of the inning. He made the catch before landing awkwardly on his right knee, then slammed that knee and the rest of his body into the side wall. He laid on the field for several minutes before he was taken off of the field on a cart. The team announced the injury as a knee sprain and he was set to get an MRI in the near future to determine the severity of the sprain.
“It’s a frustrating game all around tonight for all of us, but I’m just thinking about [Tyler] and getting him back as soon as possible,” said Bieber of his injured teammate.
Francona added, “Obviously it didn’t look good and we’re very concerned, but we’ll wait until we get the results.”
Game two of the three-game set from St. Pete is scheduled for a 6:10 PM ET first pitch on Saturday afternoon. The Rays are expected to use left-hander Jalen Beeks (5-3, 4.55 ERA) for the majority of the start, either as an opener or the first to follow. The Indians will send out rookie righty Zach Plesac (7-4, 3.40).
Photo: Julio Aguilar/Getty Images