CLEVELAND — It was a triumphant return for Corey Kluber and he owes much of the thanks to the Indians’ offense.
Cleveland’s hitters — an oxymoron for much of the season — were on the mark for the second straight night, slugging their way past the Mets 9-4 Saturday night for the Indians’ fourth consecutive win and fifth victory in six games.
Cleveland scored five times in the opening inning and got home runs from two of its biggest slumping stars — Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera — to keep pace in the American League wild-card race, where the Indians entered the night just two games back.
“We just keep winning, man, that’s it,” Swisher said. “That’s kind of our thing. This is the grind. This is the push. It’s been a while since this team has had this opportunity and we’re going to do our best to take full advantage of it.”
The early run support allowed Kluber to settle in for five-plus innings in his first appearance since Aug. 6. The right-hander, who was activated from the disabled list prior to the game after a bout with a right finger sprain, allowed two runs on five hits while striking out five, to improve to 8-5 with a 3.54 ERA in 22 appearances (20 starts).
Kluber surrendered just a run over the first five innings, allowing his offense to get in gear against his Mets counterpoint, left-hander Jonathan Niese.
“He looked pretty much like he hadn’t skipped a beat,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said. “There was a little bit of rust with the location of his fastball, but he held his velocity from Pitch 1 and got a lead. For a layoff like that, that was outstanding.”
“Once I got out there and got into the flow of the game, it didn’t really feel like I missed any time,” Kluber said. “I kind of surprised myself with how my command has been (in bullpens and simulated games). It continued tonight, I guess.
“It was nice getting back out there. Hopefully, I can kind of pick up where I left off.”
The Indians did all of their damage against Niese over the first two innings. After the five-run outburst in the first — keyed by a three-run double from Ryan Raburn — Swisher hit a solo shot in the second for his 17th homer of the year.
New York closed the gap to 6-4 with three runs in the sixth, thanks to a shoddy effort from beleaguered reliever Vinnie Pestano in which the right-hander allowed all three of his inherited runners to score on a two-out double from Justin Turner, followed by a base hit from Juan Legares.
But with the game still undecided in the seventh, Cabrera snapped an 0-for-19 skid by belting a three-run homer down the right-field line.
“Swish looks like he’s starting to swing it and Cabby with a big, big hit,” Francona said. “That would be so good to get both those guys hot right at about the right time.”
Swisher entered the night batting just .239, but has homered on consecutive nights and has driven in six runs over the first two games of the interleague series. Cabrera was at .234 — 45 points below his career average — through Friday.
“Me and (Cabrera) have been in that same boat this year. It’s been kind of a frustrating year,” Swisher said. “But this is when it really counts. We’re trying to bring our games the best we can.
“As long as we keep getting that dominant starting pitching, we’re going to be all right.”
Counted out numerous times this year, the resilient Indians are still playing meaningful games over the final month of the regular season with an attainable goal in sight.
“This is such a great opportunity for us,” Francona said. “We’re starting to get toward the middle of September and every time we win we’re getting closer to where we want to be. It’s just a great opportunity for this team to kind of shine and I think they’re enjoying it.”
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WHO: Cleveland vs. N.Y. Mets
WHERE: Progressive Field
PITCHERS: Salazar (1-2, 3.00 ERA) vs. Matsuzaka (0-3, 10.95)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM