MINNEAPOLIS — If the Indians keep this up, they won’t have to worry about anybody else in the American League wild-card race but themselves.
Cleveland won for the seventh straight time Thursday night, opening a crucial regular-season-ending four-game series against Minnesota with a 6-5 victory at Target Field.
But instead of a celebratory postgame scene in the clubhouse, there was almost a defeated atmosphere, thanks to another ninth-inning implosion from closer Chris Perez, who allowed four runs before Joe Smith rode to the rescue to get the final out.
Manager Terry Francona has supported Perez almost to a fault this year, but for the first time — with just three games remaining on the regular-season schedule — he left open the possibility that there may be a change coming on the closer front.
“We’ll figure it out,” said Francona, whose team won for the 12th time in 14 games to maintain its one-game advantage over Texas for the second wild-card spot, while Tampa Bay remained a game in front of the Indians. “We need to settle down and kind of think it through. Five or 10 minutes after the game is not the time.”
The Indians exorcised a demon of sorts in beating Twins starter Andrew Albers, who tossed a two-hit shutout the last time he faced them on Aug. 12.
The left-handed Albers blanked the Indians over the first three innings, but Cleveland caught up to him in the fourth.
An error on a sacrifice bunt from Asdrubal Cabrera allowed Ryan Raburn to score from second base with the game’s first run before Yan Gomes connected on a two-run home run off the facing of the second deck in right field to stake the Indians to an early 3-0 advantage.
Michael Brantley, who entered the night on a nine-game hitting streak, stayed hot, driving in two of Cleveland’s final three runs with singles in the sixth and eighth innings.
Brantley collected at least two hits and at least one RBI for the fifth straight game, becoming the first Indians player to do so since Ryan Garko in July of 2007.
Cleveland got an effective outing from starter Zach McAllister, but it was brief, with the right-hander shutting out the Twins on six hits but for only
With the Indians in a tight wild-card race, Francona managed as if it were a playoff game, turning to reliever Bryan Shaw to replace McAllister at the first sign of trouble.
McAllister left with runners on first and second, with Shaw getting a double-play ball on his first pitch to end the threat.
“He was kind of dodging traffic the whole night,” Francona said of McAllister. “I just thought he had given us enough. I just thought it was time. If I was managing with my heart, I would have left him in, but this isn’t the time for that.”
While McAllister was disappointed he didn’t provide his playoff-contending club with more innings, he didn’t expect to see Francona coming to get him so soon.
“A little bit,” said McAllister when he was asked if he was surprised by the early hook. “As a starter, you definitely want the chance to get the win and stay in the game as long as you can. But this is September, we have a lot of guys in the bullpen. Every game is an important one and you understand why.”
Perez was pitching for the first time since blowing his fifth save of the season when he allowed a pair of solo homers in the ninth inning Tuesday in a comeback win over the White Sox.
He had a five-run lead but surrendered two runs before getting two outs, then allowed a two-run homer to Ryan Doumit that pulled the Twins within a run and prompted Francona to remove him in favor of Smith.
“Any time your closer is struggling, it’s tough,” McAllister said. “But he’s a great pitcher. He’s been great for his whole career. You don’t just become an All-Star for no reason. He knows how to pitch and he’ll be ready.”
Perez might not get another opportunity.
The right-hander has been scuffling for nearly two months, posting a 7.52 ERA over 21 appearances since Aug. 1. He’s allowed 30 hits in 20⅓ innings, with the opposition batting .345 off him over a span in which he’s blown three saves and suffered two losses.
Francona said Perez visited his office after the game to apologize for his performance.
“It was actually very team-oriented,” Francona said. “He’s having a tough time. He’s owning up to it and doesn’t want to cost us wins.”
If the Indians do turn to someone else in save situations, there are wealth of candidates, including ace Justin Masterson, who is working his way back from an oblique injury and has experience relieving late in games.
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WHO: Cleveland vs. Minnesota
WHERE: Target Field, Minneapolis
PITCHERS: Kluber (10-5, 3.61 ERA) vs. Hernandez (3-2, 6.05)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM