CLEVELAND – Travis Hafner’s return was a triumphant one.
With Hafner in the lineup for the first time in close to a month Friday night, Cleveland opened a
three-game interleague series with Pittsburgh by turning back the Pirates, 5-1.
The win, just the Indians’ fourth in the last 15 games, came in front of one of the largest crowds of the season at Progressive Field (38,549) and, with a Detroit loss, returned Cleveland to the top of the Central Division standings.
Hafner had just one hit in three official at-bats (walking once), but it was a big one – a double that just missed clearing the wall in the eighth that drove in one of three runs in the decisive inning.
Hafner’s return seemed to breathe life into a Cleveland offense that had struggled mightily in his absence.
“I think it helped,” Hafner said of his return from the injured list, where he languished since May 18 with a strained right oblique. “I just tried to be a presence in the middle of the order. It was a fun night.”
Lost in the fanfare of Hafner’s return was another effective outing for right-hander Josh Tomlin, who allowed just a run on six hits, while striking out five over 62⁄3 innings.
He has pitched at least five innings in each of his first 26 career starts, the only Cleveland pitcher in history to accomplish as much.
“It was a great job by Tomlin, 20 out of 25 first-pitch strikes,” manager Manny Acta said. “That’s how he’s able to get deep into games and give us a chance to win.”
Tomlin snapped a personal two-game losing streak by returning to his efficient nature, throwing 85 pitches – a whopping 63 of them for strikes.
“That’s how I have to pitch,” said Tomlin, who allowed his only run in the sixth on a single from Xavier Paul. “I have to try and get ahead of hitters and put them away. The longer they’re up there against me, they can make adjustments.”
The Indians brought a tenuous 2-1 lead into the eighth inning, but took control against a pair of Pittsburgh relievers, Daniel Moskos and Tim Wood.
Cleveland put the first five runners aboard in the inning, with Hafner’s double scoring the first run. Off the bat, it appeared Hafner’s drive to right was headed for a three-run home run, but it hit the yellow line atop the wall, with umpires reviewing the play and correctly ruling that it was a two-base hit.
Hafner’s hit still sparked a big inning for the Indians, who scored twice more on a base hit from Carlos Santana and a sacrifice fly from Orlando Cabrera.
“Hafner came through,” Acta said of his designated hitter, who was expected to play in three minor league rehab games before being activated, but only played in two, with the Indians in dire need of an offensive lift. “He proved that even a rehabbing Travis Hafner can help our lineup.”
“It was big,” Hafner said of the eighth-inning uprising. “We feel great with CP (closer Chris Perez), but one-run games are tough ones to close. We were able to put some distance between us and them.”
Santana, who has slumped for the majority of the season, had a big night, going 3-for-4 with a solo homer in the fourth that put Cleveland in front 2-0.
“We’ve been seeing some signs of him coming alive,” Acta said. “It’s been up and down. Tonight, he put together some good at-bats.”
Though the Indians celebrated a win, they might have lost first baseman Matt LaPorta to a serious injury in the third inning.
LaPorta was caught in a rundown between second and third, and after trying to change direction and head back to third, crumpled on the infield dirt clutching his right leg.
He had to be helped from the field with a sprained right ankle, and though X-rays revealed no fracture, he is scheduled to undergo an MRI today. Ligament damage is a possibility.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.