CLEVELAND — The Indians won a game the hard way Monday night at Progressive Field.
Cleveland was outhit by Central Division rival Kansas City and endured a shaky effort from its bullpen, yet still was able to notch a 4-3 victory in the series opener between a pair of American League wild-card competitors.
The Indians entered the night two games back for the AL’s second wild-card spot, while the Royals were 3½ games behind.
As has been the case numerous times this season, an easy win was not in the cards for the Indians, who had to endure a tenuous ninth inning from enigmatic closer Chris Perez.
Kansas City loaded the bases with two outs before Perez got leadoff hitter Alex Gordon to lift a lazy fly ball to center field to end the game, as Cleveland hung on for its sixth victory in the last eight games.
“I actually had a stomachache,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of the sticky situation in the final inning. “That was about as nail-biting as you can get.”
Perez’s 23rd save in 27 opportunities preserved a much-deserved win for right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who continued his late-season mastery with a seven-inning effort that didn’t include an earned run. Jimenez allowed seven hits and struck out 10.
“It was very impressive,” Francona said of Jimenez’s performance. “He’s using his fastball so aggressively. That really sets up his off-speed (pitches).”
According to Jimenez (11-9, 3.62 ERA), the game plan between him and catcher Yan Gomes was to feed KC hitters a heavy diet of fastballs. He recorded a number of his strikeouts on high fastballs out of the zone.
“They’re a really aggressive team. They love the fastball,” Jimenez said. “(Gomes) kept calling for the fastball and making the sign to go up, and we just kept doing it.”
Jimenez has been steady all season, but he’s been especially effective as of late. He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his last nine starts while posting a 1.94 ERA over the span. Jimenez has struck out 10 or more in three of his last four starts.
“I’ve been feeling really good,” he said. “I’m throwing a lot of strikes and I’m not beating myself by walking guys and getting behind in the count. Pretty much, I get ahead, stay ahead and get people out. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
Perez entered the ninth inning a day after taking the loss in the series finale with the Mets and having allowed 11 runs over his last 15 appearances.
It’s a shoddy statistic for a closer, but Francona is not concerned that Perez, who reached 95 mph on the radar gun, has lost his stuff.
“To get out of that, you have to have tremendous stuff,” Francona said. “They kept putting left-handed hitters up there and he got them out. To get Gordon out in that situation, I don’t think you can do that with a drop off (of stuff).”
“That’s what makes him good,” Jimenez said. “Even though there are guys on base, he gets them out.”
The Indians didn’t batter Royals starter Ervin Santana, but they were efficient with their four hits, scoring four times (3 earned runs) over seven innings against the right-hander.
Of Cleveland’s four runs, three came on solo home runs from Asdrubal Cabrera (second inning), Gomes (fifth) and Carlos Santana (seventh).
KC closed the gap to a run on Gordon’s two-run homer off Cody Allen in the eighth.
It was a playoff atmosphere between two teams fighting to play past September, despite the sparse crowd of 9,794 fans.
“That’s everything a player wishes for, to be in the postseason,” Jimenez said. “Every game means something. You come to the stadium and know everything counts. You have to give it up.”
“I think everybody knows what’s going on here,” Francona said. “It’s nerve-racking but it’s a lot of fun to be part of it.
“I think everybody would love to play in front of a packed house. My view is that we have a responsibility to play as well as we can and hope the people that come enjoy it and are proud of us. I think that’s the best we can do.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwesomeheimer.