June 29, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Tribe Sunday: A wild-card berth is becoming realistic

CLEVELAND — The final homestand of the regular season couldn’t have begun any better for the playoff-hunting Indians.

Cleveland, which started Sunday as new owners of the American League’s second wild-card spot, took care of its end of the postseason bargain by drubbing Houston 9-2 to complete a four-game sweep.

The Indians’ Michael Bourn drives in two runs in the sixth inning. (AP PHOTO)

Though it was cause for celebration, it’s what true playoff contenders are expected to accomplish against baseball’s worst team.

“That’s a good way to put it,” manager Terry Francona said, when asked what it said about his team that it did what it was supposed to against the lowly Astros. “We’re grinding right now. It’s so exciting to play every game. It’s just a fun time of the year to have every game be so meaningful.

“We’re in a fun spot. We have to keep winning. We’re playing pretty good baseball, and we need to.”

The Indians won for the ninth time in 11 games to move 1½ games ahead of Texas and remain a half-game behind AL wild-card leader Tampa Bay. It came in front of the largest Sunday crowd of the season (26,168) and completed Cleveland’s sixth four-game sweep of the year — the first time that has been accomplished in the majors since the 1961 Yankees.

“Right now, with the position we’re in, we’re not really thinking about who we’re playing or how many games a series is, we’re just trying to win ballgames,” said first baseman Nick Swisher, whose team has six games left on the regular-season schedule. “We’ve battled so hard and we’ve gotten ourselves to an amazing spot. We gotta finish things off, man.

“There’s going to be no worries about where guys’ heads are at. Guys are going to be ready to go every single day to try and finish this thing off right.”

The Indians finished off Houston thanks to an offensive outburst that hadn’t been present over the first three games of the series and a quality outing from right-hander Corey Kluber — something the Indians have grown accustomed to.

Kluber (10-5, 3.61 ERA) is still working his way back from a finger injury that sidelined him for more than a month, but he showed glimpses of the top-shelf pitcher he has been for much of the year in his fifth start back from the injured list.

“I felt better today than I have the last couple times out,” said Kluber, who allowed two runs on six hits while striking out six over 5⅓ innings. “I’m not quite there yet, but I think it’s just a matter of getting out there, getting repetition and getting back into that groove.

“Every game is the biggest one we’ve had. We’re playing good baseball right now. It’s a good time to be getting hot.”

Kluber allowed both his runs within the first four innings — one on Chris Carter’s 29th home run — before Cleveland took the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth.

“He’s not in midseason form as far as his command,” Francona said of Kluber. “I think he’s still kind of clawing his way back. The good news is I think that once that command comes back, then we’ve got that guy that was pitching before.”

Cleveland scored six times off Astros starter Erik Bedard over five innings.

The Indians got RBI hits from Carlos Santana (double), Michael Brantley and Mike Aviles in the fourth, then scored four more runs in the sixth — two on a triple from Michael Bourn. Bourn, Brantley, Santana and Aviles all drove in two runs, with Santana hitting his 19th homer in the eighth.

After being counted out a number of times along the way, the resilient Indians find themselves not only alive in the race for the postseason, but in control of their own destiny.

“It’s been one of those crazy years, man,” Swisher said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. We’ve had some great winning streaks, we’ve had some great losing streaks, we’ve had everything. I think that’s just a testament to the guys pulling together.

“Just the turnaround that this organization has had. I feel like we’re starting to establish a little identity. Things aren’t like they used to be, man. This is a new era around here.”

Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @CAwesomeheimer.