Preview: Santana opens Royals’ critical three-game series at Indians

Wild card fever is beginning to descend upon Cleveland.

Two of the contenders for the AL’s second wild-card spot meet Monday night as the Cleveland Indians open a critical three-game series with the Kansas City Royals.

Kansas City (75-68) moved within 1 1/2 games of Cleveland and 3 1/2 behind Tampa Bay for the final postseason position with a 5-2 victory over Detroit Sunday, its 11th win in 14 tries. Eric Hosmer backed Bruce Chen’s strong start with three hits, including a three-run homer.

The Royals, who opened their series with the Tigers with a 16-2 loss, came back to win the final two.

“After that game, it was a bad feeling,” said Hosmer, who is 15 for his last 36 (.417). “They just flat out beat us that day. Just to forget it as a team and bounce back like that shows a lot about the character on the team and pitching staff.”

Cleveland (76-66) saw its four-game winning streak snapped by the New York Mets Sunday, 2-1, and fell two games behind the Rays.

“We took two of three in this series, you have to look at it that way,” reliever Joe Smith said. “We come back on the horse tomorrow. We need to take care of business when they come in.”

The fever has yet to take over the fan base, however, as only 13,317 fans came out to Sunday’s game at Progressive Field.

“Of course we notice,” Ubaldo Jimenez said Tuesday after pitching Cleveland to a 4-3 win over Baltimore. “It’s definitely not the same when we have a big crowd, but what can we do? We have to go out there and compete.”

Jimenez (10-9, 3.79 ERA) is as responsible as anyone for Cleveland’s current run into contention. He launched the Indians’ four-game winning streak with one of his best starts of the season Tuesday, scattering four hits over six scoreless innings in that 4-3 victory.

“He goes out there and gives us six shutout innings against that lineup,” manager Terry Francona said. “That’s exciting.”

Jimenez is 3-5 with a 2.22 ERA over his last eight starts and has allowed one home run over his last 43 2/3 innings.

The Royals were batting .131 off Jimenez through three starts this season, but they got to him for four runs and eight hits in four innings July 14 before the Indians rallied for a 6-4 win.

Hosmer is 6 for 19 (.316) off Jimenez with two home runs, but Alex Gordon (4 for 20) and Alcides Escobar (3 for 21) have been less successful.

Kansas City gives the ball to Ervin Santana (8-8, 3.33), who struggled in his last start but has been outstanding lately against the Indians.

The right-hander lasted a season-low 3 1/3 innings against Seattle on Wednesday, allowing four runs, seven hits and three walks while failing to record a strikeout for the first time all season.

“I didn’t have my best stuff,” Santana said. “I’ll get them next time. I didn’t pitch the way I’ve pitched this year. I didn’t have my fastball. My location was off after the second inning.”

His control has been an issue lately, as Santana has averaged 3.26 walks per nine innings since the beginning of August after averaging 1.92 through his first 21 starts.

Santana is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in his last three starts against Cleveland, yielding one run and nine hits over 14 innings in two this year.

He’s been especially tough on Nick Swisher (9 for 41), Asdrubal Cabrera (6 for 31) and Mike Aviles (1 for 13).

Cleveland has won five straight at home against Kansas City, posting a 2.40 ERA in those games.