A playoff contender in September, the Indians drew their largest crowd in almost a month and gave fans something to cheer about.
Scott Kazmir allowed four hits in seven shutout innings, Michael Brantley hit a two-run homer in a three-run first inning and the Indians maintained their hold on an AL wild-card spot with a 4-1 win over the Houston Astros on Saturday night.
Cleveland leads Texas by a half-game for the AL’s second wild card. The Indians, who have won eight of their last 10, trail Tampa Bay by a half-game for the wild-card lead.
”There’s nothing like that atmosphere,” Nick Swisher said. ”We’ve got to keep winning, but I’m telling you, man, when you have fan support like that it’s so easy to get up for games. We’re so happy everybody showed up and everybody had a great time.”
Swisher, who scored a run, had a hit and walked twice, picked up the tab for a postgame fireworks show. Despite being in the playoff race, Cleveland went into Saturday 14th among AL teams in attendance at 19,317, ahead of only Tampa Bay (18,457), according to STATS.
Saturday’s crowd of 26,611 was the Indians’ largest at home since 26,870 watched a game against Minnesota on Aug. 24.
”It was really welcome,” manager Terry Francona said. ”I think players probably appreciate that. There was a little extra energy tonight. This time of year that can’t hurt anybody.”
Swisher and several teammates tossed miniature baseballs into the stands following the game.
The Indians passed Texas with Friday’s rain-shortened 2-1 win, moving into a wild-card spot for the first time since before play on Aug. 5. Following Sunday’s series finale, Cleveland hosts the Chicago White Sox for two games before closing the regular season with four games at Minnesota.
”As close as we are, we can almost taste it,” Kazmir said. ”So you want to go out and give it everything you’ve got.”
Francona has a simple philosophy when it comes to dealing with a playoff chase.
”When we win, we’re fine, when we lose, you hope,” he said. ”It’s not do or die. It’s do, or it hurts.”
Houston, a major league-worst 51-104, is on a season-high eight-game losing streak and has totaled just 12 runs during the skid. Houston is three losses from matching the club record set last season. The Astros scored when Chris Carter homered against Joe Smith with two outs in the ninth.
Kazmir (9-9) struck out 10 and walked two. He had been 1-5 with a 5.82 ERA in his previous seven starts.
He gave up Jonathan Villar’s single to start the game, then included a double-play grounder from Jose Altuve and didn’t allow another runner until a single opening the fifth by Carter, who had three hits.
Kazmir, who was pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in an independent league last season, has far exceeded the Indians’ expectations.
”This is exciting,” Francona said. ”Knowing Kaz, the bigger the game, he’s not going to shy away from that.”
”You definitely have to tip your hat to Kazmir tonight,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. ”He had an explosive fastball and did a tremendous job with his breakaway stuff.”
Cody Allen relieved following to L.J. Hoes’ leadoff double in the eighth.
Brantley’s home run capped Cleveland’s three-run first inning. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall also drove in runs for Cleveland.
Paul Clemens (4-6) allowed four runs in 4 2-3 innings in his fourth start of the season after making 30 appearances out of the bullpen.
NOTES: Francona said RHP Justin Masterson (strained left oblique) likely will throw a simulated game Sunday or Monday. It’s possible Masterson, who left his start against Baltimore on Sept. 2 in the second inning, will be ready to pitch in relief before the regular season ends. … Francona said he contacted Boston manager John Farrell after the Red Sox clinched the AL East on Friday night. Farrell was Boston’s pitching coach during Francona’s tenure as manager and the two are friends. … Astros 3B Matt Dominguez (left hand) returned to the lineup after sitting out one game. He was struck on the left hand Thursday by a pitch from Indians RHP Chris Perez. ”Matt said it’s still a little sore, but he’s a pretty tough guy,” Porter said. Dominguez was hitless in four at-bats. … Astros LHP Erik Bedard (4-11) takes on Indians RHP Corey Kluber (9-5) in the four-game series finale Sunday.