CLEVELAND -- Jason Kipnis raised his bat and prepared for a pitch from White Sox closer David Robertson. A moment later, the All-Star second baseman made the slow walk back to the dugout amidst unsettled cries and jeers from a stunned Progressive Field audience.
That pitch never arrived. Instead, Robertson picked off Abraham Almonte at first base, abruptly halting a ninth-inning rally and sending the Indians to a disheartening 4-3 defeat on Saturday night. Off in the distance, fireworks popped in downtown Cleveland, adding a little more sting to a loss that hurt plenty already.
"That's tough to take," Indians manager Terry Francona said of the way the game ended. "That's unfortunate. You'd love to let Kip hit there."
It was the final touch on a night chalk full of missed chances for the Tribe.
With the regular season nearing the finish line, the Indians (73-74) need as many wins as possible as they try to mount a comeback in the American League Wild Card standings. The landscape only became more difficult with the loss to Chicago. The Astros (78-71) won on Saturday, knocking the Tribe four games back of the second Wild Card spot. The Indians still have the Angels and Twins ahead of them, too.
Right now, every loss carries extra weight.
"Yes, they hurt a little bit, because we're very close," Indians starter Carlos Carrasco said. "We need to continue to play hard. That's what we need to do and never give up."
That attitude was present in the ninth inning.
Robertson took the mound armed with a 4-1 lead and opened with a strikeout of Carlos Santana. Cleveland's Yan Gomes followed with a double to left field to set things up for Chris Johnson. The Tribe third baseman drilled a 3-2 pitch from Robertson to the greenery beyond the center-field wall -- a towering two-run blast that was measured at 415 feet by Statcast™.
"I didn't want to walk him," Robertson said. "I didn't mean to throw it directly down the middle into his bat path and let him put in the trees in center, but that happened."
Almonte, who has been a solid addition to the Tribe since being acquired from the Padres on July 31, kept the push going by slashing a single into left field. Robertson bounced back with a strikeout of Jerry Sands for the second out of the ninth inning, but the Indians still had life and plenty of hope as Kipnis -- their lone All-Star this season -- stepped to the plate.
On first base, Francona and bench coach Brad Millsy felt Almonte was looking to steal based on the size of his lead.
"Millsy and I were talking," Francona said, "it looked like he wanted to run and we really wanted to let Kip hit."
Third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh relayed the sign across the diamond to Almonte.
In the batter's box, Kipnis settled into his signature stance, holding his bat flat behind him. At the moment Kipnis raised the bat to hit, Robertson stepped off the pitching rubber, turned and fired the ball to first baseman Jose Abreu. Almonte dove, but Abreu tagged him on the right shoulder before the outfielder's hand touched the bag.
"He said he slipped," Indians first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. said. "I felt like he was a little too far off [the base]."
Almonte did not speak to reporters after the game.
It marked Robertson's first pick-off since June 3, 2009.
"That's a big sigh of relief," said the pitcher. "That was real nice, especially because it ended the game and I'd like to get out of that struggle I was in."
For the Indians, it was a mistake that was tough to swallow, especially with Kipnis due to hit.
"It's just a rare play. It's unfortunate," Kipnis said. "Abe's not a guy I have to go talk to or say anything to. Nobody feels worse about it than he does probably. We had a good little fight there in the end and, hopefully, we can take that momentum into tomorrow."