ARLINGTON -- If the Indians want to maintain their footing atop the American League Central, the team knows it has to play better than it has of late. That is stating the obvious for a team that has seen its lead drop by three games over the past seven contests.
During a 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Sunday, Cleveland walked away encouraged by a solid outing from righty Danny Salazar, whose recent issues compounded some problems for the rotation as a whole. That was the only true positive, along with the fact that the Indians did not lose in blowout fashion like in the previous two losses at Globe Life Park.
That did not make this defeat any easier to stomach.
"The only thing that makes it easier is that Detroit lost, to be honest," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "We want these games. We want the wins. As it comes down to the home stretch, and to getting into the playoffs, it all comes down to winning games. And we need to start doing more of that."
Thanks to Detroit's loss to the Angels, Cleveland was able to hold its 4 1/2-game advantage in the American League Central. When the Indians won the opener of this seven-game swing through Oakland and Texas, though, the club was up by 7 1/2 games. A suddenly anemic offense (Cleveland scored one or zero runs in six of the seven games) and inconsistent rotation (three starts consisting of fewer than five innings) made for a 2-5 road trip.
Under the circumstances, the Tribe was sifting through the troubles for any positives.
On this day, one could be found in Salazar, who could play a major role in Cleveland either staying in front or struggling down the stretch. The right-hander was one of baseball's top starters in the first half, but he has dealt with health and consistency issues since the All-Star break. Against the Rangers, Salazar finally looked more like the high-caliber arm he has the ability to be for the Tribe.
"I thought it was significantly better than we've seen, which is really good," manager Terry Francona said. "It wasn't enough to win the game, but to see him make those strides was really good, because now we can hopefully get him on a roll."
Over 5 1/3 innings, Salazar piled up 10 strikeouts, walked two and limited Texas to a pair of RBI singles. The right-hander still elevated his fastball at times, but his secondary stuff had more bite (evidenced by the five strikeouts he notched via his signature split-change). After the Rangers worked his pitch count to 98, Francona turned to the bullpen.
That was a noticeable uptick over Salazar's outing Tuesday, when pitching coach Mickey Callaway said the only positive was that the righty built back up to 80 pitches. Francona and Callaway also voiced some criticism about Salazar's routine between starts, leading to the pitcher making some adjustments to his program in the days leading up to Sunday.
"It was really good," Callaway said of Salazar's preparation for Sunday's start. "We made sure that he went about things the right way. We started implementing some things that he had kind of gotten away from in the last three weeks, and I think it really paid dividends."
Salazar, who has recovered from the right elbow problem that sent him to the disabled list earlier this month, agreed that the steps he took behind the scenes paid off against Texas.
"I think it's just getting back to some things I was doing earlier in the year," Salazar said. "They help a lot, but I was getting a little bit too much stress in my arm when I was doing it. But, it was helping. I think what I'm doing now, I'm getting back to it."
On an otherwise tough day, Salazar provided a silver lining.
"That's the Danny we remember. That's the Danny we want to see every time out," Kipnis said. "That's the Danny that's capable of going and winning a bunch of games, that got him to the All-Star Game. He can play a big factor for us down the stretch here if that's the pitcher that we're going to have back on the mound every fifth day."
Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.