By Jordan Bastian and Jeffrey Flanagan
CLEVELAND -- The Indians are still jockeying for position in the October picture, but there is another battle going on within the team.
With his latest homer in a 5-2 win over the Royals on Thursday, Carlos Santana not only moved Cleveland a little closer to a division crown, but he put the pressure on Mike Napoli for the Tribe's home run title this season. Santana and Napoli are now tied at 34 shots apiece with 10 games left on the schedule.
"When we went into the year, everybody said, 'How are you going to score?'" Indians manager Terry Francona said. "And then you look up and you've got two guys who have hit 30. It's been fun."
More important for the American League Central-leading Indians was that the victory trimmed their magic number to four to clinch their first division championship since 2007. Alcides Escobar belted a two-run homer for Kansas City, but it was not enough for the Royals, whose elimination number in the AL Wild Card race is down to five.
"It's in everyone's mind," Indians rookie Mike Clevinger said of the postseason picture. "Everyone knows to stick to business as usual and keep the same grind every day."
Royals lefty Jason Vargas, making his second start coming back from Tommy John rehab, was charged with two runs in his four innings of work, while righty Dillon Gee allowed three in 2 2/3 innings of relief. Santana drove in four of the five runs scored off that pair of Kansas City arms, providing sufficient support for Clevinger.
"We're seeing his stuff is fine," Royals manager Ned Yost said of Vargas. "He's got a good breaking ball, a good changeup. He's locating his fastball really, really well. It just gives him, and everybody, confidence that he's going to be ready to go in Spring Training."
Clevinger, who has the spotlight on him in the wake of injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, worked five solid innings, in which he gave up two runs (on Escobar's seventh homer of the year). Clevinger struck out four, walked two and dodged harm at a handful of turns.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Carlos Slam-tana: One day after a four-hit showing against the Royals, Santana continued to do damage. In the sixth inning, Cleveland's first baseman broke a 2-2 deadlock by drilling an 0-1 offering from Gee into the right-field seats for a three-run home run. According to Statcast™, the blast had a projected distance of 382 feet.
"I'm happy for Carlos," Francona said, "because he's made an effort in so many areas to be better than he was. You don't see that that often in a veteran player. He's done a really good job."
Esky muscles up again: Escobar already had a career high in home runs before he stepped up to the plate in the second inning. With Alex Gordon on first and two outs, Escobar slammed a Clevinger fastball over the center-field wall for home run No. 7. The two-run shot tied the score at 2.
"I'm just trying to hit a ball hard to the middle," Escobar said. "I didn't know it was out until I saw the center fielder keep going back. But I knew I hit it hard."
Striking first: Two batters into the game, the Indians had a lead courtesy of Jason Kipnis' 23rd home run. Vargas then issued a one-out walk to Francisco Lindor, who stole second before scoring on a double to center by Santana. Cleveland is 61-19 this season when scoring first.
"We kind of had a frustrating night swinging the bats," Francona said. "Besides [Santana and] Kip's home run, we didn't do a whole lot, but it was enough."
Missed chances: The Royals certainly had chances to take the lead. In the third, Cheslor Cuthbert walked and Jarrod Dyson reached on a bunt single. But three straight flyouts ended that threat. Salvador Perez led off the fourth with a double off the left-field wall. Two strikeouts and a groundout ended that threat. Cuthbert led off the fifth with a walk and stole second. But he was left stranded, too. The Royals finished the game 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
"Yeah, but no real big chances," Yost said. "We're just not really creating a whole lot of run-scoring opportunities for ourselves right now."
Since the arrival of Andrew Miller, the Indians have featured one of the best bullpens in baseball. Following Clevinger's five-inning effort, Francona did not hesitate to turn it over to his relief corps. Dan Otero logged two shutout innings, Bryan Shaw handled the eighth and Cody Allen shut the door in the ninth. Miller was unavailable to pitch on Thursday. It could be a look at how Cleveland might handle some of its games in an October setting.
"I'm sure it's a nice luxury for [Francona] to have," Allen said. "The end of the game is tough, trying to piece together certain guys against certain hitters for a while, for four innings. It can be challenging, but we have the right pieces down there to do it." More >
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Santana and Napoli are the first Indians teammates to boast at least 34 homers apiece in the same season since 2001, when Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome achieved the feat. It has only been accomplished four times in franchise history. Thome was also part of the other two occurrences, alongside Manny Ramirez in 2000 and Albert Belle in 1996.
The win improved Cleveland's record to 52-26 at Progressive Field this season, marking the second-highest win total at home in ballpark history. The Indians' best home record since the stadium opened in 1994 is 54-18 in 1995.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Royals replay coordinator Bill Duplissea has been one of the league's best this season, but he missed one in the fifth inning. The Royals challenged whether Lonnie Chisenhall was actually hit by a pitch. It only took a review of 53 seconds to confirm Chisenhall had been hit.
WHAT'S NEXT Royals: Left-hander Danny Duffy (12-2, 3.18 ERA) starts for the Royals as they open a three-game set in Detroit on Friday at 6:10 p.m. CT. Duffy has won four straight decisions over the Tigers and hasn't lost to them since July 11, 2014.
Indians: Right-hander Trevor Bauer (11-8, 4.24 ERA) is scheduled to take the mound at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday against the White Sox in the opener of a three-game set at Progressive Field. Bauer has a 4.40 ERA with 18 strikeouts and four walks in 14 1/3 innings (three games) against Chicago this season.