By Jordan Bastian and Jeffrey Flanagan
KANSAS CITY -- In a game with postseason implications, and ace Corey Kluber temporarily out of the rotation, the Indians handed the ball to a rookie. Lefty Ryan Merritt was up for the challenge, turning in a strong effort that fueled a 7-2 win over the Royals on Friday night at Kauffman Stadium.
The Rangers clinched the American League's No. 1 seed with a win over the Rays on Friday night, but the Indians can still earn home-field advantage for their AL Division Series against the Red Sox. Cleveland trails Boston by a half-game for the right to open at home.
Merritt logged five stellar innings against the reigning World Series champs in his first Major League start. He was backed by big offensive nights for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana, and made a winner thanks to a shutdown bullpen.
"He doesn't seem to get flustered," Indians manager Terry Francona said of Merritt. "It's not an easy thing to do your first Major League start. And it looked like he'd been out there before. That was impressive."
Eric Hosmer contributed an RBI single off Merritt in the first inning, and righty Yordano Ventura logged six frames, but Kansas City was overmatched against the new AL Central champions.
Santana sparked a four-run flurry in the third inning with a triple and finished a home run shy of a cycle. Lindor reached base four times and launched a three-run homer in the seventh to spread the game apart. Lindor's blast came with a 112-mph exit velocity, marking the hardest-hit ball of the shortstop's career, per Statcast™.
"The ballpark was playing so big," Francona said. "To see him, and then to see Lindor, both swing the bat, that was really encouraging. Carlos has been swinging the bat good, and we need him. But, to see Frankie have a little life in his bat was really good to see."
Merritt picked up his first career win after yielding one run on three hits in five innings, in which he struck out four and walked none. He ended his outing by retiring 13 straight before letting the bullpen finish the job.
"I thought he really did well," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He's kind of like Jason Vargas -- 87-88-90 miles an hour with a nice curveball, a little cutter, nice changeup."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Santana flirts with cycle: Santana went 3-for-5 and was in good position to try for a cycle through two at-bats. The first baseman doubled in the first inning and then put the Tribe on the board with a two-run triple in the third. Both extra-base hits went to straightaway center field, where they dropped beyond the reach of Paulo Orlando. Santana singled in the seventh, but that is as close as he came to history.
"I was thinking before the last at-bat, if I do it, I'm blessed," Santana said. "You don't see that every day, hitting cycles. I'm very proud for a good game tonight."
No. 104: Hosmer continues to up his career-high RBI total. Billy Burns led off the first with a single and moved to second on Whit Merrifield's sacrifice bunt to first. Hosmer went after the first pitch he saw from Merritt and lined a fastball through the hole between first and second, scoring Burns. That gave Hosmer 104 RBIs.
"[Merritt] was good," Hosmer said. "We really didn't have much information on him, not much video. We knew he had a couple of different curves and he had a good changeup. But first time through, we didn't know much about him."
Lindor ends drought: During Cleveland's four-run third inning, Lindor doubled to right field, snapping an 0-for-27 hitless skid. When he reached second base, Lindor raised both arms in the air, while his teammates shouted in celebration from the dugout. Lindor, who arrived at The K wearing a shirt that read "Slump Buster" on the front, then scored on a single by Jose Ramirez. Lindor later added his three-run shot in the seventh. More >
"It felt good," said Lindor, referring to ending his slump. "It felt even better when I looked to the dugout and everybody had their hands up. It was pretty good. It was pretty awesome. That's why I love this team. They were behind me the whole entire time."
Butera RBI: Royals backup catcher Drew Butera has put together a fine season, coming into the game with a .281 average and four homers and 15 RBIs. And in the eighth inning, Butera added to his RBI total by sending a triple into the right-field corner off Andrew Miller, scoring Hunter Dozier. It was Butera's first triple since May 31, 2014, when he was a Dodger.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I was pretty nervous. I've put in a lot of time and worked really hard to get here. So, this is the biggest step. This is the big leagues. I definitely was nervous." -- Merritt
"That is about the best way possible [to retaliate]. I think Frankie had a little extra motivation in that at-bat, as he should." -- Francona, on Lindor hitting a home run one at-bat after being hit by a pitch from Ventura
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Merritt snapped a streak of 285 straight games with a right-handed starter for the Indians. That was the longest such streak for Cleveland since 1931-33 (376 games) and the longest in the Majors since 1991-93 (Oakland, 346 games).
Ramirez's double in the sixth inning gave the third baseman 46 two-base hits this season. That is the most doubles in a season by an Indians hitter since 2006, when Grady Sizemore had 53.
VENTURA'S LAST START
The Royals right-hander made his final start of the season -- going six innings and allowing four runs on six hits with eight strikeouts.
"Thank God I was able to finish the season healthy," Ventura said through interpreter Pedro Grifol. "I'm going to go home and start working to get prepared to get to Spring Training, ready to go for next year."
Yost said Ventura is still learning.
"He's got an overpowering fastball, but he's not an overpowering pitcher," Yost said. "He has to learn how to command his changeup and curveball and spot his fastball, and then he'll be ultra-successful I believe."
WHAT'S NEXT Indians: Right-hander Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26 ERA) is scheduled to start against the Royals for the first time this season on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. ET. It will mark Bauer's final tuneup for the AL Division Series, during which he projects to start either Game 1 or 2.
Royals: Right-hander Edinson Volquez (10-11, 5.37 ERA) takes the mound on Saturday at 3:15 p.m. CT for the middle game of the series at Kauffman Stadium. Volquez, a potential free agent after this season, could be pitching in his last game in a Royals uniform.