By Jordan Bastian and Jeffrey Flanagan
CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor gave Indians fans plenty of reasons to smile on Friday night. With Players Weekend underway, "Mr. Smile" put on a show with some dazzling defense and a crucial home run, backing a strong outing by lefty Ryan Merritt and helping lead the Tribe to a 4-0 win over the Royals.
"I'm just trying to slow the game down and be myself," Lindor said. "I feel good. I continue to work as hard as I can, I continue to listen to the coaches and different players in the clubhouse. It's not the job I'm doing. It doesn't come from me. It's a team effort."
Beyond the fun atmosphere created by the weekend's unique jerseys, tribute patches and monikers, most important for Cleveland was beginning this important divisional series with a victory. With the win, the American League-leading Indians pushed the third-place Royals to seven games back in the standings. The Twins are 5 1/2 back.
Royals left-hander Jason Vargas saw his record slip to 14-8 after allowing four runs on six hits in five innings. "Vargy" (the pitcher's Players Weekend nickname) gave up two runs in the third and then surrendered Lindor's two-run home run in the fifth on a 3-0 fastball. The blast was the 23rd of the year for Lindor, who ended with two hits and a stolen base.
"I wasn't trying to just get something over," Vargas said. "I was trying to throw a fastball up to the top of the strike zone to get us a swinging popup. And I just threw it on the inner half belt-high on an angle I wasn't looking for."
Merritt -- promoted from Triple-A Columbus prior to the game to make a spot start for Cleveland -- turned in a career-high 6 2/3 innings, keeping the Royals off the board. Merritt walked one and scattered seven hits, but he limited Kansas City to an 0-for-6 showing with runners in scoring position.
"It was frustrating," Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield said. "I felt like I was seeing the ball well. And everybody kind of had the same reaction when they came back in the dugout: 'Seeing it well. Feel like I'm putting a good swing on it. Just pounding it in the ground.' I've got a feeling if we match up again later on in the year, we'll have a little better result off him."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Lindor's glove work: The game opened with a throwing error by Lindor to allow Merrifield to reach, but the shortstop then turned in two strong plays to escape the frame. After Merrifield stole second, Lindor gloved a grounder from Lorenzo Cain and fired quickly to third to nab the lead runner. Melky Cabrera then sent a pitch up the middle, where Lindor snared the ball with an all-out dive before flipping it from the dirt with his glove to Jose Ramirez. The second baseman turned the slick 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
"As soon as he made that error," Indians manager Terry Francona said, "[bench coach Brad Mills] looked at me. He says, 'Well, Frankie's going to have a good game.' Sometimes guys make an error or something, and they maybe hang their head. It's like Frankie gets a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, and boy, the play he made after that. And then the home run. He has that characteristic where when he doesn't make a play, he's going to make up for it."
Gio's wall ball: The Indians opened the scoring in the third inning, when Giovanny Urshela sent a pitch from Vargas bouncing off the 19-foot wall in left for an RBI double. Royals outfielder Alex Gordon nearly came up with a leaping catch, but the ball ricocheted to the warning track. Yan Gomes (wearing "Gomer" for Players Weekend in tribute to Francona's nickname for the catcher) hustled all the way from first and used a head-first dive to avoid a sweeping tag attempt by catcher Salvador Perez.
"That's a tough play," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "It would have been a great play. You run back, and you have to jump up on the wall. The ball actually did hit his glove, and he thought he caught it because he felt it hit the glove. It just bounced out."
"It definitely turned my radar on, where I was like, 'I've got to make it up. I've got to do something to help my team. Regardless of what it is, I've got to do something.' Your focus goes from 110 to 120 percent." -- Lindor, on his performance after the first-inning error
"I always want to be that guy that they can call upon when they need to. Going up and down, it's better than not coming up, you know? I just appreciate the opportunity to come up here and try to compete and win ballgames for them." -- Merritt
"I love Merritt, the way he throws. The hitters, they hit a lot of ground balls. I like guys that hit ground balls." -- Urshela
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Lindor is two home runs shy of tying the Indians' single-season record for homers as a shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera holds that mark with 25 during the 2011 campaign for Cleveland.
The Indians' pitching staff is now tied with the Dodgers for the most shutouts (13) in the Majors this season. It marks the most shutouts in a season for Cleveland since the team pitched 15 in 2014.
WHAT'S NEXT Royals: Right-hander Jason Hammel (6-9, 4.73 ERA; aka "Hammer" for Players Weekend) takes the mound in the second game of the series against the Tribe on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. CT. Hammel allowed five hits and three runs over six innings last Sunday in a 7-4 win over the Indians.
Indians: The Tribe will hand the ball to righty Mike Clevinger (6-5, 3.97 ERA; "Sunshine") for Saturday's 7:15 p.m. ET clash with Kansas City at Progressive Field. Clevinger has gone 1-2 with a 5.45 ERA in nine home appearances. He's 2-0 with a 3.31 ERA in four career outings against the Royals.