"We're not eliminated yet," manager Terry Francona said sharply. "When they make us go home, or they tell us that we're not eligible, then we'll make some adjustments. Until then, you keep playing. They'll keep playing."
Following three impressive innings, Tribe starter Danny Salazar melted down on the mound and was out of the game before the end of the fifth. Cleveland's offense, which was blanked in a discouraging loss to the Royals on Monday, saw its scoreless streak reach 19 innings at the most critical point in the team's floundering season.
When the smoke cleared Tuesday, Cleveland sat 4 1/2 games behind Kansas City in the chase for the AL's second Wild Card spot. The Indians only have four games left on the schedule, while the Royals have five remaining before possibly experiencing October baseball for the first time since 1985.
The Mariners remain 1 1/2 games ahead of the Indians in the Wild Card picture. One more Royals win or Indians loss will eliminate the Tribe from postseason contention. With Detroit's win over the White Sox on Tuesday night, Cleveland was knocked out of the running for the AL Central crown.
"You have to be realistic about the situation," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "It's tough. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you and say it's easy, because it's not easy. You have to win. There's no other option. If we lose, we're out."
Leading the charge on this night for Kansas City was 23-year-old right-hander Yordano Ventura, who spun seven shutout innings en route to his 14th victory of the season. Cleveland did not have a runner reach third base against Ventura, who escaped a pair of two-on, two-out jams through the first five innings.
The Indians (82-76) had two runners aboard in the first inning, but Ventura then ran through a dozen batters in a row without relinquishing a hit. Cleveland loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh inning, but Ventura halted that potential rally by striking out rookie shortstop Jose Ramirez.
"He's very electric," Francona said of Ventura. "He's got some of the best arm speed you'll ever see. We made him work, we just didn't have anything to show for it. It's frustrating."
Cleveland ended its scoring drought in the eighth inning, when pinch-runner J.B. Shuck scored from third base on a double-play groundout off the bat of David Murphy.
Early on, Salazar appeared up for the challenge that Ventura presented.
The Cleveland starter flew through the first two innings, recording six strikeouts in an eight-batter span with his split-fingered changeup working devastatingly well. In the fourth inning, Kansas City got its opening when Salazar issued a leadoff walk to Billy Butler. Three hitters later, Omar Infante sent a pitch into the left-field corner for a two-run double that put the Indians in a 2-0 hole.
With two outs in the fifth, Butler delivered a ground-rule RBI double and Salvador Perez later added a two-run double of his own to push the Royals out front, 5-0. Salazar was chased after 4 2/3 innings, during which he struck out eight, but was charged with the five runs on eight hits. Heading into the outing, Salazar had a 2.74 ERA in his previous seven starts.
"He came out of the chute working ahead, throwing a really good fastball and probably the best changeup we've seen," Francona said. "And then all of a sudden, it was a like a switch. He left pitches up. The tempo of his delivery slowed down a little bit. His fastball started leaking back over the plate and it was up. It was like two different pitchers."
The Royals put the game out of reach in the seventh inning, when Alex Gordon came through with a two-run double off Indians reliever Scott Atchison to put Cleveland in a seven-run hole. That was more than enough to sink the Tribe, which was hoping to delay any thoughts about the 2015 season.
Planning for next year, however, is nearly the reality.
"It's bad. Terrible," Salazar said of the feeling after the Tribe's latest loss. "I know everybody is going out there and doing their best. Things are just going in a different way than what we want."