CLEVELAND — During the early portion of Monday night’s series opener with the Royals, about the only excitement for Indians fans was provided by a squirrel that got loose in the Progressive Field infield and outfield.
Once the squirrel was contained, Cleveland’s baseball team brought the crowd to its feet.
Keyed by two-run home runs from Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis, the Indians surged past the Royals 4-3 in the opener of a four-game series between Central Division rivals.
Brantley’s homer off Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie, his fourth of the year, scored the first runs of the game in the fourth inning, while Kipnis provided the winning hit with his third homer in the sixth, also off Guthrie — a former first-round draft pick for Cleveland.
But the Indians got offense from nearly everyone, with eight of nine players collecting at least a hit.
“It was nice to go out and get everyone in a rhythm,” said first baseman Nick Swisher, who went 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles. “I think for us, the middle of the lineup was doing a lot of damage today and everyone was clicking on all cylinders. Obviously, on the offensive side, we have a lot of faith in each other, and if it’s a tight game, we have a feeling we can pull it off.”
Defensively, the Indians scuffled again, committing three errors — one that contributed to the Royals scoring three times in the fifth inning. Cleveland entered the night having committed the third-most errors in the American League with 16 in 18 games.
“I would say it’s different probably every night,” manager Terry Francona said of his club’s defensive lapses.
“I do know that we’re probably the type of team that, obviously, the cleaner we play, the better it enhances our chances of winning. We put ourselves in kind of a predicament tonight with some miscues, but I think we’re a better defensive team than we’ve shown, and I think it’ll show. We’ve just had some missteps early, for sure.”
The shoddy defense didn’t derail Indians right-hander Zach McAllister, who offered up his third straight quality start, allowing two earned runs on six hits over six innings.
“I’m just trying to execute pitches,” said McAllister, who improved to 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA in four starts. “Obviously, you want to go deep into games as a starter, but I’m not trying to think about that. I’m just trying to get three outs, execute pitches and let my defense work. If I get strikeouts, great, but if not, I just want to be able to get quick outs.
“I’ve been able to get the ball down pretty well. They were an aggressive team today. Anytime you threw a strike, they were trying to put the ball in play. For me, I just executed good pitches and was able to mix a little bit.”
It was a clean ninth inning for Cleveland closer John Axford, who retired the side in order to earn the save a day after loading the bases before securing the final out.
Axford, who lost his closer job during the first month of the season last year in Milwaukee, has begun 2014 on much more solid footing, converting seven of his first eight save opportunities.
“It’s definitely better than what I felt last year,” said Axford, who has traditionally struggled during the season’s first month. “In years past, I’ve always felt pretty solid. The numbers just have not been there. It’s always been a struggle for me in April … ERA, walks, WHIP, everything.
“Coming into the season, I just wanted to focus on making sure I got off to a good start and trying to put my best foot forward, I guess.”
The Indians have dealt with a number of issues over the first 19 games of the season, yet have still been able to tread water in a tightly contested division race out of the gate.
“It’s been a little different, especially with the weather,” Axford said. “It was a beautiful day today, a couple days ago it was freezing. We had snow about a week ago, so it’s been crazy in that sense, weather-wise, rainouts. We’ve been playing up-and-down baseball, coming back in a lot of games, coming back and then giving away a lot of games as well. Hopefully the turmoil of this month can turn over soon and we can start playing better baseball as well.”
WHO: Cleveland vs. Kansas City
WHERE: Progressive Field
PITCHERS: Salazar (0-2, 7.71 ERA) vs. Shields (1-2, 2.00)
TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM