CLEVELAND -- If the first month of the regular season is any indication, the Central Division race will be a tight one.
Entering Thursday, three-time defending champion Detroit was atop the standings, with just 1 1/2 games separating it from the rest of the field.
The Indians held down last place in the division, with Chicago, Kansas City and Minnesota all tied in second place through Wednesday.
“It’s going to be tough again this year,” Cleveland ace Justin Masterson said of the division race. “That’s kind of the way you see it in the Central. Everybody plays each other really tough, (there is) some good young talent. We’re all gonna makes some mistakes as we go about it, but I think whoever limits their mistakes the most is going to be on top.”
Long considered one of the weakest divisions in baseball, the Central has taken strides over recent years, according to Indians first baseman Nick Swisher.
“If you look at the moves that were made in the offseason, the Central has really bulked itself up,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “There are a lot of good pitchers in this division and there’s always going to be a challenge. No one is going to feel sorry for us. We have to come out here and find our game and bring it every day.”
Center fielder Michael Bourn got the day off, as he continues to work his way back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for a month.
Bourn started slowly after leaving the disabled list, but has begun to pick up the pace at the plate. He’s hitting .389 (7-for-18) over his last four games to raise his average to .258 (8-for-31) in seven games.
“I’m just taking it day by day, trying to get my timing,” Bourn said. “Just see the ball and try to hit the ball and take it game by game and continue to work it.”
Left-hander Marc Rczepczysnki has been a welcome addition to the bullpen since joining the Indians in a trading-deadline deal from St. Louis last year.
Of his 38 appearances with Cleveland over the past two seasons, 34 are scoreless outings. He has posted a 0.96 ERA over his first 11 games this year, with opposing hitters batting just .138 (4-for-29) -- left-handed hitters batting .133 (2-for-15).
“Oh, man, he’s added so much to our bullpen,” manager Terry Francona said. “Before we got him, he was kind of having kind of a weird year. He actually got sent down and was getting used as a long guy and kind of mop up. Since we’ve got him, he’s been really important to our bullpen.
“When you have that lefty that you trust, it adds so much to your bullpen, because they’re going to face the better hitters -- the guys that don’t get pinch hit for and in situations where the game is on the line. When they’re successful, it makes the rest of your bullpen that much better.”
The Indians are on the West Coast until May 2, beginning a three-game interleague series against San Francisco tonight (10:15) at AT&T Park.
Carlos Carrasco (0-2, 7.31 ERA) opens the set, opposing RHP Tim Hudson (2-1, 2.40), while Zach McAllister goes for Cleveland on Saturday (4:05 p.m.) against RHP Tim Lincecum (1-1, 6.43).
Danny Salazar (0-3, 7.85) starts the series finale Sunday (4:05 p.m.), while the Giants counter with RHP Ryan Vogelsong (0-1, 7.71).
The Indians are 4-5 all-time against San Francisco, with the two teams last meeting in 2011.
Triple-A Columbus right-hander T.J. House allowed just a run on five hits over 6 1/3 innings Wednesday in the Clippers’ 3-2 loss to Gwinnett. House, a 16th-round draft pick in 2008, is 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in three starts.
* Advanced Class A shortstop Erik Gonzalez is off to a fast start, entering Thursday batting .346 with a home run, five doubles, three triples and nine RBIs in 19 games.
- Michael Brantley recorded his American League-leading third outfield assist, throwing out Alcides Escobar trying to go from first to third on a single in the fifth inning.
- At two hours and 15 minutes, the series finale Thursday was the Indians’ shortest game of the season.