CLEVELAND — Finishing the first half with a victory is always nice. When it comes against the dreaded New York Yankees, it’s extra special.
The Indians head to the All-Star break in positive fashion thanks to another quality outing from right-hander Trevor Bauer on Sunday and a late rally that lifted them to a 5-2 win over New York and a split of a four-game series at Progressive Field.
“It’s very important. It was a tough series, especially before the break, you don’t want to look past these games,” said left fielder Michael Brantley, who hit a solo home run to lead off the eighth inning and break a 2-2 tie.
“We’ve got to defend our home turf and build off that. It’s a great win to go into the All-Star break. Guys have momentum. We’ll take it into Texas (to start the second half) and go from there.”
Bauer got off to a shaky start in the sweltering heat, allowing a run on five hits over the first three innings. But he settled in to surrender just one more run on two hits over his final four innings.
The run came on a solo homer from No. 9 hitter Neil Walker in the fourth — the first homer Bauer allowed since June 3 (eight starts covering 57 2⁄3 innings).
“I thought he pitched his heart out,” manager Terry Francona said. “I thought early, I thought the heat got to him a little bit. I think he was fighting it. He actually was better at the end. In fact, he wanted to stay in and I don’t blame him because he was pitching very well. He’s been everything you could ask for and his tank seems like it’s going towards full … for a guy throwing as much as he is.”
Bauer, an All-Star for the first time, may not be the Indians’ ace, but he certainly pitched like one in the first half.
The right-hander enters the break with a 2.24 ERA over 20 starts, the lowest ERA by a Cleveland starter since Len Barker’s 2.08 mark in 1981 and the fifth-lowest in franchise history.
His 175 strikeouts over 136 1⁄3 innings are the third most in the first half in club history behind Bob Feller’s 190 in 1946 and Sam McDowell’s 183 in 1970.
“(I’m) super pleased,” Bauer said of his first-half performance. “Slider has been better than I thought. Change-up was big today. Curveball is good. (Velocity) is up. All the things that are important to success. Command is better. I’m walking less people, striking out more. It’s hard to find anything to be displeased with, you know? It’s been super encouraging.”
The Indians trailed 2-0 and did little offensively against Yanks starter Masahiro Tanaka, who shut them down in Game 3 of last year’s Division Series, before Edwin Encarnacion connected on a game-tying homer in the fourth inning.
Cleveland avoided disaster when Encarnacion was hit on the hand by a pitch in the eighth inning and left the game, but Francona said he was fine following the win.
With the game tied at 2, the Indians held the vaunted Yankees lineup hitless over the final four innings, with Clint Frazier accounting for the only baserunner after closer Cody Allen hit him with a pitch in the ninth.
Carlos Carrasco made an extremely rare relief appearance in the eighth to get the win, striking out two of the three batters he faced. It was the right-hander’s first relief appearance since 2014.
“Every time he touches the ball, he gets a win. It’s unbelievable,” Bauer joked of Carrasco, who is 11-4 with a 4.12 ERA. “He can give up 10 (runs). He can give up zero. He can come out of the pen. He can start. He freaking vultured my win, man, unbelievable.
“Hats off to him for being able to do that and being able to handle it … that way. You know, some guys get amped up coming out off the bullpen. He hadn’t come out of the pen in a while and it’s easy to let the adrenaline take over, especially in a game like that against that team. So he handled it great.”
All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez went 2-for-4, recorded his 20th stolen base and scored an insurance run in the eighth inning.
He joined Grady Sizemore (2008) as the only players in franchise history to finish the first half with at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases.
“I know I’m not supposed to run out of things to say but it’s hard,” Francona said of Ramirez. “He’s a great player. He’s a great teammate. And he cares about winning, almost desperately. That’s a pretty good combination to be all balled up into a 5-foot-9 third baseman.”
The Indians enter the break in first place, but only nine games over .500.
“I don’t think you’re ever happy with what your record is. You always want to be better,” Francona said. “I think we seem to play better in the second half. There’s no guarantees there, but I feel we will. We’ve had some bumps on the road, but we’ve endured. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I think our better baseball is ahead of us.”
“We’re all confident,” Bauer said. “We know what team we have and we can match up with anybody.”