Especially when it comes to relievers.
Francona’s nine-man bullpen came to the rescue Thursday after a quick exit by rookie starter Zach Plesac. Francona called on four relievers, who allowed just one run, until the offense did enough damage to complete a three-game sweep of the Royals with a 8-4 win at Kauffman Stadium.
When Plesac left with two out in the third, the Royals had a 3-1 lead and the bases loaded. But they were the ones in trouble because the bullpen door was swinging open.
A.J. Cole, Tyler Clippard, Adam Cimber (4-2) and Nick Wittgren allowed one run over the last 6 1/3 innings as the Indians improved to 4-2 on this eight-game trip.
“AJ Cole coming in and getting the strikeout (to end the third) ... if he doesn’t get that out, it’s an uphill battle from there,” Francona said. “But (getting the sweep) was really nice. Especially with the way they started.
“It didn’t start very good,” he added. “But we were hanging around and all of the sudden some good things started happening — and we started doing things we needed to do.”
They have won 18 of their last 26 games, and are now a season-high 10 games above .500 (48-38). Cleveland trails the Minnesota Twins by six games in the American League Central Division. The Tribe owns the second AL wild card spot and are just one game behind Tampa Bay for the home wild card position.
Francona has been able to carry nine relievers headed into the All-Star break because off days have allowed them to go with a four-man rotation.
The offense turned the bullpen’s work into the Tribe’s 48th victory of the season with a six-run seventh inning. They entered the inning trailing 3-2, but emerged with a 8-3 lead.
Kevin Plawecki, Bobby Bradley, Tyler Naquin and Francisco Lindor opened the inning with four consecutive hits off Jorge Lopez (1-7). Naquin doubled home Plawecki to pull the Indians into a tie. Lindor followed with a two-run single to give the Indians the lead for good.
Jason Kipnis added a sacrifice fly and Jose Ramirez ended the scoring with his second homer of the game. It was Ramirez’s first two-homer game since July 30, 2018.
“Jose swung the bat really well today,” Francona said. “If he can get going, that would be so nice to see. He gave us a huge lift. Naquin was huge, and Bobby (Bradley) started getting on top of the ball and driving the ball.”
It was Plesac’s second early exit in as many starts. He started the third with a 1-0 lead thanks to Ramirez’s first home of the game, but the lead didn’t last.
Catcher Cam Gallagher singled and Terrance Gore walked to bring the top of the lineup to bat with one out. Whit Merrifield sent a liner back to the mound that deflected off Plesac and ended up in right center field as Gallagher scored to tie the score.
Alberto Mondesi, with runners on the corners, pushed a bunt to the right side of the mound. Plesac fielded it cleanly and motioned to throw home as Gore scored for the lead. Then he flipped to Bradley at first, but Bradley wasn’t on the bag and Mondesi was safe.
Alex Gordon lined out to first, but Plesac walked Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler to bring home Merrifield for a 3-1 lead. That was it for Plesac as Cole relieved. Cole struck out Cheslor Cuthbert in a seven-pitch at-bat to end the inning.
In his last two starts, Plesac has allowed 10 runs on 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings.
Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis (left) and shortstop Francisco Lindor congratulate each other Thursday afternoon after turning a double play to end the second inning against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
The Tribe made it a 3-2 in the fifth on Lindor’s RBI single off starter Homer Bailey.
Ramirez gave the Indians a 1-0 lead in the second with a leadoff homer. Ramirez has eight homers this year compared to 24 at the some point of the season last year.
The defensive highlight of the game came in the second inning when Lindor made a diving stop behind second base against Cuthbert. He flipped the ball out of his glove to Kipnis, who forced Dozier and made a great turn and throw to complete the 6-4-3 double play.
The start of the game was delayed by rain for 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The Indians have a rare Friday off and they’ll spend it in Cincinnati preparing for a two-game series against the Reds that starts on Saturday and will carry them into the All-Star break. Shane Bieber (7-3, 3.54) starts at 4:10 p.m. Saturday and Trevor Bauer (7-6, 3.74) will pull the curtain on the unofficial end of the first half at 1:10 p.m. on Sunday. The Reds will start Anthony DeSclafni (5-4, 4.35) and Tyler Mahle (2-6, 4.36) on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. SportsTime Ohio and WLKR 95.3 FM will carry both games.