Friday was no different, as the rookie outfielder did early damage at the plate and came up with a clutch RBI single late in the Tribe’s 5-2 win against Philadelphia at Progressive Field.
All-Star pitcher Shane Bieber and the Indians bullpen took care of the rest.
The win allowed Cleveland (91-63) to keep pace with Tampa Bay (91-63) in the American League Wild Card Game chase. Both teams are two games behind front-running Oakland (93-61) for the home slot. The Rays defeated the Red Sox, 5-4 in 11 innings on Friday and the A’s cruised past Texas at home.
Mercado wasted little time putting the Indians in front, smashing an RBI double off the wall in left after Francisco Lindor drew a leadoff walk against Phillies starter Drew Smyly (4-7, 6.44). Carlos Santana and Yasiel Puig followed with consecutive base hits as Mercado scored on Puig’s single to left to give Cleveland a two-run lead.
Mercado’s two-out RBI single in the seventh off Phillies reliever Jared Hughes followed an intentional walk to Lindor and drove in Yu Chang for a three-run Cleveland advantage after Philadelphia had scored a pair in the fifth. Mercado has eight multi-hit games in his last 15 starts and leads American League rookies with 65 runs scored.
Mercado said issuing Lindor the free pass was the same move he would have made in Philly manager Gabe Kapler’s situation.
“Frankie’s an unbelievable talent and the last thing I want to do is see him with runners in scoring position,” Mercado said. "But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s the competitor in me that wants to show them that their move didn’t pay off. That’s kind of what pumps me up a little bit.”
Staked to an early lead, Bieber (15-7, 3.23) dominated Philadelphia’s lineup through four innings, striking out five. When he whiffed Rhys Hoskins in the fourth, Bieber became the sixth Indians pitcher to record at least 250 strikeouts in a single season, joining Corey Kluber, Luis Tiant, Sam McDowell, Herb Score and Bob Feller.
In a season full of personal accolades, Bieber kept his postgame focus on the team’s mission to reach the postseason.
“This is what we come to the ballpark and do, it’s what we come and play for," Bieber said. “Every single one of these guys is extremely excited to be in the position we’re in and to be in this race and to be playing for something meaningful. It kind of helps bring that organic energy each and every day. It’s something we come here every day excited about.”
Brad Miller doubled and scored on a two-run double by Maikel Franco in the fifth to put Philly on the board, but Bieber pitched around singles by Bryce Harper in the fifth and Scott Kingery in the sixth before exiting in the eighth following a double by Andrew Knapp.
Oliver Perez came on to retire Harper on a grounder to third and Carlos Carrasco walked Hoskins before getting Jay Bruce on a grounder to Lindor. Carrasco stayed on for the ninth and retired the Phillies in order for his first save since June 16, 2016 against the Angels.
“Even in the eighth inning (Carrasco) threw some really good pitches that he didn’t get, but he didn’t give in,” Francona said. “He went out in the ninth and was really efficient. If you can get a multi-inning reliever with that kind of stuff, that’s a big lift for us.”
Bieber finished with seven strikeouts and did not walk a batter in 7 1/3 innings. He won his third consecutive decision in September after losing three straight at the end of August.
“He spun some breaking balls underneath their bats,” Francona said. “The couple balls they hit, like the one Miller hit, that ball was off the plate. That’s just a good piece of hitting. I thought he was pretty damn good.”
The Indians added a pair of runs in the second when Andrew Velazquez drew an one-out walk and stole second. Smyly appeared to catch him on a pickoff throw to first, but Velazquez slid safely into second as a throw from Hoskins hit him in the back. Lindor singled over the head of Hernandez at second on the next pitch to give Cleveland a three-run advantage.
Mercado kept the inning alive by beating out a double-play grounder, at first and moved into scoring position with his 15th steal, tops among American League rookies. Santana’s two-out single to left brought Mercado home to put Cleveland in front, 4-0. It was Santana’s team-leading 92nd RBI.
The series continues Saturday as right-hander Zach Plesac (8-6, 3.64) starts for the Indians against Phillies lefty Jason Vargas (6-8, 4.48). First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. at Progressive Field. The game will air on FS1 and SportsTime Ohio as well as radio stations WTAM 1100 AM and WMMS 100.7 FM.
Plesac is 1-0 against National League opponents with a 2.81 ERA in four appearances (three starts). Vargas has a career 9-5 record against the Indians with a 4.25 ERA in 19 starts, mostly with the Royals. He last faced the Tribe in 2017.