CLEVELAND (AP) — Once again, the Indians grabbed water bottles, poured from the dugout and danced around the infield grass like little kids at recess.
Walk-off week rolls on.
César Hernández ripped an RBI double into the right-field corner with two outs in the ninth inning as Cleveland rallied for its third dramatic win in four days, a 4-3 victory Friday night over the Pittsburgh Pirates that kept the Indians’ hopes alive for winning the AL Central.
“That’s what we want,” said starter Carlos Carrasco. “We want to win the division.”
Down 3-1 and held to one hit for eight innings, the Indians found more of the late-inning magic that has carried them this week.
Tyler Naquin drew a leadoff walk off Chris Stratton (2-1) in the ninth and pinch-hitter Jordan Luplow, who hit a walk-off homer in the ninth on Wednesday night to beat the Chicago White Sox, pounded an RBI double high off the wall in left.
Delino DeShields — who broke up Pittsburgh’s no-hit bid with a perfectly placed bunt single in the seventh — hit a one-out RBI single. After Francisco Lindor lined out, it was Hernández’s turn at playing hero, and after he delivered on a 3-2 pitch, he was chased by his celebrating teammates.
Adam Plutko (2-2) picked up his first career win in relief for the Indians (34-25), who have clinched a playoff spot but want more. They they can improve their seed and still overtake Minnesota and the White Sox, still stinging from a four-game sweep by Cleveland.
It’s quite a turnaround for the Indians, who recently dropped eight straight from Sept. 8-16 and have been plagued with offensive inconsistency all season.
But as October nears, they’re playing their best ball.
“We knew we were better than that,” DeShields said of the eight-game slide. “We just kept telling ourselves to keep the energy up, don’t panic, we have a good ball club and yeah we’re just stringing together hits, making pitches, coming up with hits.”
Until the ninth, the Indians did little against Pittsburgh starter Mitch Keller and three relievers.
Keller didn’t allow a hit for the second straight start, but he walked eight and was relieved after five erratic innings and 98 pitches. The right-hander didn’t allow a hit over six innings in his previous start against St, Louis.
He’s the first NL pitcher with back-to-back no-hit outings of at least five innings since Johnny Vander Meer threw consecutive no-hitters in 1938. Those gems by Vander Meer are considered among baseball’s most hallowed — and untouchable — records.
“The eight walks really sucks,” Keller said. “I don’t know the last time I did that, but the end of the day I kept the team in it. I got through five innings with one run, so that’s the big thing for me. Taking a positive in that, doing whatever I could to make it through at least five for us.
Gregory Polanco hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning off Carrasco, but the Pirates couldn’t hold on and dropped to 2-16 against AL Central teams.
Pittsburgh’s pitching staff has been as good as anyone’s lately.
The Pirates came in with a major league-best 1.60 ERA over the past 10 games, and Keller managed to continue the impressive run despite not being able to throw many strikes.
He walked Cleveland’s first three batters on 15 pitches in the first, but gave up only one run when Carlos Santana grounded into a double play. Keller was in big trouble again when he walked the bases full with two outs in the third, but he retired Naquin on a liner.
Pirates manager Derek Shelton seemed poised to take Keller out several times, but he left him in through the fifth before finally taking the ball from the 24-year-old who was on the injured list earlier this season with an oblique issue.
“Obviously we prefer more strikes, but it shows the quality of his stuff,” Shelton said. “The fact that he ends the season with 11 straight no-hit innings, that’s pretty damn good.”
While Keller struggled, Carrasco baffled the Pirates with a nasty changeup over the first three innings. The right-hander got his seventh strikeout in the fourth and didn’t allow his first hit until Josh Bell’s grounder found a hole into right field.
Polanco followed by hitting Carrasco’s first pitch — another changeup — onto the tarp-covered seats in right for his seventh homer.
“Bad pitch,” Carrasco said. “But the more important thing was keeping the game right there. Our team is really hot right now. Our bullpen is pitching good. And we won the game and that’s what we’re looking for right now.”
The Indians are playing their final series of the shortened regular season without manager Terry Francona, who was with the club for just 14 games before leaving to address serious medical issues.
Francona is not expected to manage in the playoffs either, but the 61-year-old will be with the team in an advisory capacity.
Despite being sidelined for most of the season, Francona is credited with Cleveland’s wins on his managerial record.
The two-time World Series winner has strung together 16 straight winning seasons, the longest stretch in the majors since Baltimore’s Earl Weaver did it 16 times in a row from 1968-1985.
Aaron Civale (4-5), who will pitch in relief for the Indians during the wild-card round, makes his final regular-season start against Pirates right-hander Joe Musgrove (0-5).
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