Opposite dugout: Indians closing in on AL Central crown

indians-logo.jpgManager: Terry Francona (6th season)

Record: 69-51

Last 10 games: 8-2

Who to watch: 3B José Ramírez (36 HR, 89 RBIs, 27 SB), SS Francisco Lindor (29 HR, 75 RBIs, 19 SB), LF Michael Brantley (29 2B), 1B Yonder Alonso (20 HR, 70 RBIs), RHP Mike Clevinger (3.38 ERA), RHP Cody Allen (23 saves)

Season series vs. Orioles: 3-1

Pitching probables:

Aug. 17: RHP David Hess (2-6) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (14-6), 7:10 p.m., MASN
Aug. 18: RHP Alex Cobb (3-15) vs. RHP Adam Plutko (4-2), 4:05 p.m., MASN
Aug. 19: RHP Yefry Ramírez (1-4) vs. RHP Mike Clevinger (8-7), 1:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Indians:

While the Red Sox have compiled the majors’ best record and fans breathlessly follow the saga of the surprising A’s and their pursuit of the suddenly stumbling Astros in the American League West, the Indians have been quietly asserting their dominance in the heartland. With the only winning record in the AL Central, the Tribe holds a virtually insurmountable lead, and the only question would appear to be whether they can grab the No. 2 seed in the division series.

Leading the Indians’ charge is the biggest star you might never have heard of. In his third full season with the Indians (he also spent parts of 2013, 2014 and 2015 with the big club), third baseman José Ramírez isn’t hitting for average as well as he did in the previous two campaigns. He’s still batting .302, mind you, and his power numbers have made a significant leap. Ramírez’s 36 home runs and .638 slugging percentage trail only the Red Sox’s J.D. Martinez for the major league lead, and his 89 RBIs are tied for third with the Cubs’ Javier Báez. Ramírez’s 27 stolen bases put him in a tie for fourth in the bigs with the Mariners’ Dee Gordon. All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor similarly produces at the plate, homering 29 times and driving in 75 runs so far this season. Lindor also poses a stolen base threat. So, for that matter, does 37-year-old reserve outfielder Rajai Davis, who signed a minor league contract with the Indians in the offseason and has swiped 16 in limited action. Left fielder Michael Brantley first arrived in the Cleveland clubhouse in 2009 as a September call-up. He spent most of 2016 on the disabled list following shoulder surgery, but otherwise has been a solid presence in the Indians lineup since 2012. Brantley (.300/.355/.467) hit .327 in the 2014 season and .310 the year after that. First baseman Yonder Alonso is on pace to exceed the 28 homers he posted last year for the Athletics and Mariners. His average has dipped in August, but he brings a four-game hit streak to this weekend’s series.

The Orioles will miss Indians ace Corey Kluber, and a stress fracture in his leg has put Trevor Bauer and his 2.22 ERA on the disabled list, but right-hander Carlos Carrasco (3.50 ERA) is no picnic. Carrasco, who will pitch the series opener tonight, has not allowed more than three runs in any of his starts in July and August - he also pitched an inning of flawless relief against the Yankees July 15 - and gave up just three hits over seven innings in Chicago against the White Sox in his last start. Righty Adam Plutko (4.75 ERA), who starts tomorrow, has been racking up the frequent flyer miles on the shuttle between Cleveland and Triple-A Columbus. Plutko made a couple of relief appearances for the parent club in July, but tomorrow’s game will be his first start for the Indians since June 30. That day in Oakland, Plutko went 5 2/3 innings and gave up just five hits, but three of them were solo homers, and he took the loss. Right-hander Mike Clevinger takes the mound for Sunday’s finale. Clevinger has gone at least five innings in every start he’s made this year, and hurled a complete-game shutout in Baltimore on April 21. He’s allowed five hits in each of his last four starts, winning his previous one (Aug. 13 in Cincinnati) and taking a tough-luck loss in giving up two runs in Detroit on July 28.

Hamstring and knee injuries have had veteran lefty setup man Andrew Miller (3.26 ERA) sidelined for much of the year. He was on the field in May but probably shouldn’t have been, as three rough outings saddled him with losses and he posted a 14.54 ERA. Since his Aug. 3 return from the 60-day disabled list, though, Miller looks his old self again. He’s given up no runs and just three hits over five innings. Since acquiring former Padres closer Brad Hand (2.68 ERA) in July, the Indians have used him more often in the seventh and eighth innings, but he has managed to notch four saves for the Tribe. Although Cody Allen (4.06 ERA), pitched the seventh and eighth innings of the Indians’ 4-3 win Wednesday in Cincinnati (getting credit for a hold), he remains the designated closer. In his previous three appearances, Allen has recorded two saves and one blown save that wound up as a win.

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