CLEVELAND (TNS) — There was silence, and then noise. Shock, and then a strange scene.
In the seconds after the longest winning streak in 101 years had died, after Mike Minor struck out Francisco Lindor on an 84 mph curveball and the Royals held on for a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Friday night, the crowd inside Progressive Field stood and cheered.
Out on the infield, the Royals formed the usual handshake line, reveling in a hard-fought victory. Across the field, the Indians had stepped outside their dugout, acknowledging their fans as their historic 22-game winning streak came to a halt. It was an odd scene, of course, two baseball teams on the same field in the moments after a regular-season game. But this was no ordinary night.
“What they did over there is amazing,” Royals manager Ned Yost would say.
“You have to respect that,” Jason Vargas would say.
“It’s over with now,” center fielder Lorenzo Cain would say.
Indeed it was. To make the playoffs in 2017, the Royals (73-74) will need an answered prayer in the season’s final weeks. Four games out with 15 to play, they require something akin to the divine. But to carve out a little slice of history on Friday, they simply needed a clutch performance from their bullpen and star turn from a center fielder with a bum quad.
Cain, heart of the outfield, defensive wizard, owner of the most pronounced limp in Kansas City, finished 3 for 4 with a run scored and an RBI, gutting through the soreness in his leg. One night after the bullpen coughed up a one-run lead in the ninth, clearing the way for the Indians’ 22nd straight victory, Cain supplied a two-out, RBI single in the top of the sixth, offering the decisive run.
The moment silenced a capacity crowd, which had come to revel in the streak and the most improbable story in sports. The Indians stood just four wins shy of the 1916 New York Giants for the longest winning streak ever. But for a moment, Cain stood atop first base, clapping his hands together four times and sending a signal back to the visitors dugout along the first-base line.
“He’s fighting a quad,” Yost said. “But this is what they live for. They’re pushing, doing whatever they can to get that wild card. The only way he’ll sit out is if he can’t even walk.”
In the moments after the victory, Cain called the performance a “good night.” Yet it was slightly more than that. On a pleasant September evening — one that had the drama and intrigue of October — the Royals and Indians forged a regular-season gem with unexpected heroes (Trevor Cahill!), a thrilling finish and an assortment of ties and lead changes.
By the end of the night, the Royals were only marginally closer to American League wild-card spot. Yet they had done something that no team had since Aug. 23: Beat the Indians.
The formula was straightforward: Starter Jason Vargas allowed three runs in five innings. The bullpen took the reins and seized control. And the offense was opportunistic and timely, scoring its first two runs on solo homers from Alcides Escobar and Brandon Moss, tying the game on an RBI single from Eric Hosmer in the fifth, and taking a 4-3 lead on Cain’s single off Indians reliever Joe Smith in the sixth.
Two former starters would slam the door. Cahill worked scoreless innings in the seventh and eighth, inducing an inning-ending double play to escape a jam in the seventh. Mike Minor entered in the bottom of the ninth and worked around a leadoff bloop single, earning the first save of his professional career.
“It was kind of deafening,” Minor said of the scene in the ninth. “I couldn’t hear anybody. But I like those moments.”
Minor had tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings on Thursday. But with the bullpen depleted, and Yost seeking to give Scott Alexander more rest and loathe to use Kelvin Herrera or Brandon Maurer, the staff set up Minor to pitch the ninth. His fastball hummed at 96 mph. His stuff overwhelmed, leaving the fans stunned after the final out of the game.
“I guess it’s pretty cool,” Minor said. “I felt like we could have beat them last night.”
But let’s reset: The Indians had taken a 3-1 lead against Vargas in the third when second baseman Jose Ramirez hammered a majestic two-run blast deep to left field. On a 1-0 pitch, Vargas threw a fastball that crossed the plate more than 3.7 feet off the ground. Ramirez, a non-prospect turned utility man turned MVP candidate, unleashed a compact swing and connected near his eyes. The contact surprised Vargas.
The baseball jumped off Ramirez’s bat and soared into the night. Progressive Field could sense another victory. But then the Royals struck back. Moss homered. Cain would score from second on a single from Hosmer in the fifth. One inning later, Cain delivered the go-ahead RBI single.
“Big-time gamer,” Yost said. “Warrior.”
And nearly 20 minutes after the victory, Cain sat near his locker, his uniform still on. As a group of reporters approached, he expressed mock frustration at the sight.
“Cheese and biscuits,” he said.
The Royals had stopped a 22-game winning streak. They had stayed afloat in the playoff race, at least mathematically. They have two more games here in Cleveland. They probably need to win those, too.
“It's nice to get rid of it,” Cain said of the streak. “But like I said: We’re about winning ballgames right here.”