MINNEAPOLIS -- The Indians are entering the no-excuses portion of the season. If Cleveland wants to make a realistic run at a spot in the postseason, the club can ill afford to keep playing the way it has for the past two nights.
In a 3-2 loss to the Twins on Saturday, Corey Kluber had a stellar start interrupted by a left hip injury, and Cleveland's bullpen and defense cost the team following the starter's trip to the training room. That said, rare is the night when a pair of runs will hold up for a victory.
That was the message Jason Kipnis delivered in the wake of the defeat.
"We're getting into late July right now," Kipnis said. "You can make excuses for a while, but we're going to need some guys to start stepping up here. We're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot right now in these last two games.
"You can't blame the starting pitching. You can't blame the bullpen. You can't win any games if you don't score many runs."
The Indians' only runs came off the bat of their only All-Star hitter. In the sixth inning, Kipnis sliced a pitch from Minnesota starter Kevin Correia to left field, where the ball carried over the wall and into the seats for a two-run home run. The blast was the 14th of the season for the second baseman, and it was all Kluber received in the way of support at Target Field.
Correia logged six strong innings, and the Twins bullpen finished the job against Cleveland, which ended 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. One evening earlier, during another loss marred by poor defense by the Tribe, it was Mike Pelfrey who handled the Indians with apparent ease, pitching into the sixth inning.
"I thought we had two pitchers we could score runs off," Kipnis said. "We didn't the last two days."
Kluber certainly did his part, pitching through tightness in his left hip in a five-inning effort.
After Kipnis' home run gave the Indians a 2-0 lead, manager Terry Francona opted to pull the plug on Kluber's outing. The right-hander had blanked the Twins, piled up seven strikeouts and scattered three hits, but his command was not as strong as previous starts. With Kluber sitting at 93 pitches, and left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau looming, Francona handed the ball to lefty Rich Hill.
"It was the right thing to do in my mind," Francona said. "You've always got to take care of your guys first."
Kluber, who indicated that the hip issue first flared up in his last start on July 12, tried to talk Francona out of pulling him from the game.
"I tried, but he's stubborn," Kluber said with a smile. "He had his mind made up, I guess."
The right-hander noted that Francona noticed that he was altering his delivery, using more arm than legs. That kind of compensation can eventually lead to something more serious, and the manager did not want to take chances with Kluber, who has a 2.22 ERA in July and has become a reliable piece of the rotation.
"If he gives up runs because of that, I would've kicked myself," Francona said. "This kid is obviously important to what we're doing moving forward."
Neither Francona nor Kluber felt the injury was severe enough to cost the right-hander any time on the shelf.
With a little help from Cleveland's defense, Minnesota took advantage after Kluber left the game.
Facing Hill in the home half of the sixth inning, Mauer drew a leadoff walk and advanced to third base on a single from Morneau. Ryan Doumit followed by chopping a pitch to Lonnie Chisenhall. The third baseman sprinted in and gloved the ball, but he threw wildly to the plate in an attempt to retire Mauer, who was trying to score on the play.
"That was a big turn in the ballgame," Francona said. "We're not stinging the ball, for sure. Kip took a gorgeous swing, but when you're getting four or five hits, you've got to play a clean game."
The gaffe by Chisenhall, who also made a critical error in the sixth inning in Friday's 3-2 loss, allowed Doumit and Morneau to move up to second and third base, respectively. Chris Colabello then delivered an RBI single to right field against reliever Bryan Shaw, and Clete Thomas followed by hitting a sharp grounder to Kipnis at second base.
Kipnis had a chance at an inning-ending double play, but he bobbled the ball and was only able to get one out. That allowed Doumit to score, putting the Indians behind for good, 3-2.
"That play needs to be made," Kipnis said.
If there is any silver lining, it is that the first-place Tigers also lost their past two games, keeping the Indians' deficit in the American League Central to just 1 1/2 games. Of course, a pair of clean contests might have helped the Tribe move into first place.
"We're not losing too much ground, thankfully," Kipnis said. "But if we want to get where we want to be, were going to have to start winning games. These are games we need to be winning."