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Corey Kluber can take another step toward a third Cy Young Award when he opens the Cleveland Indians‘ three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field.
But the ace right-hander can do something else even more important — pitch his team even closer to clinching the American League Central.
It won’t be easy against the red-hot Rays.
Tampa Bay, still a long-shot wild-card hopeful, completed a sweep of a three-game series with an 8-3 victory against the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday. The Rays have won seven of their last eight and 16 of their last 19 games, are 14 games above .500 for the first time this season and have won a franchise record-tying 11 straight in their building.
They are 32-8 at the Trop since June 11.
The Rays, who outscored the woeful Orioles 32-10 in three games, are 24-11 since the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
“Good way to wrap up the series,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said after Sunday’s game. “We had an opportunity to (get a three-game sweep) in Toronto and fell a little bit short. Today, the guys came out and put some pressure on their young pitcher (Josh Rogers), which is good to see. Brandon Lowe with the big (three-run) home run. Kind of the separator right there.”
Despite losing in Toronto and the Twins winning at home Sunday, the Indians, running away with their division, are in position to clinch in St. Petersburg. Their magic number is five, so it’s clearly just a matter of time.
The Rays went to Cleveland from Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 and won twice, losing only to Kluber, who allowed no runs and two hits in seven innings.
Kluber (18-7, 2.75 ERA), who is 2-0 with an 0.66 ERA in his last two starts, goes for his MLB-leading 19th victory. He is 7-1 in his last nine starts as he tries to hold off other Cy contenders, including Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell.
Kluber is 5-2 with a 2.17 ERA in nine career games against the Rays and 2-1 with a 3.38 in four starts at Tropicana Field.
Reliever Diego Castillo will be the “opener” for the Rays on Monday night for the second time in three days as Tampa Bay goes to its new formula for success for the third straight game.
MVP candidate Jose Ramirez provided a Cleveland highlight in Sunday’s loss, joining Joe Carter and Grady Sizemore as the only Indians players with 30 home runs and 30 steals in a season.
“I feel really happy about that,” Ramirez said through a translator. “I kind of feel the same way about both (homers and steals).”
Teammate Francisco Lindor, who hit his 34th homer of the season, said, “Not a lot of people do it in history. It’s a special number. He’s having a great season, and I’m very happy for him.”
The current Rays roster is a combined 11-for-57 (.193) against Kluber. Carlos Gomez, who homered Sunday, is 1-for-8 (.125), but the hit was a home run. Ji-Man Choi is 1-for-7 (.143).
The Indians are expected to activate Andrew Miller from the 10-day disabled list before Monday night’s game. He has been out — for the second time this season — with a left shoulder injury since Aug. 29.
Tommy Pham, bothered by a hamstring, started at DH for the Rays on Sunday and extended his hitting streak to a career-high 13 games.