CLEVELAND -- There have been signs of life throughout the Indians' lineup of late, but the team has relied heavily on the lower third for run production. That has helped Cleveland tread water while waiting for the top of the line to start churning.
There have been hits and there have been walks, but they have been scattered and ill-timed in the early going this season. Frustration started to seep from the stands at Progressive Field down into the clubhouse, where a handful of key Cleveland hitters have searched for some kind of spark.
The flame flickered on Wednesday night in a 5-3 win over the Royals. All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis delivered the decisive blow -- a run-scoring double in the seventh inning to propel the Indians to a two-to-one lead in this four-game series.
"Sometimes you need a big hit at a big time," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "We got it tonight."
Kipnis' hit was among six produced by the first three hitters in Cleveland's lineup, which has been in need of that kind of output over the past few weeks.
Michael Bourn looked like himself in the leadoff spot, Nick Swisher delivered a key hit at an important moment and Kipnis looked once again like the star Cleveland has so embraced. It was a combination that helped support a solid effort from starter Justin Masterson and overcame another game nearly marred by a defensive lapse.
"It was only a matter of time," Kipnis said. "Even though we haven't seen the production we wanted to with runners on base, guys are still taking good swings. We're swinging at the right pitches, but sometimes they're not falling in. Finally, they are starting to fall in and get some runs for our staff."
Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis combined to go 6-for-13 with a pair of extra-base hits and three RBIs. In the second inning, Bourn used a two-run triple off Royals lefty Jason Vargas to tie the game at 2. In the seventh, Kipnis delivered his RBI double with two outs to put Cleveland ahead for good, 4-3.
Prior to Kipnis' heroics, Bourn reached base with a one-out single (his third hit of the night), but he was caught stealing at second base. Rather than seeing another rally washed away, Swisher pulled a pitch from reliever Kelvin Herrera to right field for a base hit. That set the stage for Kipnis, who drilled an offering to the wall in right-center field.
"He's that kind of player," Bourn said of Kipnis. "He hits in the three-hole and he comes up with big hits. He grinds out at-bats and he expects himself to be good. That's a good thing to have."
Heading into Wednesday's game, Cleveland had a .219 combined average from the first three spots of its lineup, compared to a .286 mark from its seven-eight-nine hitters. The latter mark led the American League. Over the past past three games, however, the Tribe's top three batters have hit at a .385 (15-for-39) clip.
Now, the Indians just need cleanup man Carlos Santana -- batting .130 through 20 games -- to get in on the fun.
"It was nice to see Bourny starting to impact the game," Francona said. "Kip with a huge hit. That was good. And when we get Carlos going, that'll really help us a lot."
Lonnie Chisenhall, who has been a consistent contributor in the lower third of the lineup this month, chipped in a pinch-hit RBI single in the eighth. That added insurance run was surely appreciated by Tribe closer John Axford, who earned his eighth save with a drama-free ninth.
Bourn's two-run, two-out triple in the second effectively erased Kansas City's early work against Masterson.
The Royals delivered back-to-back blows against the sinkerballer in the second inning. First, catcher Salvador Perez snapped out of an 0-for-22 funk by drilling the first pitch he received to deep center field for a solo home run. Four pitches later, Mike Moustakas pulled an offering down the right-field line for a second straight shot, putting the Tribe in a 2-0 hole.
With the game tied at 2 in the sixth, Eric Hosmer led off with a base hit and moved up 90 feet on a fielder's choice grounder from Billy Butler. On the play, Asdrubal Cabrera gloved a roller behind the mound and fired it to second baseman Kipnis, who mishandled the ball at the bag, allowing both runners to reach safely. The miscue marked the Tribe's AL-leading 21st error of the season.
Later in the inning, Moustakas capitalized on the mistake with a run-scoring single to right that pushed the Royals ahead, 3-2.
"It was just down at the shins," Kipnis said of the error. "It's one I should have had and it cost us a run in the inning. Masty doesn't need that. He needs the defense behind him, especially in the infield."
Kansas City caught the error bug in the bottom of the frame after Michael Brantley singled for the Indians. When Brantley sprinted for a steal of second base, Perez rifled a ball into center field for an error that allowed the runner to advance to third. On the play, center fielder Jarrod Dyson couldn't corral the ball, resulting in a second error that let Brantley cross the plate.
With the game tied at 3, Masterson exited with his fifth no-decision of the season after being charged with three runs (two earned) on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. Vargas received a no-decision as well after giving up three runs (two earned) on six hits in six frames.
"It started off a little slow," Masterson said. "We were making some good pitches. Execution was off a couple times throughout the game, but we're getting better. We're working in the right direction."
That last comment seemed to also apply to the offense on Wednesday night.
"I think it's been happening as time goes on," Masterson said. "It's been a little cold, been a little crazy. We've been talking about the start of the season. It's been a little awkward, been a little weird, busting up everyone's routine, but we're seeing guys take solid [at-bats].
"They're taking good swings and good things are starting to happen now."