CLEVELAND — If Houston’s A.J. Hinch, the American League manager in next week’s All-Star Game, was mulling whom to select as his starting pitcher in the exhibition, a convenient showcase presented itself on Thursday night when two of the best in baseball were pitted against each other.
Luis Severino of the Yankees and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians left Hinch with a compelling case — to pick Boston’s Chris Sale.
While the promise of an enthralling pitchers’ duel instead gave way to a pair of pedestrian performances, there was little grumbling from the Yankees, who bulled their way past the Indians for a 7-4 victory.
Brett Gardner homered twice — early and late — to lead a resilient offense, and their bullpen held the Indians in check in their first visit back to Progressive Field since they stunned the Indians in the decisive Game 5 of an American League division series last October.
That victory bolstered the Yankees’ status as serious World Series contenders, and their win on Thursday carried at least one of the same themes if none of the stakes.
Kluber was beset by the same hobgoblins that troubled him last year in the playoffs — yielding two home runs, one to Gardner and another to Didi Gregorius, who hit two off him in Game 5.
Still, Kluber was sharper and went longer than Severino, who lasted just five innings for the second consecutive game.
Manager Terry Francona, whose bullpen is tattered, stayed with Kluber into the eighth even with Gregorius leading off. Kluber walked Gregorius on four pitches and, after Giancarlo Stanton flied out, Aaron Hicks clubbed a 3-2 changeup off the center field wall. Gregorius, correctly reading that center fielder Greg Allen was not going to reach the ball, slid home safely ahead of Francisco Lindor’s strong relay throw. It was the last of Kluber’s 114 pitches.
Severino threw 94, and barely resembled the pitcher who has given so much ballast to the Yankees rotation, carrying a 14-2 record and a 2.12 earned run average into the game.
The hints came early. Lindor cracked Severino’s second pitch — a fastball — into the right-field corner. Severino was fortunate that he did not give up more than four runs, aided by catcher Austin Romine’s throwing out Jose Ramirez just before Edwin Encarnacion homered and Jeff Brantley’s hitting into a 4-6-3 double play just before Ramirez tied the score in the fifth with a solo homer.
Severino allowed nine hits — the most since he was knocked around by the Astros last year on the day All-Star selections were announced. He also struck out just one — whiffing the last batter he faced, Encarnacion, to equal a career low that he had not hit since Sept. 26, 2016, when he was ejected at Toronto after getting only three outs.
After providing the Yankees with another lead, Hicks provided a cushion. He alertly stole third on reliever Oliver Perez’s lengthy delivery and scored from there when Greg Bird lifted a fly ball to left to put the Yankees ahead by 6-4.
Gardner provided more comfort when he homered off left-hander Tyler Olson in the ninth.
The winning rally was not the first sign of resilience from the Yankees batters on Thursday. The Yankees, trailing 2-0 in the third, evened the score on Gardner’s two-out, two-strike, two-run homer off Kluber. And when the Indians reassumed the lead, 3-2, on Yonder Alonso’s run-scoring single in the bottom of the third, the Yankees answered in the fourth. Gregorius belted a home run to center field to tie the score and Bird put them ahead by 4-3 when he drove home Giancarlo Stanton with a double.
With a comfortable lead, Aroldis Chapman worked his first inning since leaving Sunday’s game with a sore knee. The first batter he faced was a familiar one — Rajai Davis, whose stunning home run in Game 7 of the World Series tied the game in the eighth inning. This time, Chapman struck him out.