CLEVELAND — Jim Thome went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, but he was still the story of the game Friday night at Progressive Field.
A sellout crowd — fourth of the season — in attendance to see Thome’s first game back in Cleveland appeared to breathe life into the reeling Indians, who rode the wave of momentum to a 2-1 victory over the Royals in the series opener.
It was a playoff atmosphere for a team fighting to stay in the race for a postseason bid, and the Indians took advantage of the opportunity to win for just the second time in the last eight games.
“It’s always exciting when you get a crowd like that,” said Cleveland starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who thrived in the situation, allowing just a run on seven hits, while striking out 10 over seven innings. “They were here for Jim Thome. That was great. Anytime you get a crowd like that, you want to do things better.”
Thome certainly did.
Anxious in his first plate appearance back in an Indians uniform, the club’s all-time home run hitter, wanted to do something right off the bat, but instead tapped a ground ball back to the mound on the first pitch he saw from Royals starter Felipe Paulino in the second inning.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had a swinging bunt,” joked Thome, who struck out twice and grounded to second in his last three at-bats of the game. “I was a little more nervous tonight than I was going for 600 (home runs). I don’t know if that makes sense at all, but it was so emotional. I wanted to do well for the crowd.”
The feeling was mutual.
The crowd of 41,337 fans was deafening as they rose to their feet with signs that read “Welcome Thome” for his first at-bat.
“That was great, very emotional,” Thome said of the reception. “It was overwhelming, but in a good way. It was nice to get a win and see a crowd like that. It was electric and the energy was there all night. You see crowds like that, I think that pumped everybody up for sure.”
Reliever Vinnie Pestano, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning before turning it over to closer Chris Perez for the save in the ninth, was awestruck by the scene.
“That was the single coolest thing I’ve ever seen in the big leagues,” Pestano said. “That ovation they gave Jimmy was pretty special.”
For the night to be capped in proper fashion, the Indians needed to win, which they haven’t been doing much of as of late, and was in question with Cleveland trailing 1-0 through the first six innings.
But with just four hits to that point, the Indians mounted a rally in the seventh, scoring twice to make the night complete.
An RBI single from Jack Hannahan tied the game at one and Ezequiel Carrera drew a bases-loaded walk to force in the winning run.
The run support wasn’t much, but it was enough for Jimenez, who has pitched well twice in his five starts since arriving in a trade with the Rockies — both outings coming at home.
“Hopefully this is a start that he can build on,” said manager Manny Acta.
Jimenez, 2-1 with a 5.79 ERA since joining the Indians, has allowed just an earned run in two starts at Progressive Field, while striking out 16 over 15 innings. His strikeout total Friday was the most by a Cleveland starter since Justin Masterson fanned 12 in September of 2009.
“I don’t know what it is,” Jimenez said of his success at home. “I guess it’s home sweet home.”
There is little doubt that’s what it was for the Indians and Thome on Friday night. According to the team’s public relations department, the Indians sold 8,532 tickets to the game after it was announced that they had acquired Thome in a trade.
Cleveland is hoping Thome’s addition does more than boost attendance. His bat and presence is needed for a club that is 6 1/2 games out of first place with a little over a month left in the regular season.
“Right when Jim Thome walked in (the clubhouse) you could tell everybody’s spirits just picked up,” Hannahan said.
Indians players showed their support of the veteran by wearing their socks up. Thome thinks the display could be a premonition of good things to come.
“It reminded me of when they did that for my birthday in 1997,” Thome said. “We went to the World Series that year. It’s baseball. You never know.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.