By SHELDON OCKER

Akron Beacon Journal

CLEVELAND - The Indians must be on a roll.

Even though they failed to play flawlessly on the bases and in the field, received only moderately effective pitching from starter Cliff Lee and nearly blew a four-run lead, they head into tonight's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates with a three-game winning streak.

Yeah, yeah, you say. It's no big deal beating the Kansas City Royals three times in a row, except the same Royals swept a three-game series from the Tribe just last week.

So Thursday's 6-5 win at Jacobs Field cannot be dismissed lightly.

There were elements of excellence buried within some very mediocre execution.

For example, Bob Wickman closed out the game by striking out John Buck on a 3-and-2 breaking pitch at the waist. Buck obviously wasn't looking for either that pitch, that location or both.

And that's what Wickman was counting on to earn his seventh save.

"I was hoping I could do that," Wickman said. "Pitchers will tell you that if you throw (a slider or curve) at the batter, it will freeze him. If you throw it away in that situation, he'll probably be looking for it."

Then there was Casey Blake, who continues to lead the American League in hitting with a .370 average. Blake singled twice, driving in two runs with a bases-loaded hit in the third inning.

He also kept a rally going by bunting for a single in the second inning, when the Indians scored their first run.

Bunting for a hit has become so rare among Tribe batters that Blake was quizzed at length about it by the media.

"I told myself, 'I'll look to see where the third baseman is playing,"' Blake began. "I hadn't faced (Runelvys) Hernandez enough to know what kind of approach I should have, so I thought I'd give it a shot."

After thinking it over, Blake added, "I don't know why I did it. I thought it would be a good play."

Blake didn't exactly crush his two-run single in the third, but he hit a soft liner that settled to earth in center field.

"You get kind of lucky sometimes," he said. "You look at that swing - it wasn't pretty - but I hit it where they weren't."

Lee (3-4, 4.25 ERA) struggled with his command early, giving up two runs, but got control of the game from the third through the sixth, before running into trouble in the seventh.

At that point, Cleveland was in front 6-2, but Lee walked the leadoff batter then gave up consecutive doubles, the second driving in two runs.

Manager Eric Wedge came to get him at that point. Fernando Cabrera rushed to Lee's rescue, sort of, striking out two batters but walking one and allowing Tony Graffanino's RBI double to cut the Kansas City deficit to one run.

"Cliff got in trouble by walking the leadoff guy," Wedge said. "Then he gave up a couple of quick knocks, and I had to get him out of there."

Scott Sauerbeck, Rafael Betancourt and Wickman followed Cabrera, combining for 2 scoreless innings.

The Tribe offense spent much of the afternoon threatening to blow the doors off the Royals' hopes, then backing away.

Two runners were thrown out at the plate, one unneccesarily.

With one out in the fifth, Ronnie Belliard doubled and Aaron Boone singled him home. Kelly Shoppach followed with a double, and Boone was tagged out at the plate after a high throw when he failed to slide.

Why didn't Boone slide? Sizemore, standing at the plate waiting for Boone, didn't give him the signal.

"I just messed up," Sizemore said. "I was watching the play instead of helping out."

Boone shrugged and said only, "That shouldn't happen."

Whatever "that" is.

According to Wedge, "It was a miscommunication both ways. I think Grady was telling him to get down, but it looked like he was telling him to stay up; I talked to him about it. Boone would have scored."

Among the three commentaries on the play, the safest course would be to go with Sizemore's explanation.

Ben Broussard also was thrown out at the plate trying to score from second on Boone's single in the seventh. But that was a case of applying the following rule: "Always send the runner with two outs and force the outfielder to make a good throw." Royals left fielder Emil Brown did.

Wedge confirmed that analysis, saying, "We have to go there. No doubt about it."

The Indians could have used the extra run or two as insurance, as well as the run they gave away on Boone's throwing error in the first inning.

But they won, anyway, which means they must be on a tear, even though you never know for sure.

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