CLEVELAND – Cliff Lee won his eighth straight decision and Coco Crisp hit a two-run homer as Cleveland beat the Kansas City Royals 5-4, pushing the Indians within 3 games of Chicago in the AL Central.

That’s as close as Cleveland has been to the first-place White Sox since April 18.

The Indians have won 11 of 12, and in going 22-6 since Aug. 18, they’ve trimmed 111/2 games off a Chicago lead that reached 15 on Aug. 1.

Back then, it seemed insurmountable. Not anymore. Not with six games remaining against the reeling White Sox, who have dropped seven of nine and will host a three-game series against Cleveland starting Monday.

The Indians also improved to 12-3 in September and stayed a half-game up on the New York Yankees for the wild card.

Lee (17-4) remained unbeaten since July 8, allowing four runs and five hits in seven innings. The left-hander, who has just one loss since June 1 – a span of 19 starts – was staked to a 5-0 lead in the first inning.

Lee gave up John Buck’s homer in the third, and Emil Brown’s three-run shot in the sixth that brought the Royals within 5-4. But as it has done all season, Cleveland’s steady bullpen came through.

Bob Howry worked a perfect eighth and Bob Wickman finished up for his league-leading 43rd save.

It’s rarely easy for Wickman, who walked Mike Sweeney to open the ninth before striking out Brown. Angel Berroa singled, but Wickman got Mark Teahen on a slow roller to first and struck out Justin Huber for the final out.

Crisp’s homer highlighted the Indians’ five-run first off Runelvys Hernandez (8-12), who lasted just three innings.

With 16 games left, the Royals (48-98) are guaranteed to have the third-most losses in franchise history. Only the 2004 Royals (58-104) and 2002 Royals (62-100) had more than this Kansas City squad.

The Indians took the field knowing Chicago had lost 5-0 at Minnesota, and they didn’t waste any time getting to Hernandez, who came in 3-0 with a 3.24 ERA in five career starts against Cleveland.

Grady Sizemore walked leading off, Crisp followed with his 14th homer, and the Indians scored four times before making their first out.

Jhonny Peralta doubled, Travis Hafner singled and Victor Martinez’s RBI single made it 3-0. Ben Broussard and Ramon Vazquez then hit run-scoring groundouts off Hernandez, who was making his first start since Aug. 21.

The right-hander had been on the disabled list with tightness in his lower back and was on a pitch count of 65 to 75 pitches. He needed 36 just to get past the first.

Buck’s 11th homer made it 5-1 in the third.

Notes: Royals 2B Andres Blanco made a sensational diving catch to rob Broussard of a hit in the third. Blanco raced back, left his feet and laid out to snag Broussard’s soft liner before landing hard. … With Sizemore and Peralta (both are 23) each having at least 20 homers, the Indians have two players under 24 with more 20 or more homers for the third time. Ken Keltner and Jeff Heath did it in 1938, and Oscar Gamble, George Hendrick and Charlie Spikes hit over 20 homers apiece in 1973. … Indians minor league pitcher Jason Stanford was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in Cleveland early Saturday.

AP-ES-09-17-05 2202EDT

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