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LAA@CLE: Kotchman cranks a three-run homer to right

CLEVELAND -- It seems fitting that fireworks were already planned for the day that Travis Hafner rejoined the lineup for the Indians. In the club's Fourth of July meeting with the Angels, the veteran designated hitter showed Cleveland what it has been missing.

The Indians celebrated Hafner's return from the disabled list with an eruption of offense in a 12-3 rout of Los Angeles at Progressive Field on Wednesday. Cleveland had contributions from up and down the order, but Hafner's impact was clear and immediate.

"You could see the Hafner Effect right away," Indians manager Manny Acta said.

Hafner engaged in an 11-pitch battle with Angels starter Ervin Santana in the first inning, drawing a key walk that opened the offensive floodgates. Santana was gone before the conclusion of the second and the Indians were well on their way to a fifth victory within their past seven contests.

Cleveland -- trying to close the gap between itself and the American League Central-leading White Sox -- received home runs from Michael Brantley and Casey Kotchman, and at least one hit from 10 players. Eight players crossed home plate at least once, and starter Derek Lowe cruised to the win column for the first time since June 1.

The swing in momentum for the Tribe's offense was overwhelming over the past three games, helping the Indians win the final two tilts after suffering a 3-0 loss on Monday. Over the past two days, Cleveland churned out 21 runs on 29 hits against the Angels.

"Good teams can forget bad games," said Lowe, who held the Halos to three runs over six innings. "We were able to go out the last couple nights and score a lot of runs."

Hafner, who went 1-for-3 with two walks in his return, helped initiate the Tribe's latest outpouring.

With two outs in the opening inning, Santana issued a walk to Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, bringing Hafner to the plate. The 35-year-old DH underwent surgery on his right knee on May 31 and was activated from the 15-day DL prior to Wednesday's game, following a Minor League rehab that consisted of 10 at-bats for Triple-A Columbus.

If Hafner's timing was not entirely there, his experience most certainly was.

Hafner spit on a 93-mph fastball from Santana for ball one and then took another heater for a strike. The DH then fouled off three straight pitches before watching two fly by for balls to work into a 3-2 count. After fouling three more offerings from Santana, Hafner stared down an 85-mph slider for a fourth ball, dropped his bat and took his base.

"That's what he does," Acta said. "Even before he got to the 11 pitches, we were talking on the bench about, 'Hey, he's already having an effect on the game.' Regardless of his numbers or whatever, that's what he does. He scares people out of the strike zone. He sees pitches. He wears pitching down."

And the hitters behind Hafner often find themselves in opportune situations.

Following Hafner's walk, Brantley settled into the batter's box and crushed a 1-1 changeup from Santana deep to right field for a three-run home run. By the time the first inning was over, the right-hander had labored through 32 pitches. In the second, the Tribe continued to pile it on, collecting five more hits off Santana to send him to the showers.

Within that second run, Shin-Soo Choo contributed an RBI double, Asdrubal Cabrera brought a run home with a groundout and Kipnis added an RBI single. With the Indians holding a 6-1 lead, Hafner ended Santana's afternoon with a base hit to right field. Two batters later, Kotchman launched a three-run homer off Hisanori Takahashi to put the Angels behind, 9-1.

Cleveland added three more runs against Jason Isringhausen in the fifth.

Everything seemed to stem from Hafner's 11-pitch victory.

"That was a phenomenal at-bat," said Brantley, who has two home runs this season. "He was up there battling really hard -- fouling off some tough pitches. When you wear down a pitcher like that, it obviously makes them a little bit tired and maybe they'll leave a ball up out over the plate. Hats off to Haf. What an incredible at-bat.

"He's a big part of our lineup. He's a key. We've got to keep him healthy and keep him in that lineup. He's a great player and a great leader."

As it happens, the Indians were 25-18 before Hafner was shelved with his knee injury and the team played to a 16-21 record while he was on the disabled list. While the DH was sidelined, Cleveland averaged 2.7 walks per game with a .320 on-base percentage, compared to 4.4 free passes per game with a .338 OBP with him in the first 43 games.

To use Acta's words, that seems to be the Hafner Effect.

"Hitters like him have an effect on the next guy," Acta said. "Guys see a guy just fighting for an at-bat, and obviously everybody else gets excited and they want to do the same thing."

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