There are few things better in baseball than having your biggest rival come to town and dropping a sweep on them. But the manner in which the Indians took down the Tigers in three consecutive games may have done the trick.
After back to back two-run wins, the Indians were playing with some house money. With the series already won, the Tribe went for the sweep against the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander, who was 9-1 in his last 15 starts against them. It was getaway day. The Indians were still without the injured Jack Hannahan and also played this one without cleanup man Travis Hafner, who was dealing with a sore foot from the night before. The bottom of the order featured the .220 hitting Casey Kotchman, Shelley Duncan and his .202 average, and Lou Marson, he of the 2-28 start.
Should be no problem against Verlander, right?
After Indians starter Justin Masterson, who entered this tilt looking to regain his ace form, danced around a couple of first inning singles, it was time to give it a go against the right-hander who has owned them. Before we could even get ourselves situated, Shin-Soo Choo absolutely tattooed Verlander’s third pitch a whopping 444 feet into the mezzanine section in right field. It was quite a blast.
The Tigers tied things up on a Miguel Cabrera RBI groundout in the third. From that point forward, it became a battle between Verlander and Masterson. The two aces made quick work of their opponents the rest of the way. However, in the fourth, Verlander made one slip up.
With two outs, Michael Brantley singled to right. As they have done all series, the Indians took the opportunity to run on catcher Alex Avila. On the first move, Brantley got a great jump and stole second, setting the stage for Jose Lopez. The man who has filled in so admirably for Hannahan while he has been out with his back issues has been as hot as his team. He took Verlander’s 1-2 pitch the other way, bringing in Brantley and putting the Tribe out in front 2-1, extending his 10-game hitting streak in the process.
This was where Masterson had to be at his best. The Indians were ahead of Verlander a second time and had no margin for error. He wouldn’t let the 23,000 plus down.
In the sixth, with two on and one out, Masterson faced Jhonny Peralta. This was a perfect matchup for The Big Nasty. As we have seen so many times in his time here, Peralta rolled over a tailor made 6-4-3 inning ending double play. All I could do was sit back and laugh from my seat on the third base side. Last year, Jhonny, as well as several other Tigers, had a career year. What they are seeing now – .246 with 12 RBIs in 134 ABs – is the real guy.
Verlander on the other side, was mowing the Tribe down. Masterson couldn’t make a misstep.
On to the seventh we went. The sinkerballer walked ninth place hitter Danny Worth. Rookie Quinton Barry then layed down a sacrifice bunt that Masterson booted and everyone was safe. With Tony Sipp and Joe Smith ready in the pen, Manager Manny Acta let his horse attempt to get out of his own jam. Andy Dirks attempted twice to put down a bunt to move the runners over, but failed. Masterson then K’d him for a monster first out. Out emerged Acta to the pen and the thought was he would call for Smith. Even Smith himself was so sure he was coming in that he took three steps of a jog out of the pen onto the field. He was waved back as Acta stuck with his ace to face Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. He got the dangerous Cabrera on a fly ball to center and then Fielder sharply grounded right back to the box. Masterson came dashing off the field as fired up as we’ve ever seen him.
The Tribe’s top dog left after seven strong innings, where he allowed just the one run on four hits. He walked five, which is way too many, but he pitched like the opening day starter that he is.
“I always get to pitch up against Mr. Verlander,” Masterson said. “He’s been blessed with such great ability. I’m working with, like, one pitch, and he’s got four Hall-of-Fame pitches. He should go out there and do well, as he did. We just did a little bit better.”
The eighth inning belonged to Vinnie Pestano for the third straight game. While his streak of 23 straight appearances with a strikeout ended, Vinnie once again was brilliant, getting the Tigers in order.
The Tribe attempted to get an insurance run in the eighth, but it was a futile effort against Verlander. The reigning AL Cy Young and MVP award winner, struck out the side on 11 pitches. His 113th pitch was a 101 MPH fastball to strike out Jason Kipnis. This half inning was about as impressive as you will ever see from a pitcher.
“He was throwing harder than any closer in the whole league,” Acta said.
For the third straight game, Chris Perez followed Vinnie Pestano out of the bullpen for a save chance to thunderous cheers. Pure Rage has gotten what he has asked for, unconditional support and love for him and his team. It has certainly helped. Nursing a one run lead, there was no margin for error. Though he gave up a one out single to Ramon Santiago, Perez slammed the door for his 16th consecutive save. As Dirks popped out to second, Perez gave a fist pump that would make Tiger Woods jealous. He was beyond jacked over the sweep of the Tigers.
“You can feel something special happening here,” said Perez. “These fans have been great to me. I’ll never forget this week.”
None of us will.
The win moved the Tribe to 10-2 in one run games. During the sweep of the Tigers, who are now six games back, the bullpen pitched seven and two-thirds innings without allowing a run on just four hits. Pretty heady stuff.
I know the Indians were in this same position last year, leading the AL Central and surprising the league, but this time it feels different. Its not as if everyone is hitting. Let field is still an issue. Santana and Hafner aren’t mashing in the middle of the order. Masterson hasn’t hit his stride yet. Jimenez has been up and down. Imagine what this team will do if they start clicking on all cylinders.
It is going to be a fun summer, Tribe fans.
Memorial day weekend will send the Indians to Chicago for their fourth series with the White Sox. Nice scheduling. In the nine games the two teams have played already, the Sox hold a 5-4 edge. Things get going tonight with Jeanmar Gomez (3-2, 3.19 ERA) taking the mound for the Tribe. He will be opposed by rookie left-hander Jose Quintana, who has made one appearance this season – a five and two-thirds scoreless relief outing against, you guessed it, the Indians.
photo via Chuck Crow/PD