If the Indians don’t end up winning the AL Central title, all they will have to do is point to their performance against the rival Detroit Tigers as the key reason why. They had every chance to take last night’s 4-2, 10 inning, rain-soaked loss, but just could never capitalize on their bevy of chances. The Tigers and Indians have now played twelve times this season – Detroit has won nine of them.
The night started out so nicely. On his own bobblehead night, Tribe legend Omar Vizquel emerged from the third base dugout in his old #13 white jersey to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to old friend and teammate Sandy Alomar Jr. It was a goose-bump inducing moment for the 23,640 people in attendance. It felt like a nice shot in the arm, as if the Indians were going to do something special in this one.
Lefty Scott Kazmir had the unenviable task of squaring off with the undefeated Max Scherzer. After a scoreless first, the Tigers jumped ahead on back to back doubles from ex-Indians Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta. Yes, it was truly old-home week. This was about the time when the rains started. They essentially wouldn’t stop all night, sometimes heavier than at others. Kazmir would put two more on in the second, but got out of the two-out jam by striking out Austin Jackson. The long second most likely cost the Tribe starter an inning later in the game.
Meanwhile, Scherzer came out for the second looking to make quick work of the Wahoos. With one out, Michael Brantley plopped down a beautiful bunt towards third for a single. Mike Aviles followed with a sharp single that put the Tribe in business. After the struggling Mark Reynolds K’d on three pitches, the rain and the wind grew stronger. It appeared as though the umpires were going to give it one more batter before calling for the tarp, but Lonnie Chisenhall fouled off three straight two strike pitches. Scherzer continued to stall, saying he couldn’t see the signs through the raindrops. Finally, with lightning and thunder off in the horizon (we could see it from the seats), umpire Joe West called for the delay to begin.
It was one of the quicker rain delays I had ever seen, just 20 minutes. Chisenhall returned to the batters box down 1-2 and took Scherzer’s first pitch to right field for a monster two-run single, putting the Tribe on top. It was a terrific at-bat, considering the 20 minute span between pitches.
Kazmir made one mistake – a one-out, fourth inning solo homer off the bat of Matt Tuiasosopo. Other than that, he was rock solid as he pitched into the sixth inning. After Peralta’s shot to deep left was caught at the wall for the second out of the inning, Manager Terry Francona came out of the dugout and called for Bryan Shaw. Kazmir departed after 97 pitches, allowing two runs on just four hits.
I know the Indians need more length from their starters, but you would sign up for five and two thirds, two runs and four hits from Kazmir every time out.
Meanwhile, the Indians offense was squandering chances to give Scherzer his first loss of the season. With two outs in the third, they loaded the bases on singles by Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher and a Michael Brantley walk, but Aviles grounded out to end the potential rally. In the fifth, they had runners on the corners with two outs for Aviles, but he swung at the first pitch and popped out to third. Two innings later, Michael Bourn singled to open the inning. Times like this were why Bourn was signed. It was a perfect time for a steal. However, with the muddy conditions of the infield, it was tough for base runners to get footing. Instead, Francona called for a hit and run with Asdrubal Cabrera. Asdrubal swung and missed and Bourn, for some odd reason, stopped half way to second and was tagged out in a rundown. Cabrera and Kipnis both struck out to end the inning. Scherzer’s 117th and last pitch was a 97 MPH fastball on the outside corned that Kipnis waved at.
It was extremely impressive.
“We made him work,” Francona said of Scherzer. “We made him earn everything. To his credit, he’s got a lot of weapons, man. He gets it up to 97 or 98 [mph] when he needs to. He can pitch at 93 or 94. He can drop the changeup, the slider. There’s a lot of different speeds and a lot of different locations.”
Meanwhile, the up and down Tribe pen had the task of keeping the Tigers off the board. Shaw made a nice play to retire Ramon Santiago in the seventh, but gave up a double to Jackson. With the changes to the back end now in full swing, Francona had at least one reliever warming while another was pitching. So after the double, Shaw was removed for Cody Allen with the meat of the Tigers order due up. The Tribe needed a strikeout and Allen delivered one, getting Torii Hunter for a huge second out. With first base open and left-handed hitting Prince Fielder on deck, pitching coach Mickey Calloway came out to talk to Cody about how they wanted to approach Miguel Cabrera.
This is where the lack of a reliable left-handed reliever really hamstrings Francona. It would be a no-brainer to walk Cabrera and bring in a lefty to face Fielder, but Tito does not have that luxury. Instead, Allen went right at Cabrera and got him on a groundout. It was a gutsy call and a huge outing for Allen, who should be getting more key situation work with Vinnie Pestano no longer pitching the late innings.
Allen, Joe Smith, and Chris Perez kept the game tied heading into the bottom of the ninth. The Tribe would have one last gigantic opportunity to break through and end things.
Reynolds, facing rookie Bruce Rondon, singled to start the inning. Francona immediately put the speedy Drew Stubbs on first as a pinch runner. It was an obvious steal/bunt situation. Tigers manager Jim Leyland called for lefty Drew Smily, one of the two relievers he still trusts these days, to face Chisenhall, who is hitting under .100 against left-handed pitching. Stubbs advanced to second on a gift passed ball and an obvious bunt situation became even greater. Lonnie had only one sacrifice bunt in his Major League career. However, everyone expected Chiz to lay one down. Instead, Francona let him swing and Chisenhall flied out to shallow center. It was a decision that proved to be costly as Yan Gomes struck out and Bourn flied out to left to end the threat.
Said Francona: “The bunt is always an option. I don’t think it was our best option. Stubbs was trying to run (steal third) the whole way, but he couldn’t get his footing. Lonnie pulled the one ball foul, so that was encouraging. He got the count in his favor 3-1, but just didn’t get the head of the bat out far enough.”
On to the tenth we went, and the Indians had already already used all of their top relief options. Matt Albers started the inning retiring Jackson and Hunter, but clearly wanted no part of Cabrera, walking him. He got into more trouble when he fell behind Fielder before walking him as well. This brought up Martinez, the former fan favorite here in Cleveland. As we have seen so many times before, Vic The Stick came through with a double off the wall in center, scoring two and giving the Tigers the lead.
“I’m obviously trying to just make quality pitches and not really give in,” Albers said. “I kind of left one ball over the plate, and that pretty much hurt us.”
The Indians battled in the bottom of the tenth with two out and tried to pull out a miracle. Swisher and Brantley both singled, bringing the winning run to the plate in the form of Aviles. Francona had both Carlos Santana and Jason Giambi available to pinch hit against right-handed closer Joaquin Benoit, but chose to stick with Aviles. It was a curious decision considering Santana is one of his best hitters and Aviles had left five men on base already.
Aviles would K to end the game.
The Tribe scored just two runs on 10 hits and failed to come away with a series split. They had this one in the palm of their collective hands, but just could never come through when they needed to.
“We left a small village on the sacks tonight,” Swisher said. “We’ve got to do a little better job than that. Hey, sometimes that’s how baseball goes. I felt we got great pitching all around from our guys. That really kept us in that ballgame.”
We constantly praise the efforts of Francona, and rightfully so. But he deserves some criticism for the decisions not to bunt in the ninth with the winning run on second with nobody out and for not using Santana in the 10th with the tying runs on base. He said that he was going to use Santana if Aviles had gotten on base, but that never happened. He was left in the on deck circle. In a game like this, against your biggest rival, you can’t leave any bullets in your gun, and he did.
So with the demoralizing defeat behind them, the Indians now focus on a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays that starts tonight.
photo via Scott Shaw/Plain Dealer