Say it loud. Say it proud. Your Cleveland Indians are a first place baseball team. Sure, you can tell me how two years ago they were 30-15 and how last year they spent time on top of the AL Central during the first two months of the season, but this just feels different, doesn’t it?
Manny Acta’s clubs were fools gold. They won a lot of low scoring, one-run games thanks to a fantastic bullpen and timely hitting. The roster was not exactly loaded. The Terry Francona version play with a different sense of urgency and confidence. This is a group that expects to be good and plays like it. Of course it helps Francona to have veteran additions like Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Mark Reynolds to go along with the maturation of Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana. Having that deep and solid bullpen certainly doesn’t hurt.
Francona and his Wahoos ended their 8-1 homestand with a four-game sweep of Oakland and headed to Detroit for a measuring stick series with the AL Champion Tigers, who entered the weekend in first place. The pitching matchups for the most part weren’t going to favor the Tribe, but all weekend they battled and came out with a series win and a move into a tie for first with the team from that state up North.
But how did they do it? Let us take a look back at the weekend at was in Wahooland.
The final two games of the series felt like October. Listen, I know this was just another three-game series in May. But the way things played out in the late innings Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, it certainly didn’t feel like “just another game.”
Thanks to another sterling effort from a seemingly rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, the Indians took a 6-1 lead into the seventh inning Saturday. The offense worked former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander for 110 pitches in five innings. Lefty Nick Hagadone had a hard time finding the plate and loaded the bases with nobody out. Francona called for Cody Allen to clean up Hagadone’s mess. After a sacrifice fly scored a run, Allen was touched up by Omar Infante for a triple, which scored two more. An Austin Jackson groundout brought in Infante, and a five-run lead was sliced to one in a blink.
The Tribe picked up a huge insurance run in the eighth on a Jason Giambi sac fly, but missed out on a chance to get more with the bases loaded and two out. That’s when the nail-biting began.
Joe Smith, the eighth inning set-up man in place of the injured Vinnie Pestano, hit Prince Fielder and walked Victor Martinez with one out. The sell out crowd at Comerica Park smelled blood. However, Smitty induced a Matt Tuisasosopo double play ball to end the threat.
We all breathed a sigh of relief, but then came the bottom of the ninth. Closer Chris Perez looked like he would make easy work of the Tigers as he struck out Jhonny Peralta and got Brayan Pena to hit an easy ground ball to third. Mike Aviles fired across the diamond to first baseman Nick Swisher, and Swish failed to come up with it.
“I just dropped it,” said Swisher. “I was staring at the ball cussing. I told Perez, ‘You’ve got to pick me up, dog.’ ”
The Tigers were granted a reprieve and looked like they would take it all the way. Infante singled, bringing the winning run to the plate with one out. Austin Jackson stepped to the plate and hit a hard ground ball up the middle. Kipnis, sprinting to his right, backhanded the ball and made the only play he could, flipping it behind his back to Asdrubal at second for a big second out.
“That play saved me,” said Perez. “It make up for Swisher’s play. Baseball works out that way.”
Torii Hunter than singled home a run to make the score 7-6. Worst of all, the extended inning allowed baseball’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, to get one more chance to break the Tribe’s heart.
Throughout the ninth, I was literally pacing. This would have been just a brutal loss, all things considered. But Perez calmly retired Cabrera on a groundout to third end the game.
The next afternoon, the drama was equally as thick.
Fast forward to the fifth inning with the Indians down 3-2. The Wahoos loaded the bases for Asdrubal with one out against starter Rick Porcello. With a shot to put the Tribe in front, AC grounded into an inning-ending double play.
In the seventh, still trailing by a run, the first two Indians reached base against reliever Jose Ortega. Drew Stubbs, who had a day to forget at the plate, twice tried unsuccessfully to put down bunts before striking out. On came lefty Phil Coke to face Brantley, who swung at the first pitch and grounded into a second, inning-ending twin killing. It just felt like it wasn’t going to be our day. But in the ninth, the momentum pendulum swung the Tribe’s way.
Clown show closer Jose Valverde entered the game nursing a one run lead. The freshly activated Bourn, in a pinch hitting role, worked a walk and stole second to put the Indians in business. After Lonnie Chisenhall struck out on a full count (and a pitch that would have easily been ball four), Yan Gomes fouled out to first and it looked like Valverde was going to get off the hook. Francona called on veteran Jason Giambi to pinch hit for Stubbs. In a great at-bat, Giambi worked a walk of his own, setting up more nervous energy at Comerica. Back to the top of the order we went, where Brantley got his shot at redemption. This time, he came through.
The man they call Dr. Smooth laced a single to left scoring the speedy Bourn with ease. The Tribe dugout could taste it. But again, they had to fight through more stress.
Smith was once again called on to face the top of the Tigers order in the bottom of the ninth. Andy Dirks greeted him with a leadoff single. After two failed bunt attempts, Hunter hit a ground ball right back to the pitcher. Smitty fired wildly to second where Cabrera was covering. Asdrubal made an unbelievable play, making the catch and spinning backwards in an awkward fashion before narrowly throwing out Hunter for a 1-6-3 double play. It was a thing of beauty.
“He’s very athletic,” Francona said of Cabrera. “He got the throw that had a ton of movement, and it was offline. Not only does he keep his foot on the base, but he turns the double play. The timing of the play makes it an even better play.”
In extras against lefty Darren Downs, the offense went to work.
Cabrera laced a double down the line in left. He was moved to third on a Swisher ground out. Downs intentionally walked Santana to set up the double play. Bourn had a chance to play the hero, but his groundball to short had Cabrera nailed at home. Once again, I was pacing and nauseous. However, Francona had one more trick up his sleeve to cure what ailed me – Mark Reynolds.
The Tribe’s RBI leader was given a day off, but was called to the plate in the 10th inning with his pink spikes in tow. Like he has done so many times already this season, Mega Mark singled home the run which would eventually send the Indians into a first place tie with the Tigers.
These two games were intense and well played. The drama was thick. The first round of the season long battle between the rivals went to the Indians, two games to one.
“Everybody took Friday night in this locker room really easy,” Brantley said. “It’s just a game. It’s one game. We knew we had two more. There’s no panic in here. We trust in each other and it’s a long season. This is just the start of it. There’s going to be a lot of big games, hopefully, until the end.”
Speaking of the end….what exactly happened to Chris Perez Sunday? After the Indians took that 4-3 lead in the 10th, it was expected that the Indians would go to their closer. He had started warming up during the top of the ninth and something just didn’t feel right in his shoulder. He immediately let bullpen coach Kevin Cash know that he was not himself. With a doubleheader a day away followed by a trip to Philly, the Indians coaching staff decided to err on the side of caution.
“He was really good about it,” Francona said. “After he got up and threw, he said, ‘You know what? [the shoulder is stiff].’ I thought he used very good judgment. He was feeling it. I just don’t want it to lead to an injury.”
Francona’s contingency planned played out perfectly. With Fielder (lefty) and Martinez (switch hitter) due up, he turned to late-inning southpaw Rich Hill. He got Fielder on a fly out and Victor on a K. Out from the dugout emerged Tito, who called for Allen to face the pinch hitter, Tuiasosopo. With my three-year old daughter on my lap, Allen K’d Tuiasosopo and I let out a huge “ALLRIGHT!!!” followed by some “WAHOOS!” My poor little girl turned around and cried. I scared her half to death. But hey, Tito’s Hill/Allen plan worked like a charm.
As for Perez, he said he will be fine for today’s doubleheader with the Yankees.
“Missing a day here is better than missing two months,” Perez said after the game. “I might’ve pitched in the past. … I always want to pitch. I always want to be up. But I felt a little better today knowing we have good arms down there.”
The last thing the Indians need to have right now is an injury to their closer, especially with Vinnie Pestano on the disabled list.
Meanwhile, Ubaldo continues to pitch his way back into our good graces. Maybe I should take some sort of credit for this resurgance. After all, since I called for his ouster from the rotation three weeks ago, Ubaldo Jimenez has put together a string of four consecutive solid outings. The Tigers had owned him since he came over from Colorado and facing off with Cy Young Winner Justin Masterson Saturday was a matchup nobody was too crazy about. But that is why baseball is such a great game. On any given night, strange things can and will occur.
While the Indians were working Verlander deep into the count and driving up his number, Jimenez was completely in control of the Tigers. For six innings, the Tigers couldn’t get anything going against Ubaldo. He allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out eight. The lone run came on a solo homer from Jhonny Peralta. How good were things for him? Tribe fans on Twitter were complaining that Francona should have sent him out for the seventh! What is this, the bizarro world?
Is Ubaldo back?
“I’ve been able to go out there for the last three or four games and compete,” Jimenez said, “and give the team a chance to be close on the scoreboard. I think it’s all about my mechanics. The last three games I’ve been able to repeat my mechanics on every pitch.”
I still want to see more than three or four good starts before I jump back on the Ubaldo bandwagon, but I will say this: if indeed we get this version of Jimenez the rest of the way, the Indians will be right there in September fighting for a playoff spot.
Now what are we going to do about Lonnie Chisenhall? While the rest of the Indians offense, starting rotation, and bullpen have all hit their stride during this 12-2 stretch, the one player who has yet to figure things out is the Tribe’s kid third baseman.
Chisenhall had a rough game Sunday, going 0-3 with two strikeouts, including a key whiff with a chance to move the game-tying run to third in the ninth with nobody out. The pitch was high and wide of the zone. In addition, he also nearly cost the Tribe the game with his bad throwing error in the fourth which caused an unearned run to score, giving the Tigers a 3-2 lead. On the basepaths, he failed to get from first to third which he could have done with ease in the seventh. Subsequently, the Indians didn’t score. The baserunning blunder changed the complexion of the inning.
The game was not exactly a microcosm of his season, but Chisenhall’s slow start has been masked by the Indians hot run of late. He his hitting just .213/.253/.351/3 HR/11 RBIs and is in the midst of a 3-19 stretch (all singles). With the Tribe train rolling, the question will become how long will they stick with their former first round pick at third? It is not as if they lack other options.
Reynolds, who was brought in to play first base and DH, has played third most of his career. Aviles also has the ability to play third and has been in a bit of a platoon there already, facing the tough lefties. Even The Yanimal has some hot corner experience if need be.
This is something to keep an eye on.
Stats of the weekend:
After defeating Verlander on Saturday, the Indians have faced seven Cy Young Award winners already this season, and have a record of 6-1.
During this 12-2 stretch of baseball, the Tribe his hitting .305 with 24 homers, averaging 6.5 runs per game, and the pitching staff has an ERA of 2.98.
In a word. Wow.
Up Next… The Indians were supposed to be scheduled for a day off before a two-game series in Philadelphia. Instead, they will make up two games with the New York Yankees in a traditional at Progressive Field starting at 12:05. Game One will feature Justin Masterson (5-2) matching up with David Phelps (1-1). The second game has the Indians phenom Trevor Bauer (1-1) getting the callup to face lefty Vidal Nuno (0-0).
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)