The best news for the Indians is that the All-Star break is here. The worst news, and I am paraphrasing the great Paul Hoynes, is that they can no longer hide behind the specter of the LeBron James saga.
See, it always comes back to LeBron.
The Indians lost three of four in Tampa over the weekend which really isn’t shameful. The Rays are what the Indians only can hope to be – a young, exciting, lower-tier payroll team who relies on homegrown talent to keep them in contention. The difference between the two teams is development.
Four years ago, the Rays were a joke. But year after year of on the field futility produced high draft picks that resulted in wins over the past three years. Unlike the Indians who have botched so many first round picks, the Tampa roster is littered with them. For every Beau Mills we have, they have Evan Longoria. Now with Brad Grant running the draft, maybe things will change; heck, last year Tampa couldn’t sign their first round pick, LeVon Washington, and the Indians got him in last month’s draft and have already signed him.
Now to Sunday’s game. It was more of the best and worst of what you will probably see the rest of the way. The Wahoo attack got to Jeff Niemann right off the bat in the first. Jayson Nix was hit by a pitch which was followed up by a Carlos Santana double. Austin Kearns drove both men in with an RBI single. Matt LaPorta, back from his concussion he received earlier in the week, kept his hot streak going, doubling in Kearns to make it 3-0. LaPorta is hitting .400 (10-25) in the month of July.
In the bottom of the first, a key mistake happened that would doom the Tribe in the end. With runner at the corners and one out, Carlos Pena grounded a ball to pitcher Justin Masterson. Carl Crawford (Rays draft pick) was caught off third and Masterson started a rundown. Only the great failed prospect Andy Marte, playing third base, could manage to botch a rundown. His throw home to catcher Chris Gimenez was in the dirt, allowing Crawford to score.
I’ll break it down more this week, but Andy Marte no longer belongs on a major league roster. He’s been garbage for four years. Cutting the cord with him is long overdue.
Masterson ended up getting a double play ball to end the first, but that one run would come back to bite the Tribe in the backside. By the bottom of the fifth, the lead was long gone. A fourth inning two-out RBI single by Reid Brignac (another Tampa draft pick) got the Rays to within one. In the fifth, Crawford hit a two-run jack – his third of the series – and BJ Upton (draft pick) hit a sac fly. At the end of five, the Rays were ahead 5-3.
Give the Tribe bats credit for battling back. Playing without the injured Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Grady Sizemore, the lineup clearly lacks for legit established major league veterans. But they are giving it their all.
For some strange reason, Tampa manager Joe Madden yanked Niemann after just 70 pitches and five innings with a lead. Facing Dan Wheeler, LaPorta walked to open the sixth. Marte and Trevor Crowe followed with back to back singles, inching the Indians closer at 5-4. Gimenez, attempting to sacrifice Marte and Crowe over, reached on a bunt single. Now the Tribe was set up for a really big inning. Bases loaded with nobody out. Shockingly (ha ha), the only got one more on Anderson Hernandez’s double play ball.
Said Acta: “I felt that we should have taken the lead there. Bases loaded, no outs and we couldn’t score more than one run. That basically cost us the game, because I felt like if we had taken the lead there, our bullpen was going to be able to hold them.”
At this point, it was a battle of the bullpens. Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, and Chris Perez held Tampa scoreless into the ninth while Randy Choate, Grant Balfour, and Joaquin Benoit did the same to the Indians.
Acta then turned to the little used Hector Ambriz in a tie game in the bottom on the ninth on the road. Worse, he was facing three lefites. It’s not known why he didn’t go to Tony Sipp, who had been warming earlier. Ambriz walked the first two men he faced, and then watched John Jaso single to load the bases. Then, completely out of nowhere, Ambriz turned into Mariano Rivera. Upton hit a shallow for out number one. Next, he K’d Brignac. Then, he got Sean Rodriguez to ground out to end the threat.
Incredible Houdini act by Ambriz.
“Usually when you work yourself out of those types of jams, you end up winning the ballgame,” Manny Acta said.
The problem was in the 10th, the Indians quickly went 1-2-3. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Rays would get that game-winning run. They did it in the 10th against Kerry Wood. Jason Bartlett’s one-out walkoff single would score Crawford and send the Tribe to the All-Star break on a losing note.
Its a good thing Marte made that horrific error in the first, handing Tampa a run. “He just bounced the ball,” Acta said of the play. “You don’t work on that.”
At least the players are trying to stay positive. “We battled hard today. I actually thought, in an overall sense, it was a pretty good game. We just weren’t able to get that last hit or catch that last break,” Masterson said. “A lot of good things took place. Seeing Hector Ambriz out there getting out of that jam — that’s pretty cool, especially for a rookie out there doing that. We came close. It just didn’t come to fruition for us today.”
Masterson, by all accounts, is one of baseballs best guys. The quotes above illustrate why.
So we have arrived at the All Star break, with the Indians battered, bruised, and in last place at 34-54. The LeBron shadow has cleared and Browns training camp is still some weeks away. The Tribe has nowhere to hide. That said, the break has come at a good time. Reinforcements (Choo and Cabrera) are on their way back, so maybe things can pick up a little starting Friday against Detroit.
With no games until Friday, I will examine the Tribe’s first half in a three-part series, starting tomorrow.
photo via AP/Mike Carlson