Not long after Shelley Duncan drove a 94-mile-per-hour fastball from the hand of Chicago reliever Matt Thornton to the left field wall in Progressive Field, plating what would ultimately serve to be the game-winning run in a rain-soaked outing with a depleted bench, the Cleveland Indians left-fielder wasted no time in handing the credit to those who came to bat ahead of him. For if not the two hard-fought bloop singles which landed in shallow right field prior to his plate appearance, Duncan’s line drive would have meant little if only to further amplify just how much success he has against those with a southern paw.
Though Tony Sipp gave up the longest, hardest hit foul ball in recent memory – he “got ahead in the count” — and Joe Smith allowed what was then the game-tying run, manager Manny Acta gave applause to their work out of the bullpen; Smith was not supposed to be available in the game, but his ability to throw two-thirds of an inning saved the few fans in attendance from witnessing outfielder Michael Brantley taking to the bump in a relief effort. Andy Marte redux.
When Chris Perez locked down his 11th save of the season this past weekend, retiring All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre striking out two-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler to seal the victory, the one whom they call “Pure Rage” couldn’t speak more highly of Ubaldo Jiménez’ two-hit outing which led to win.
Twenty-five men littering the Cleveland Indians clubhouse, nary a one being of the me-first variety. Was the first run of Monday night’s game due to the clutch hitting of Michael Brantley or the quality at-bat-turned-walk and stolen base by catcher Lou Marson? Each man would be the first to tell you that said run was wholly a product of the other’s hard work.
A team of relative have-nots (no right-handed power bat!?) that have managed to win seven of their last 10 games and sit proudly — and expectantly, if you ask them — on top of the AL Central, three full games ahead of the $132 million Detroit Tigers.
“[It was] a big win for us this series,” Perez said on Sunday following the team’s win over the world-beating Texas Rangers. “They’re obviously one of the best teams in the league and it’s no secret that they whooped our butts last year, especially at their place, so to kind of prove to them that we’re going to be here and stick around, it’s a huge win.”
The same Texas Rangers who were held to 10 runs through three games produced 14 runs on Monday night in a tilt with the league-leading Baltimore Orioles. The loaded Los Angeles Angels and their $154 million payroll managed four runs in a three-game series against the Indians. On Monday, the Halos put up an eight-spot on the Minnesota Twins.
Though not among the league’s best, the Indians have also managed to turn the early tides in their favor against division foes. The White Sox had the Indians’ number last season; this time around, the Wahoo’s have taken four of seven. Rather than worrying about any potential drought at some point in the future, this team is not only living in the moment, but playing every single game as if it as integral as the next. Knowing that they are not exactly rife with power, this litter of players focuses on quality at-bats, boasting the second-highest walk total and third-highest on-base percentage in the American League.
The Marson walk, a fifth-inning base on balls with two outs, on any other night would have been a mere hash mark within the box score. But with this team, every single pitch from the opposition has a marginal benefit. Not only did it allow Branley, and later Jason Kipnis, to provide quality at-bats, but it would ultimately set the table for Asdrubal Cabrera to lead off the ninth inning, getting on base and moving to third on a single from the bat of Carlos Santana, later scoring on the scorching line drive from Duncan.
“We stress quality at-bats regardless of how many outs,” Acta said late Monday night. “You roll the lineup over and give everyone else an opportunity to come up and be in better situations. Every at-bat is important.”
It’s not sexy, but it is working and working well.
Living by the long-ball earlier this season, the Indians have settled into a squad of small-ball scrappers. Fouling off pitches in anticipation of something they can hit, drawing walks, and finally executing with the bases loaded to capitalize on the keen eyes at the plate, the components of a roster that went 30-15 though the first 45 games last season appears to have improved season-over-season despite their strength of schedule not exactly being murderer’s row. They may not score Yankee-like run totals, but winning six of seven one-run contests means just as much — if not more. The team-leaders in RBI started this season batting eighth and ninth, respectively.
”I don’t feel like we’re playing over our shoes,” Duncan said, minutes after he matched power with power and won the game for his band of brothers. ‘
‘We’re more in control, we know about the ups and downs. We’re a good team.”
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)