Things may finally start to be turning around for the Indians’ starting rotation. Not only has Ubaldo Jimenez turned in two straight good outings, but now Justin Masterson has done the same thing. Following up his tough luck loss in St. Louis thanks to a Carlos Beltran solo homer as his sole mistake, Masterson turned in another seven inning gem, this time avoiding a single blemish in the run column. The Tribe won the series opener against the Pirates 2-0 with a surprisingly large crowd (31,920) on this Friday night at Progressive Field.
Sometimes, it’s just so simple with Masterson. Get in that right arm slot, and Justin starts mowing down hitters and the strikeouts start piling up. Masterson had 9 strikeouts on the evening, including five straight hitters and seven straight outs recorded via the K in the second through fourth innings with multiple freeze frames with that slider and sinking fastball of his. Masterson did walk three, but the Pirates struggled to square up his ball due to the break on his pitches. Of the four hits, only two were sharply hit. The Tribe righty escaped jams in both the fourth and sixth innings. With the bags juiced in the fourth with two down, Masterson used his slider to erase Jose Tabata to end the threat. In the sixth, a leadoff double by Neil Walker and a groundout to move him to third put the Tribe in danger of losing their lead. A flare to shallow right field off the bat of Garrett Jones was played perfectly by Jason Kipnis. The Tribe second baseman caught the fly, gathered his momentum, and quickly fired it back into home on one hop to prevent Walker from trying to score.
The Indians have hung in the division race despite Masterson and Jimenez each having ERAs north of 5.00 for most of the season. Part of that has been the contributions of Derek Lowe and Jeanmar Gomez. Now, with those two, Gomez especially coming back to earth, it’s even more crucial for the top two starters to return to form. Josh Tomlin is Josh Tomlin. He’s going to generally pitch well enough for a four or five starter, but occasionally he won’t locate and he’ll get knocked around like he did yesterday. Overall, I think the Tribe rotation is rounding into form, and it could give them the push they need heading into the second half of the season.
Now, the Tribe offense wasn’t very effective tonight, but they did enough to support the brilliant pitching effort. In the third inning, Asdrubal Cabrera walked with one out. Then, Carlos Santana came to the plate with two down and drew the count full. With Cabrera off running on the pitch, Carlos hit a grounder down the third base line that scored Asdrubal without even a throw to the plate. A perfectly placed ball, if Santana hits that any harder, Cabrera may very well not have scored.
The Tribe also added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. Walks to Shin-Soo Choo and Santana brought Michael Brantley to the plate for a fourth time in the game with two down, his hit streak of 21 games on the line. Brantley, the mild-mannered, unassuming centerfielder, calmly sent a shot back up the middle which not only kept his hit streak alive but plated Choo. It’s fascinating just how successful the essential swap of Choo and Brantley in the lineup has been. I’m still uncertain if this will continue to work long term. But for now, Brantley is driving in runs with less pressure in the five spot (30 RBI, 2nd on team), while Choo is beginning to heat up from the leadoff spot (.363 OBP, 3rd highest on team). Major kudos to Manny Acta for thinking a bit outside the box.
Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez: what more can you say? For the 15th time this season, Pestano and Perez came through with a hold/save combination that turned it into a seven inning game. Pestano’s slider to Garrett Jones to end the eighth was absolutely filthy, the bottom dropping out of the pitch in the final foot. The dynamic duo needed just 14 pitches and threw just 3 outside the strike zone in the final two frames.
This afternoon, it’s Ubaldo Jimenez for the Tribe and A.J. Burnett for the Pirates. Gametime is 4:05 PM.
(Photo: Tony Dejak/AP)