The Indians entered this monster three-game series with the the Detroit Tigers at a bit of a crossroads. They started the night at 48-48, four games out of first place with two teams in front of them. The offense has been sputtering, unable to score more than three runs in a game in close to a week. Both of their chief rivals have added pieces for the stretch run, while the Indians still haven’t decided whether to be buyers, sellers, or to stand pat. This series could dictate which direction they will go before the July 31st trade deadline.
For the Indians to win this series, it is going to have to be because they outpitch the Tigers. We certainly can’t get ourselves into an offensive shootout with the Motor City Kitties. As the old saying goes, you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight.
It was Ubaldo Jimenez’s turn to play hero as he faced Detroit’s Doug Fister, who entered the game with an ERA under two in his career against the Tribe. The right-hander helped pushed the Tigers to a division title a year ago after being acquired in a late July trade. For six innings, Jimenez pitched in and out of jams as if he was meant to do so. He put the leadoff man on base in five of the first six innings, yet didn’t allow a run to score. He bobbed and weaved out of every situation he put himself in.
“I thought Jimenez was the best I’ve seen him since he joined Cleveland, against us,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He had a good split. But we had some chances. We just couldn’t do it.”
In the sixth, it looked as if the Tigers would push across at least one. Prince Fielder led off the frame with a single. After striking out Delmon Young, Jimenez got Brennan Boesch to pop up to shallow left. Jack Hannahan and Johnny Damon played a game of “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, you got it” and the ball fell in between both of them for a single. Jhonny Peralta was retired for the second out, but the runners would move to second and third thanks to a wild pitch. Alex Avila, who has killed the Tribe over the past season and a half, worked Ubaldo to a full count before grounding out to first base to end the threat.
This was the kind of performance the Indians got Ubaldo for.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t as if the offense was alive against Fister, but they had done just enough to put themselves in a position to win. They added single runs in the second and fourth innings. Carlos Santana, who seems to have really been energized since the All-Star break, doubled to lead things off in the second. Travis Hafner hit a sacrifice fly to move Carlos to third, and Damon singled him home. It was a classic “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in” situation, something the Tribe has had trouble doing all year. In the fourth, the run came on a Santana RBI single, scoring Jason Kipnis (leadoff double).
Nursing a 2-0 lead, Acta turned to the triumvirate who rarely fails to let him down with a late-game lead. Joe Smith was first in the seventh. He retired the first two Tigers before working the count full to Quentin Berry. His 3-2 pitch was right there, but for some reason, home plate umpire Marvin Hudson called it a ball. This allowed the tying run to come to the plate in the person of Miguel Cabrera, arguably the best hitter in the game.
You just knew what was coming next.
Smith placed a 2-0 fastball right in Miggy’s wheelhouse and he deposited deep over the center field wall to tie the game at two. All of the life was sucked out of Progressive Field.
“That’s just bad,” said Smith.
The Cabrera homer gave you that death knell feel, despite the fact that the score was tied. But if we have learned anything about this particular Tribe team, they are a resilient group.
In the bottom of the seventh Hafner, who has had an aversion to getting hits with runners in scoring position, took a one out Fister pitch off the wall in center. The ball bounced between Austin Jackson and Berry, allowing the slow footer Hafner to chug all the way to third for a triple. With the lead run now on third, Acta pulled Hafner for pinch runner Lou Marson.
SIDE NOTE – It says a lot about your team speed and roster depth when your backup catcher is your best pinch running option.
So here we were. Tie score. Bottom of the seventh. Lead run on third. And take a guess who was the batter due up for the Tribe? That’s right, Aaron Cunningham. Once again, Acta decided to pull Johnny Damon in the seventh for a defensive replacement and once again, Cunningham’s spot in the order came up in a huge spot. Seems like this happens every single time.
Earlier in the day, the Indians acquired Brent Lillibridge from the Red Sox to be the new outfield utility guy. He is essentially Cunningham with more speed and the ability to play infield positions as well. Lillibridge wasn’t going to be added to the roster for another day, so this was most likely going to be Cunningham’s last at-bat with the Tribe for a while, possibly ever if he doesn’t clear waivers (I know he hasn’t been DFA’d yet, but the writing is on the wall).
Would Cunningham actually come through with the RBI to put the Indians ahead? Acta decided to take matters into his own hands. In a brilliant move, the Tribe’s manager called for a squeeze on a 1-1 count. Marson broke from third on the pitch and Cunningham bunted the ball back towards Fister who charged and attempted to flip the ball to Avila at home. Marson slid home and the ball got away from Avila. The squeeze was perfectly executed and the Tribe took a 3-2 lead.
“It was a chance to help the team,” said Cunningham. “I was excited because I’m confident I can get a bunt down.”
Cunningham has to know this was his last chance to make an impression with his bosses. After the game he was asked about what the Lillibridge trade does to him, he responded candidly. “There’s a little concern, but I can’t worry about it. We will just wait and see. I’d do anything for this team. If they want me to rub balls down or whatever, I’ll do it.”
Meanwhile, there were six more outs to get, and Acta had the luxury of having his two horses ready. Vinnie Pestano worked around a single and a walk to record a scoreless eighth and turned things over to closer Chris Perez. Pure Rage got the Tigers in order for his sixth save in six chances against the Tigers this season.
The win moved the Indians to within three games of the now tied for first place Tigers and the Chicago White Sox. Getting off to a good start in this series was an absolute must from a confidence stand. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, but the Tribe really could use a sweep if at all possible.
“It’s important to win the first one,” Acta said. “And, also knowing that you’re playing the team that is leading the division, you don’t want to be too far back. You just cut down a game here and a game there. We just have to continue to take it one at a time.
The next “one” comes tonight. The Indians have up and down veteran Derek Lowe (8-8, 5.04 ERA) going against Detroit’s hard-throwing righty Max Scherzer (9-5, 4.61 ERA). The last time the Tribe saw Scherzer, they lit him up for eight runs in four and a third innings, including two homers in a 9-6 win. Lowe is coming off of a horrific start where he allowed nine earned in three innings Friday night against the Orioles.
photo via Chuck Crow/PD