Last night in Baltimore the Indians played a game that made you proud to root for this team. Watching them battle, execute, and eventually win this one was another example of why this particular group can be easy to love.
Sure, for the first five innings you probably didn’t feel this way and I can certainly understand why. Baltimore’s Zach Britton shut the Tribe down completely on just two singles. They looked baffled as the left-handed mowed them down with relative ease. But baseball is not a five inning game. The third time through the order can be a dicey proposition at times. Just ask the great Jeremy Sowers about that.
Trailing 2-0, things got started with the smokin’ hot Jason Kipnis, who opened the sixth with a leadoff double. It seemed innocuous at the time, given Britton’s dominance, but the Tribe train was about to run over the Orioles starter. Nick Swisher, who has been struggling so mightily in June, came through with a big RBI single to cut the Baltimore lead in half. Carlos Santana followed by lacing a double to left. Now the Indians were really in business with two runners in scoring position and nobody out. After falling behind Mark Reynolds 3-0, the O’s dugout called for the intentional pass to load the bases for a Michael Brantley. Manager Buck Showalter figured he would take his chances left on left. Except he didn’t realize who he was dealing with.
“Obviously, they’re playing strategy,” Brantley said. “There’s a lefty on the mound, I’m a left-handed hitter, and I just want to make sure I can do what I can for my team — get that run in from third base however I can do it.”
The man they call Dr. Smooth has been the Tribe’s best clutch hitter most of the season and he would come through yet again. After Britton’s fifth straight ball, Brantley took a pitch right back up the middle to bring in both Swisher and Santana, giving the Indians their first lead of the night. Brantley is now hitting a robust .357 with runners in scoring position.
“Early in the game I was able to make pitches with guys on base, executing a little bit better,” Britton said. “I think I was trying to do too much after that leadoff double and things kind of escalated right there.”
That would be all for Britton, who entered the fifth with a two-hit shutout and departed as the pitcher of record on the losing end.
The Tribe had a chance to really break things open with two men on and nobody out, but reliever Tommy Hunter retired Ryan Raburn, Drew Stubbs, and Michael Bourn to end the inning.
Ubaldo Jimenez was on the other side of it. He had given up two solo homers through five innings and came out for the sixth with a lead. J.J. Hardy greeted him with a single. After Matt Wieters deep fly out to right and Jimenez at 99 pitches, manager Terry Francona had seen enough and went to his bullpen.
First up was lefty Rich Hill, who had to face a pinch hitter in Danny Valencia. He went from 0-2 to 3-2 before striking out looking. Hill then retired Ryan Flaherty on a popout. That closed the books on Jimenez, who gave up the two runs on eight hits in five and a third. I will say this about Ubaldo, this is what he is at this point – a guy that is good, not great, but is getting the job done. He isn’t pitching deep into games, but he is giving the Indians a chance to win his starts. Basically, he is a fourth or fifth starter.
“I’m very happy,” Jimenez said. “This is a tough lineup and a tough stadium to pitch in. I got in some trouble, some big trouble with bases loaded or two guys on base, and I was able to minimize the damage. It was good. It was good for the team to keep the score close.”
Meanwhile, the Tribe’s up and down bullpen had nine more big outs to get. Francona sent Hill out to face lefty Nate Mclouth to start the seventh and he got the out he needed before being replaced by Bryan Shaw. You have to give it to Hill for last night. He came in a big spot in a one run game and retired all three men he faced.
“When Rich Hill pitches like that, it complements our whole bullpen,” Francona said. “He’s thrown the ball pretty good the last few times out. Getting him on a roll will really help our bullpen.”
Shaw looked great, getting Manny Machado and Nick Markakis on five pitches.
The Indians offense was looking for insurance in the eighth and boy did they get it. Darren O’Day came on in relief of Hunter. The former Oriole Reynolds worked the count full before singling. Then up stepped that man again, Brantley. He fouled off two, two-strike pitches against the side-winding O’Day before crushing his fifth home run of the year to right field. It was his night, plain and simple.
“He’s such a pro hitter, man,” Swisher said.
“The pitch was middle-inside, kind of down,” Brantley said. “I was able to get a good swing on it. I just stayed through it the best I could. At the time, it was a big swing, and the pitching staff … came in and closed the door.”
With a 5-2 lead, Francona handed the ball to Joe Smith, who made easy work of the Orioles in order, all on groundouts to Kipnis at second. The save chance for stand-in closer Vinnie Pestano was there, the easiest of them all. Vinnie’s stuff against Wieters and Chris Dickerson was electric. But after closely missing on two straight pitches, he walked Flaherty giving Baltimore some life. Mclouth then singled, allowing the tying run to come to the plate. Machado, the stud kid third baseman had a chance to tie things with one swing of the bat and sat on a first pitch fastball. He hit a line smash toward short with Mike Aviles reached up and made a great catch on to end the game.
Tribe fans everywhere let out a sigh of relief.
Vinnie is doing his best Bob Wickman/Joe Borowski impersonation of late, but he didn’t allow a run and converted his fourth consecutive save chance.
The Wahoos have now won nine of 12 and during this latest streak, the pitching has been sensational. The starters have gone 7-1 with a 2.72 ERA with 63 strikeouts and 29 walks. The bullpen has been just as good, 2-2 with a 2.80 ERA, 30 K’s and 13 walks.
They go for two in a row in Baltimore tonight by sending Justin Masterson (9-5, 3.48 ERA) to the mound. The Orioles will go with Chris Tillman (8-2, 3.71 ERA).
(AP Photo/Nick Wass)