The fans who made it to the ballpark last night saw two aces (well, the Nationals kind of have a few of those) battle it out and pile up the strikeouts. Justin Masterson and the Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez combined for 14 innings, 18 strikeouts, 240 pitches, and only one run apiece. Neither was the pitcher of record, but the Indians won it in the bottom of the ninth as Jason Kipnis’s hard hit shot down the first base line scored Drew Stubbs from third base as he slid in under the tag from Kurt Suzuki. The Tribe won their third straight game coming off the 8-game slide with a 2-1 victory.
From the outset, Gio Gonzalez was dialed in and efficient. There were plenty of swings and misses from the Indians as Gio struck out eight in the game and three in a row in the first two innings. Post-game, Indians manager Terry Francona mentioned that it wasn’t Gio’s breaking stuff that he’s usually praised for that did his team in. Instead, Francona pointed to his fastball up in the zone that was accounting for most of the swings and misses from his guys. Six of those K’s came from a mid-90s fastball. Gio crusied through the first three innings, allowing just one hit and keeping his pitch count way down. Finally though, the Indians started getting some traffic on the basepaths and forced Gonzalez to throw 50 pitches in the sixth and seventh innings. Gonzalez came back out after a frustrating end to the sixth inning that involved walking the bases loaded with a pitch count of 109. In all Gio threw 127 pitches, a startling figure for a June game.
For Masterson, it was his slider that was his most effective pitch and the difference maker. Masterson’s lone run allowed came in the third inning as two walks contributed to runners on the basepaths and an eventual wild pitch would score Kurt Suzuki. On the wild pitch in question, Carlos Santana got down to block the ball but was unable to keep the breaking pitch in front of him as it skidded all the way to the backstop. I think it’s been abundantly clear over the last few weeks that the Tribe lineup is better all-around with Yan Gomes behind the plate and Carlos Santana…. elsewhere. For the Tribe number one starter, except for that third inning, he was in top form as he allowed just one hit and two walks. The strikeout numbers drove up his pitch count, but Masty was able to come out for the seventh with 101 pitches and work quickly through the Nats and retire them 1-2-3 on just 12 pitches to end his night on the right note. For Masterson, the only real shame of this game is his inability to grab his 9th win on the season when he truly deserved it.
When most of us looked at the lineup and saw Ryan Raburn as the designated hitter, batting in the cleanup spot for the second straight game, we scratched our head. Yet, it was Terry Francona who showed his knack for making timely calls. In the fourth inning, it was Raburn who took a Gonzalez pitch and went opposite field and dropped one into the right field seats. It was Raburn’s 8th homer of the year, and the reserve utility man continues to contribute to this lineup in a big way in part-time action.
For a while, it looked like the story of this pitchers’ duel was going to be the squandered opportunities by the Indians offense. In both the 6th and 8th innings, the Tribe left the bags juiced without getting a single run across. In both innings, the struggling slugger Mark Reynolds played a key role, popping out in the sixth and striking out, failing to put a ball in the outfield to get the run home with one out. In the eighth, it was Ryan Raburn who failed to get runners from second and first over with nobody out after a botched bunt attempt before striking out. After a Santana walk, it was Reynolds who struck out when a long fly ball would’ve got the go-ahead run across. Michael Brantley then flew out to center to end the threat against Tyler Clippard. The Indians left 11 on base (Reynolds left 7 on base alone), compared to just 5 for Washington.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as the top of the ninth inning unfolded. It’s no secret that I am NOT a fan of throwing your closer in the top of the ninth of a tie game at home. Francona to this point has shown that he follows that thought process with Chris Perez. However, instead of temporary closer Vinnie Pestano heading to the mound, Tito went to Joe Smith instead. Smith mowed through the middle of the Nationals’ lineup 1-2-3 and went on to get the win. Perhaps, since Vinnie is still working his way back into lockdown form following his elbow soreness that sent him to the DL, it was Tito protecting him form overwork. Either way, with the talented setup men that the team has in Shaw, Allen, and Smith, they have the luxury of doing this in tie games. Hopefully, this practice continues even after Chris Perez returns from the DL.
In the bottom of the ninth, it was the Tribe’s newfound speed that really led them to the W. Drew Stubbs singled with one out, and that was followed by a Michael Bourn single. On the hit, Stubbs was running, which opened a gigantic hole on the right side of the infield as the second baseman moved to cover the bag. The slow roller allowed Stubbs to easily reach third base. As Michael Bourn took second base early in the next at-bat, the Nats chose to pitch to the team’s hottest hitter, Jason Kipnis, he of the 8-game hitting streak. With first base open, lefty reliever Fernando Abad surrendered a sharp liner off the bat of Kipnis to the first baseman. Stubbs was moving on contact and was able to slide in under the tag of Suzuki as the throw beat him but the tag did not.
With the win, the Indians got back to the .500 mark at 33-33, somewhere just a few days ago, I was afraid the team would not again reach in the 2013 campaign. Today, Scott Kazmir takes the ball and faces right-handed nine-game winner Jordan Zimmerman for the Nats in a Saturday night affair.
(Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)