Heading into last night’s all important rubber match with the Baltimore Orioles, the Tribe knew they needed to get some mojo behind them for this stretch run. The brutal nine-game stretch with Atlanta, Detroit, and those Orioles was coming to an end and things didn’t go exactly as planned. They were swept in Atlanta, then lost two of three to the Tigers and badly needed to take the series from Baltimore or be in danger of getting themselves buried. After splitting the first two games, Wednesday night’s affair was as close to a must win as it comes. Even manager Terry Francona who doesn’t like to call any game more meaningful than another said beforehand that this was big one.
Baseball players can be a quirky bunch at times. So there the Indians were during batting practice, with a live chicken, draped in Indians garb, roaming the field. It was an ode to reliever Cody Allen, aka “Chicken Al.” The team had fun with it and it kept the group loose. No player would claim to bringing the chicken to the park, but it was certainly the talk of the town after the game. Why? Because the Tribe took down the Orioles 6-4.
Said their skipper Francona: “They’re trying to have fun, and that’s the best way to be a good team. It doesn’t mean we’re not taking what we’re doing seriously, because we really do. But yeah, I think it’s a good way to come to the ballpark laughing. It’s a good atmosphere.”
The usually slumbering Wahoo bats jumped all over Baltimore lefty Zach Britton in the first. Michael Bourn reached on an infield single, Nick Swisher walked, and Jason Kipnis put down a perfect bunt single to load the bases with nobody out. After Carlos Santana K’d, you had that “here we go again” feeling. However, it was Yanimal time.
Yan Gomes was put in the five spot against the lefty Britton and responded with a monster evening. His first big knock was a single scoring Bourn, giving the Tribe a 1-0 lead. Asdrubal Cabrera’s grounder to third forced Swisher at home and Britton looked as if he may get out of this one relatively unscathed. Ryan Raburn had other plans. Fresh off of the disabled list, Raburn welcomed himself back with a huge two-out, two-run RBI double. Mike Aviles kept the line moving with another two-out RBI that brought home Cabrera, but Raburn was thrown out at home for the third out.
It was the first big time, crooked number, clutch inning the Tribe has seemingly had in ages.
Staked with a 4-0 lead, Tribe starter Zach McAllister looked like he would cruise, but the Orioles big bats changed that quickly. Like they have done all year, Baltimore played long ball and knocked Z Mac out of the game before he could finish the fifth. Adam Jones hit a solo blast in the fourth and an inning later, Manny Machado’s three-run shot tied the game at four. Chris Davis’s single would chase McAllister, who went just four and two-thirds, giving up four runs on five hits. He struck out six and walked one, but in a game of this magnitude Francona knew he couldn’t afford to wait any longer to see if McAllister could work through it.
As good teams do, the Indians responded in the bottom half of the fifth to take back the lead. Facing rookie right-hander Kevin Gausman, they went right back to work. Kipnis singled with one out which was followed by a Santana walk. Then it was that man again, Gomes, who delivered a key hit. His double to left scored Kipnis which broke the tie. With first base open, O’s manager Buck Showalter walked the struggling Cabrera (Thanks Buck!) to face Raburn. Gausman then uncorked a wild pitch which brought in Santana.
With a 6-4 lead, the bullpen needed a big performance to ride this team into the winners circle.
Bryan Shaw retired the first two in the sixth but gave up a single to Nate McClouth, who has killed the Tribe all series. Again, Francona was taking no chances with this one and went to his big guns. Allen came on to get J.J. Hardy to end the inning. He then struck out the side in the seventh in impressive fashion. It certainly was fitting on the night the Tribe had a chicken roaming around before the game. Chicken Al was lights out.
Joe Smith was next, working a 1-2-3 eighth before turning things over to closer Chris Perez. If there was ever a time for CP to convert a save, it was this one. A night before, he entered the game with a 4-0 lead, gave up a three-run homer, and then retired three straight. This time, he made things much easier on himself, getting the Orioles in order for the save.
After the game, the chicken dominated the postgame discussion.
“I tell you what, if we get on a roll, that’s going to be our mascot,” said Raburn. “Whoever’s the owner of it, we’re going to have to keep that sucker. We might have to get him his own locker.”
“I’m pretty OK with, as long as we win, whatever it takes,” Francona said, “But I don’t know about farm animals.”
While the chicken gave the Tribe some extra mojo, the real heroes in this one were Gomes and the bullpen.
It has been said over and over again, but the Gomes/Aviles deal was the steal of the offseason. Say what you want about GM Chris Antonetti’s signings of Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds, but those were one-year deals that are wiped clean. Taking a spare part reliever in Esmil Rogers and turning him into two valuable pieces to his bench was a master stroke. Both guys have been invaluable to this team and improved the versatility of the roster tenfold. Gomes, who went 3-4 and is now hitting .297, could easily become the regular starting catcher in 2014 with Carlos Santana transitioning more into the 1B/DH/C hybrid role. Depending on what the Indians do with Cabrera, Aviles could take over a short as the bridge to star prospect Francisco Lindor at short. At worst, he will continue his spot as the Tribe’s super utility man.
The much maligned bullpen has really pitched well lately and came through in this big spot. Shaw, Allen, Smith, and Perez pitched four and a third scoreless innings allowing just one hit. Allen was the real star, striking out three of the four men he faced. But again, it comes back to the chicken.
“Hey, the chicken got us a ‘W,'” Smith said. “I’m sorry, Cody got us a ‘W’ — Chicken pitched well tonight.”
With the Tampa Bay win in Los Angeles late last night, the Tribe remained three and a half games back of the second wild card spot. The Yankees are a game ahead of them, but we have finally gotten to the part of the schedule we have all been talking about. Yes, a 3-6 run through the last nine games was not what they hoped for, but the Indians ended winning three of their last four.
Just take a look at what is ahead of them after today’s day off. They have three games with the sad sack New York Mets over the weekend, then welcome the Kansas City Royals for three before heading to Chicago for a four-game set with the last place White Sox. Over the last 23 games, they only play six games against teams with a winning record – all six come against Kansas City.
This it their time. Now the Indians have to finish strong and hope the AL East teams ahead of them continue to beat each other up.