It was hot. Very hot. I’m talking middle of the Sahara desert hot for September 11th. It didn’t matter, because the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals had a pivotal game to play. Win, and the Indians keep pace in the Wild Card hunt, putting some distance between themselves and the Royals. Lose and the Royals hang just a half game back of them, plus whoever wins tonight’s Orioles/Yankees game would leapfrog ahead of them on the “first team out” list.
Of all days for the Indians to play sloppy and lazy baseball, this was not the one.
They say that the mid-afternoon weekday games usually go by fast because players have what people call “getaway day at-bats” with umpires having generous strike zones. That is not supposed to be the case when every single game counts and it is mid-September in a playoff race.
It certainly didn’t look to be that kind of game early as the Royals jumped all over Cleveland starter Scott Kazmir. The last time out, Kazmir struck out 12 in six scoreless innings. This time however, he wasn’t facing that AAA Mets lineup. On the game’s first pitch, Kazmir tried a get-me-over fastball which Alex Gordon deposited into the seats in right-center. It was not a good sign.
Emilio Bonafacio then sent a liner to right field which Drew Stubbs, who has really been brutal lately, attempted to make a sliding grab on. Instead, he completely misplayed it into a triple. Eric Hosmer followed by singling Bonafacio in and the Tribe was down 2-0 after three batters. Kazmir recovered to strike out Billy Butler and Salvador Perez and looked to have ended the inning by striking out Jason Maxwell looking. Yan Gomes began walking away as if he knew it were strike three, but home plate upire Mike Estabrook called it a ball. Naturally, Maxwell would single. Lorenzo Cain followed with the Royals fifth hit of the inning, scoring Hosmer.
This was not the way the Indians wanted to start this must win game.
They showed some real grit in the bottom of the frame. Michael Bourn led off with a single against Royals ace James Shields, who then hit Mike Aviles. Jason Kipnis’s ground ball moved the runners into scoring position for Carlos Santana, but ‘Los popped out for the second out. They would need another clutch hit from Michael Brantley and Dr. Smooth would deliver. Brantley’s single up the middle scored two and the Tribe was right back in it at 3-2.
That is when the offense completely stopped.
The Royals traded away their best prospect and one of the best in baseball, OF Wil Myers, as part of a deal to get Shields this winter. The goal was to have a front of the rotation ace for games like this one. Big games. The guy was known in Tampa as “Big Game James” and in this one, he proved worthy of the nickname.
From the second inning on, the Indians offense couldn’t touch Shields. The Tribe went hitless over their next 22 at-bats with the only base runners reaching on an error and a walk. The outs weren’t even of the loud variety. They played like a tired team and Shields’s power stuff exploited them. Curiously in a game of this magnitude, Francona chose to go with a bottom three of Jason Kubel, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Drew Stubbs. Kubel entered the game hitting .450 lifetime against Shields, but he has looked lost at the plate all season. Today was no different as he went 0-3 with two K’s.
In the meantime, Kazmir was struggling to keep the Royals off the board. He battled through four innings and came out for the fifth, still trailing 3-0. After giving up back to back singles to Bonafacio and Hosmer, Francona had seen enough, calling for Bryan Shaw.
“They are a good offensive team,” Kazmir said. “Definitely, I give them a lot of credit. At the same time, we’re facing a lot of teams that are stacked like that, so it’s really no excuse. We’ve got to go out there and get the job done. We didn’t today.”
The Indians needed a strikeout and a double play. They would get them, but just in the wrong order. Butler grounded a ball to Chisenhall at third. He had Bonafacio way off the bag and dead to rights had he gone home, but instead decided to concede the run and started a 5-4-3 double play. It was a curious decision considering the lack of Tribe offense. You can tell me the fifth is too early in the game to do so, but to me, when you have the guy nailed at home with ease, you make that throw. Perez K’d and the inning was over, but the Indians were now chasing two runs instead of one.
It wouldn’t matter the way Shields was dealing.
“Brantley got a big hit for us to crawl right back into the game,” said Francona. “Then for the rest of the game, Shields stayed out of the middle of the plate. . .We never really never got much going.”
The Royals added two single runs in the seventh and eighth, both of which could have been avoided. With one out, lefty Rich Hill came on to replace Shaw. He immediately walked Gordon and gave up a single to Bonafacio. He needed a double play ball to get out of the jam. Instead, he tried to pick Bonafacio off of first and threw the ball away, allowing Gordon to score with ease. There were two outs in the eighth Matt Albers walked Cain, who then stole second. Mike Moustakas sent a lazy fly to foul ground in right which should have ended the inning, but Stubbs lost it in the sun and watched in fall foul just to his right. Of course you knew what was coming next, Moustakas delivered an RBI single.
I have to believe Ryan Raburn is still battling the calf injury because the Indians cannot keep trotting Stubbs out there every day in right anymore. He is three for his last 32 with 14 strikeouts and if he is not playing quality D and using his legs on the basepaths, it is worthless to have him on the field. His .230/.296/.356 screams of a fourth outfielder at best. Worse is his post All-Star break .200/.303/.287 line. Stubbs has become something of a black hole at the bottom of the order.
It wasn’t until the ninth that the Tribe got their first hit since the first against Shields. Kipnis and Santana started the inning with back to back singles and Royals manager Ned Yost called for closer Greg Holland. The fireballer showed us what a closer is supposed to do in that spot, striking out the next three Indians – Brantley, Gomes, and pinch hitter Asdrubal Cabrera, who like Stubbs, is locked in a 3-31 skid.
Shields pitched like the ace the Royals traded for him to be and got the win.
“James comes off his arguably worst start of the year and has arguably his best start of the year,” Yost said. “He just put us on his back today and carried us.”
It was a brutal loss for the Indians who now must wait to see the outcomes of tonight’s Tampa Bay/Boston and New York/Baltimore games to see where they will sit heading into their series in Chicago with the White Sox.
“It’s not harder just because they’re (Kansas City) in it. It’s harder because we’re in it,” Bourn said. “We’ve still got 17 games left. We just need to try to finish strong. If we can get things going, I think that we can have a chance to be playing in October.”
The Tribe must regroup and at a minimum take of three of four from the last place South Siders. Corey Kluber (8-5, 3.54 ERA) will make his second start since coming off of the DL tomorrow night. He will face lefty John Danks (4-12, 4.45 ERA). The Indians will see three lefties this series including Sox ace Chris Sale.