Dr. Bleeping Smooth, if you need him, folks. Where would this Indians team be without him? In a season of struggle, Michael Brantley has been the one shining star, literally carrying the offense. On a night where the Indians blew three different leads, it was Brantley who saved them once again with a 10-inning walkoff solo blast off of Detroit reliever Al Albuquerque to end the Tribe’s four-game losing streak.
“For us to come back and beat these guys,” Nick Swisher said, “it’s a huge step in the right direction for us. We’re still in this thing. We’re only 45 games in and we know what we can do. We have a lot of guys, myself included, who aren’t playing as well as [we’d] like to be, but I think tonight was a good starting point to turn things around a little bit.”
They needed this one….badly. The Detroit Tigers, baseball’s hottest team, has the Indians numbers. Last year on their way to their third consecutive AL Central title, the Motor City Kitties beat the Tribe 15 times in 19 tries. Inside of those 15 wins were some gut wrenching losses for our Wahoos. Blown leads and killer home runs were prevalent. For the first time this season, the two clubs met, heading in complete opposite direction.
The Indians had just come off a home sweep at the hands of the Oakland A’s where they were outscored 30-6, while the Tigers left Boston after sweeping out the defending World Champion Red Sox. On May 19th, the Indians were already 10.5 games back. With Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer set to pitch in games two and three of this series, beating lefty Drew Smily was something the Indians flat out had to do. They had their best pitcher going in Corey Kluber. Things looked like they were going to go the Indians way.
Kluber was rolling along through five innings, giving up just one run on a Victor Martinez second inning homer which tied the game. The Wahoo offense continued its swoon, letting Smily off the hook seemingly every inning. Their lone run to that point came on a two-out, bases loaded passed ball. With two out in the fifth, Smily was up over 100 pitches and had walked five, yet all the Tribe had to show for it was the one run that wasn’t even driven in.
Yan Gomes, who had a big night with three hits, walked with two out, bringing Nick Swisher to the plate. To say Swish has been struggling would be an understatement. There are no stat trends – he has just been in a season long slump. But this time, with Ryan Raburn on second and Gomes at first, Swish took a high hanging breaking pitch from Smily to left-center for an RBI single which gave the Indians the lead. It was the Tribe’s first RBI hit with a runner in scoring position on the homestand, now in its fourth game.
But even better was following it up with another! Break up that Wahoo offense! Jesus Aguilar, who may lose his spot on the roster today for the returning Jason Giambi (which is ridiculous, but that’s another topic), followed up Swisher’s single with one of his own, the first of his career. The RBI single to the hole was knocked down by Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine. That ball is a keeper for Jesus, who deserves more time up with the big club than this weekend-plus cameo.
With Kluber rolling, a 3-1 lead seemed to be all they would need, but as we learned last year, this Tigers team knows how to get to the Tribe, no matter who is on the hill. Raburn and Carlos Santana stranded two runners with one out in the bottom of the sixth and that missed opportunity would come back to haunt them. Kluber came back out for the seventh to face the bottom of the Tigers order. Nick Castellanos’s infield single got things started and he was moved to third on a double by Alex Avila. After Romine’s lineout to short, Rajai Davis delivered a huge two-run double to the gap in left-center to tie the game at three. We’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?
The Tigers pen was tired from using four pitchers the day before, so manager Brad Ausmus sent out the much maligned Phil Coke out for a second inning. It was exactly what the Indians needed. Gomes opened the frame with an infield single. Swisher followed with his second hit. The Yanimal was running hard the entire way and got to third with a headfirst slide. For some odd reason, Swisher thought going for two was a good idea. The throw to third was cut off by the shortstop Romine, who fired to second to nail Swish. But it was Gomes’s hustle that was key. Aguilar wound up driving him home with a sacrifice fly to put the Tribe back on top.
Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were lined up for the last two innings, so you had to have felt good about the Tribe’s chances. Shaw got through the eighth unscathed, though a dropped double-play throw on a shift by Santana had Shaw needing to get a fourth out, which he did. The ball was handed to Allen for the ninth. The hard-throwing righty has the closer stuff, but on this night, it wasn’t meant to be. With one out, Ausmus sent up pinch hitter J.D. Martinez for Romine. Allen left a 95 MPH fastball right in Martinez’s wheel house and he crushed it for a game-tying solo homer to the Tribe bullpen. It was Martinez’s first home run of the season.
Tribe nation let out a collective “you have got to be kidding me.” Two ninth inning singles from Gomes and pinch hitter Lonnie Chisenhall went for naught when Mike Aviles grounded into an inning-ending double play.
On to extras we went, where the home team would produce the fireworks when Brantley went boom. He took Albuquerque’s 3-2 pitch to the Tigers bullpen in right. The laser shot was the first walkoff homer of Brantley’s career and his ninth dinger of the season. He hit a career high 10 in 2013. The emotion he showed rounding the bases was something you rarely see from the mild mannered Brantley.
“I worked hard this offseason to mature my swing and grow as a hitter,” Brantley said. “I feel like I’m doing a great job at it and I’ll just try to continue to do that all year for my team.”
Manager Terry Francona is running out of ways to praise the one guy who has been a rock from opening day. Brantley is doing it on and off the field. Watching him get doused with water as he crossed home plate was as fun as the team has had over these first two months.
“I know he’s not one of our veteran guys,” Francona said, “but the more of a leadership role he takes on in our ballclub, the better we are. He’s that type of guy. I think he has a lot of influence in that clubhouse because of the way he plays the game. I think everybody respects him a lot because of the way he plays the game.”
Can the Indians ride this momentum? We will find out tonight when they have to face a two-time Cy Young award winner in Verlander (5-2, 3.15 ERA). The Tribe will send out rookie Trevor Bauer, who will be recalled from Columbus today, replacing Danny Salazar in the rotation. Bauer made one start during a doubleheader the first week of the season. On that day, he shut down the San Diego Padres on one earned run and four hits in six innings. He struck out eight and walked two.