CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 15: Johnny Damon #33 and Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians goof off in the dugout prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Progressive Field on June 15, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
There's a clear formula for winning that the Indians need to follow these days: get ahead, and stay ahead until the seventh of eighth innings. There's a significant contrast between the good relievers and bad relievers, and as we saw in Cincinnati, bad things happen when the Indians are down and Manny Acta has to go to the bullpen.
But tonight the Indians didn't need Jeremy Accardo or Tony Sipp, for Justin Masterson threw seven shutout innings. Justin had a favorable draw, for the Pirates are not only the worst offense in baseball, but have few left-handed hitters on their roster. Masterson took advantage of the lineup as well as a tremendous slider, striking out 9 and allowing 7 base runners (three walks, four hits). This is the third time in a row now that Masterson has gone at least six innings and allowed three runs or less, and three is a trend, right?
Masterson had some help from his defense; with a runner at third and one out, Garrett Jones hit a blooper into shallow right, but Jason Kipnis made a fine runner, over-the-shoulder catch, then fired a strike to home plate. The runner didn't try to score, but if he had, he would have been out. Masterson then induced a routine grounder to end the threat. Kipnis plays a very athletic second base, not surprising for a former outfielder, and although he might not have the polish that a career infielder might have, you can see almost daily the progress he's making at the position. I wouldn't be surprised if a few years down the line he's considered one of the best defensive second basemen in the game.
The Tribe offense didn't do a whole lot, but they didn't need to. Carlos Santana put the Indians on the board in the third inning when on a 3-2 pitch (with Asdrubal Cabrera running from first) he fisted the ball just inside the third base line; the ball hooked towards the tarp along the left field stands, and by the time left fielder Alex Presley retrieved the ball, Cabrera had scored all the way from first.
After Vinnie Pestano mowed the Pirates down in the eighth, the Indians scored an insurance run. Jason Grilli came out to pitch the eighth; the 36-year-old seemed a totally different pitcher than the one who had for years teetered on the periphery of 25-man rosters. For the longest time it seemed that he was the long-man or sixth inning reliever; now he's throwing 95-mph heaters with a devastating low-80s slider. But even though he struck out two Indians, he also walked two, and that gave Michael Brantley, who had to that point gone 0-for-3, one more chance to extend his hitting streak. Grilli didn't face Brantley for after Santana walked Juan Cruz was brought in, and odd case where a right-hander relievers a right-hander in the middle of an inning. Brantley pounced on a fastball down and in, lining the pitch back up the middle to extend his hitting streak to 22 games and give the Indians a 2-0 lead.*
Chris Perez allowed a leadoff single in the ninth, but would retire the next three batters in short order to clinch the win.
*STO posted a note that Brantley's 22-game streak is the longest streak by an Indians center fielder since Tris Speaker hit in 23 straight in 1923. Any time you're closing in on a mark held by Speaker, you're doing something special.