CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 25: Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera #13 of the Cleveland Indians teases the Detroit Tigers bench during the ninth inning at Progressive Field on July 25, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Is this the spark that launches a pennant drive?
There's usually not much uncertainty when Justin Verlander is given a late lead. If anything, his stuff gets better the deeper he goes into a game, which is why it's usually advisable to get to him in the early innings when his fastball velocity is in the mortal range. So once the Indians fell behind 3-1 after Delmon Young hit a solo home run in the sixth, it looked like the game was over, and the Tigers would leave Cleveland 5 games ahead of the Indians, and the Tribe front office would have some very difficult decisions to make before next Tuesday.
But there's always a chance in a baseball game, whether your team was down 14-2 going into the bottom of the seventh, or just down two runs to the best pitcher in the game. In this case, though, a 2-run deficit felt a lot closer to the hole the Indians were in 12 years ago. Verlander had been hittable in the first inning, with Shin-Soo Choo rocketing a double off the wall in right field. Later in that first inning, Jason Kipnis hit a sacrifice fly that Quintin Berry caught on the warning track. Michael Brantley hit a long drive to center for the third out of the inning. But after that, the Indians were held almost completely in check, with a Carlos Santana double play short-circuiting the only other rally the Tribe hitters would muster before the seventh inning.
Zach McAllister made a decent start, allowing three runs (two earned) in 6.1 innings. He allowed nine hits but struck out seven, keeping the Indians to within striking distance of a normal pitcher, but after Young hit his home run in the sixth, he left the mound trailing by two runs, an almost insurmountable deficit to a pitcher who was getting more effective, and had a low pitch count to boot. But Manny Acta, eschewing his normal bullpen usage rules, pulled McAllister after the Tigers got runners on first and third with one out, choosing Joe Smith over Esmil Rogers to face Miguel Cabrera. You could probably count one one hand the amount of appearances Smith has made with the Indians trailing, and most of those were just he could get some work in. But this was treated as a normal July game, so Acta used his key seventh inning pitcher to try to retire one of the best hitters in the game in a difficult situation. Smith made his pitch and got an inning-ending double play.The Indians still had a shot.
Carlos Santana, who has turned his season around recently, took Verlander deep to lead off the seventh, jumping on a high fastball, cutting the deficit to one run. Then Travis Hafner went deep on the next pitch, again a high fastball, tying the game at 4. The fastballs were both measured on the radar at 93 mph, slow enough for Santana and Hafner to catch up to. Jose Lopez then hit a line-drive single to right, placing the go-ahead run on base. After Casey Kotchman and Shelley Duncan flew out, Shin-Soo Choo blooped a single into shallow left field to move Lopez to second. Asdrubal Cabrera was up; he had struggled in his career against Verlander, but he was able to catch up to a low 98-mph fastball and line it through the hole into right field to bring home the go-ahead run. Then Jason Kipnis hit a blooper that Ramon Santiago couldn't grab, scoring another run.
When the dust had settled, the Indians had scored four runs in the inning; Verlander had allowed four or more runs in a game just four times the entire season. Pestano and Perez slammed the door in the eighth and ninth, and the Indians found themselves three games behind the Tigers instead of five games.
We'll see if the Indians can in retrospect make this comeback victory crucial; they are still trailing two teams in the AL Central and five teams in the AL Wild Card race. But they still have a chance, and as we saw tonight, as long as there's a chance, there's a way to win.