April 2, 2013
Chapter 1: The Battle of Clean Slates
Last night the Indians and Blue Jays faced off in a matchup of two teams that decided last winter "hey, this isn't working; let's turn over this roster." Toronto was one of the few teams in baseball to have a busier off-season than the Indians, replacing one-third of last year's starting lineup (Jose Reys, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera) and three-fifths of last year's rotation (R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle). Like the Indians, Toronto's moves invigorated what was at best a fanbase going through the motions into one that for at least a time treated the Jays as a pennant contender. For years Toronto has fielded decent teams, rarely having a bad club, but also rarely competing for the playoffs. Last winter the Blue Jays tried to shed their mantle of mediocrity, aping moves that the Yankees and Red Sox usually make. Unlike the Indians, who made most of their acquisitions via free agency with no prospects lost, the two big deals (Miami fire sale and R.A. Dickey) cost the Blue Jays a big portion of their farm system; in the Maimi deal they trade 2012's #3 (Marisnick), #5 (Nicolino), and #13 (Hechavarria) prospects according to Baseball America, and in the Dickey deal they dealt 2013's #1 (d'Arnaud), #2 (Syndergaard) and #25 (Becerra) prospects. This was a club that was not content to wait for the farm system to produce major-league players through development; this was a club that wanted to win now, and used its farm system to make that happen.
The Indians of course turned their roster over as well. Only 9 players from last year's Opening Day roster were on this year's roster. There were five new starters in the field (Bourn, Stubbs, Swisher, Reynolds, Chisenhall), three new starters in the rotations (Myers, McAllister, Kazmir), an almost completely revamped bench (Aviles, Giambi, Raburn), and the normal bullpen churn (Allen, Shaw, Albers, Hill).
So the two teams facing off tonight were not really extensions of their 2012 teams, like say, the Tigers or the Rangers of the White Sox, who largely stood pat. Hence the excitement felt by both fanbases; these two clubs brought with them little residue of the failures of the past, and the moves that remade both clubs bore little of the hallmarks of the team's moves in the past. The Indians had rarely been a player in the free agent market, usually content to make trades and signings that flew under the radar, and the Jays had rarely been one to make the aggressive win-now move prevalent elsewhere in their division.
One area that the Indians didn't dramatically improve was their rotation, so that starting Opening Night for them was a pitcher that the season before had an ERA+ of 79, which ranked him among the worst Opening Day starting pitchers of the past 25 years. This was the area where happy thoughts go to die; you look at the improved offense, vastly better defense, and the same bullpen, and think playoffs, but you look at this rotation and think last place. This rotation could be a boat anchor, but paradoxically it could also be the engine makes the Indians a playoff team. Between Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez is enough potential to headline a good rotation.
Last night Masterson showed both sides of his pitching personality; first he was wild and frustrating, then efficient and dominating. Sometimes with Masterson you get two pitching performances in one night, even in one inning; last night there were two pitching performances in Masterson, but the line of demarcation was rather clear. In the third inning, after loading the bases with nobody out, Adam Lind hit a screamer that essentially fielded Asdrubal Cabrera, knocking the Tribe shortstop to the ground. But Cabrera flipped the ball to Kipnis, who turned a crucial double play. A run scored on the play to cut the Indians' lead to 2-1, but it defused the inning, and seemed to give Masterson new life. Prior to that double play, he appeared to be on the path towards implosion and an early exit; he had kept the Blue Jays from scoring, but at a great cost. He was trending towards reaching 100 pitches in the fourth inning, and even if he had kept Toronto at bay, that would have put a serious strain on the Cleveland bullpen.
But after that double play, Masterson became a brutally efficient pitcher, not allowing a base runner the next three innings, and just as importantly, getting through six innings. Before the game, the Indians had dropped their eighth reliever so that Scott Kazmir's potential DL stint would be minimized, meaning that they'd be going the next 13 days with the normal complement of relievers. Had the bullpen had to be called to pitch 5 or 6 innings, that would have placed the pitching staff under a lot of strain from the beginning of the season.
Control was also a problem for knuckleballer R.A, Dickey, but with a different twist. Like Masterson, Dickey walked four batters, but he also uncorked a wild pitch and his catcher (J.P. Arencibia) allowed three passed balls. The Indians scored their first two runs in the second inning thanks to two singles, two passed balls, a walk, and a ground out. Yeah, the Indians did do the work to get the first runner on (Brantley) and drive the second run home (Stubbs), but all of the work in between was done by Toronto's battery. The second two runs of the game game via a more conventional method. After Michael Bourn singled to start the fifth, Asdrubal Cabrera launched the first home run of the season for the Indians.
Several fantastic defensive plays were made by the Indians. Beyond the third inning double play, Jason Kipnis made a nice diving play to rob Edwin Encarnacion to lead off the sixth. Drew Stubbs then made a superb sliding catch down the right field line to rob Jose Reyes of an almost certain leadoff triple. The latter two plays snuffed out a potential rallies before they even began.
Those four runs served to be more than enough for Masterson and the bullpen. After that third inning double play, the pitching staff didn't allow a base runner until Chris Perez gave up a two-out double in the ninth. Last year Perez blew a late-inning lead to Toronto on Opening Day after missing much of the spring with an injury, but although the circumstances were virtually identical this year, the outcome was dramatically different. Perez retired the Jays to clinch the Indians' first win of the season.