May 12, 2013
Chapter 35: Winning despite
This was a game won despite Zach McAllister not pitching all that well (though the results were good), despite having both Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds on the bench for much of the game, and despite not having either Vinnie Pestano (who is on the DL) or Chris Perez (who was not available) to pitch either the ninth (tie game) or tenth (one-run lead).
Zach McAllister didn't have his good command, certainly not the command he had in his previous start against Oakland. A lot of his fastballs were high in the strike zone, and while he did get away with some pitches, some he didn't (such as Brayan Pena's two-run homer in the second). A third run scored off him in the fourth because of a Lonnie Chisenhall throwing error. But he managed to go six innings (throwing 111 pitches in the process), not only keeping the Indians within striking distance, but also not taxing an already thin bullpen.
The Indians scored two runs off of Detroit starter Rick Porcello in the third when Jason Kipnis doubled down the left field line. Those two would be all the runs the Indians could manage off Porcello, and any other Detroit pitcher, until the last possible opportunity in the ninth. The Indians had an opportunity in the fifth to tie the game again, loading the bases with one out, but Asdrubal Cabrera grounded into an inning-ending double play. The Indians got the first two batters of the seventh inning on, but a Michael Brantley double play ended that threat.
The Tigers' one weak spot is the back end of their bullpen. At the end of the 2012 season, they said goodbye to Jose Valverde with no intention of bringing him back, but early-season troubles made them reconsider. Now Valverde is back as closer, though his stuff isn't nearly what it was during his 2010-2011 heyday with Detroit. I didn't see one split-fingered fastball in yesterday's ninth inning. Instead he tried getting the save with all 92-93 mph four-seam fastballs. A one-pitch pitcher can have success in relief if that one pitch is exceptional, but Papa Grande's fastball isn't exceptional at this stage of his career. Even so, he almost pulled off the save, for after Michael Bourn (who pinch-hit for Ryan Raburn) walked and stole second, Valverde retired Lonnie Chisenhall (strikeout) and Yan Gomes (pop out). Jason Giambi then came off the bench to hit for Drew Stubbs and worked a walk, bringing up the top of the order and Michael Brantley. Brantley, like everyone else that inning, got a steady diet of 92-93 mph fastballs, and served the third one he saw into shallow left field. With Michael Bourn running with two outs, there was no chance of throwing him out at the plate.Tie game.
So despite all the bad things the Indians did on offense up to that point, they tied the game going into the bottom of the ninth inning. However, the Indians had a problem (although most of us didn't know it yet); Chris Perez was unavailable today, so they would have to go through the rest of the game without their usual eighth and ninth inning pitchers. But despite that, they made things work, with some help from the defense. For in the bottom of the ninth inning, Torii Hunter grounded back to Joe Smith for what looked like an easy double play, but Smith's relay to Asdrubal Cabarera tailed from the first base side of second to a foot or so off the third base side. Cabrera though made a very athletic play, not only catching the ball, but stepping on the base with his off foot and making the relay to first with his arm alone. Hunter was out at first, and what could have been a disaster was averted.
In the tenth, Asdrubal Cabrera doubled to lead off the inning, but through a couple weak groundouts, the Indians still hadn't gotten the run home when Mark Reynolds came to the plate with two outs. Now our impression of Reynolds before this season was that he was an all-or-nothing hitter who had trouble making contact. That impression has been proven wrong time and time again early this season, and it was proven wrong in the tenth inning as well. Reynolds singled on a 1-2 changeup through the hole on the left side, bringing home Carlos Santana. The Indians now had a one-run lead, but who would they bring on to close out the game?
Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez were the first two batters up, so Terry Francona called on Rich Hill. Hill got ahead of Fielder 0-2 before the Detroit first baseman flied out to deep center (thankfully today's game was played in Comerica). Then Hill struck out Martinez on a low-90s fastball. Don Kelley (a left-handed hitter) was pinch-hit for, with Matt Tuiasosopo (a right-handed hitter) coming to the plate. So with two outs and nobody on, Francona called on Cody Allen to get the last out of the game. Allen hadn't had a major-league save opportunity to this point in his young career, but that didn't faze him, as he dispatched Tuiasosopo to get his first save in the big leagues and more importantly preserve the game and the series win.
It is still very early in the season, but even so, this was a big win. To win a series in Detroit (where the Indians have had difficulties winning over the past 5-6 years) in which Detroit sent Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to the mound, is a big deal, even if it is only May. And that the series win gave the Indians a share of first place was an added bonus. The Tigers will probably have first place back to themselves by the time the Indians return from Philadelphia (they get Houston for the next three games), but even so, the Indians have weathered early storms to emerge as a team that has a chance of contending.