May 3, 2013
Chapter 26: White knuckles
So the Indians played a close game last night. I had forgotten what those games do to your nerves, how every pitch after the 6th/7th inning sits on the razor's edge between agony and ecstasy, how your mind goes a million miles while it processes what you're seeing and what you hope to see. Meanwhile, in the blowouts the Indians have been participating in lately, you go upstairs to cook something, go check the laundry, surf the Internet, surf Twitter, let your mind wander back to the day at work, what you have to do tomorrow, what you need at the grocery store, and many other things. A close game, though, focuses mind and body, and is the cure for mind wandering.
Before the Indians tied the game in the eighth I thought I'd have to focus on Terry Francona's pitching choices in the seventh inning. Reliever selection is a tried and true debate topic for baseball fans when the game gets away late, as what could have been always has a better outcome then that that was. So it was in the seventh inning. Justin Masterson allowed a two-out single to Brian Doumit that cut the lead to 5-4. Francona came out to the mound, pointed to his right arm, and in came....Cody Allen?
Cody Allen is a player I think highly of. He's a Prospect That Matters, a pitcher that has dominated every level in his meteoric rise from a late-round draft pick to the majors. If things hold true to form, in one or two years he'll be either this club's key setup man or its closer. And knowing that, Francona brought him in to the game for a taste of what he'll facing down the road. The only problem is that the Indians have other relievers who have excelled and are excelling at that role, namely Joe Smith.
I didn't find any detailed explanation from Francona as to why Allen over Smith, so let me play devil's advocate. Point 1: Chris Parmelee is a left-handed hitter. Point 2: Josh Willingham, a better right-handed hitter, was on the bench and available to pinch-hit. Point 3: Cody Allen in his short career has been very effective against left-handed hitting. Point 4: Joe Smith's delivery makes him somewhat vulnerable to left-handed hitting. Point 5: The Indians need to get Cody Allen into high-leverage situations so that if an injury happens to one the big three relievers, they have someone that can step in to an important role. Point 6: If the Indians had brought it Rich Hill to face Parmelee, the Twins likely would have pinch-hit Willingham and Hill would have had to face him. In fact Hill was used later in much more favorable situation, pitching to Mauer, Morneau, and Doumit, in the ninth inning.
If you've watched a lot of Francona moves early this season, you see a lot of long-term thinking in them. He's slow to bring back players with minor injuries to make sure they are completely healthy when they return (for instance, Nick Swisher sat again tonight). He's also been very patient with Allen, who struggled early in the season, giving him regular work even after some poor outings. Even tonight, he didn't pull Allen right away, but kept him in a tie game for another inning (8th) and one batter into the ninth. So I can see that Francona was looking for an opportunity to get Allen into a close-and-late situation, found one, and pulled the trigger. And after he gave up the home run, he kept him in the game so that the home run wasn't the last memory he had of his outing. But still, you need to win the game that's in front of you, and Smith was available and rested in the bullpen. Enough words on that.
Before moving on to the end of the game, let's first go back to the beginning. Justin Masterson wasn't really locked in tonight against a lineup with lots of left-handers, but did pitch into the seventh inning; with no off days for another two weeks, it's going to be more important than ever for starters to go deep into games. Justin allowed eight hits and five runs (one of which scored after he left the game) in 6.2 innings, raising his ERA to 3.64.
The Indians at first had trouble against Pedro Hernandez, who came from the White Sox last summer for Francisco Liriano. Hernandez has marginal stuff, relying on fastball command and his changeup to induce weak contact. And that's what the Indians produced the first time through the lineup. But then they seemed to get a read on his pitches, and the contact became much stronger. In the fifth inning, for instance, Mark Reynolds did this to a low-90s fastball:
(doesn't seem to be working here, but check the first comment, where it is working.)
The Indians would tack another run on in the sixth when Jason Kipnis bunted for a base hit with the bases loaded, and with just three innings to go and a rested bullpen, it seemed smooth sailing for the rest of the game. But as you read above, that didn't happen. The Twins don't have a very good rotation, and their hitting was struggled (most likely because of the horrible weather they've played in), but they have an excellent bullpen, so they suddenly seemed in control of things after the events of the top of the seventh.
But the Indians would strike in the eighth inning, mostly with the bottom of their order. Mike Aviles, who was playing for Lonnie Chisenhall, singled to open the inning, then Drew Stubbs dumped a double down the right field line to place runners at second and third with one out. The Twins chose to walk Michael Brantley to set up a potential double play, and they did get their sharp grounder at an infielder (off the bat of Jason Kipnis) but Brian Dozier fumbled the ball, and was only able to get one out. The game was tied.
Rich Hill, the bullpen's only left-hander, then retired Mauer, Morneau, and Doumit in the ninth. After the Indians came up empty in the bottom of the ninth, Chris Perez navigated a shaky tenth inning to keep the game even. Then the bottom of the order won the game; Mike Aviles again led off the inning with a single, Ezequiel Carrera (yes, he's back) bunted Aviles to second, and Drew Stubbs hit a ball to the left field wall to drive home the winning run.