September 29, 2013
But then, in those darkest days, things began to turn around. It didn't happen all at once, and it wasn't obvious at the time, though you can certainly point to Terry Francona's hiring as the line a demarcation between eras of Indians baseball. And though we didn't know it at the time, the hiring of Mickey Callaway as pitching coach was another huge reason why we're celebrating a playoff berth today. And then, after trading Shin-Soo Choo away, Nick Swisher decided to sign here, and then momentum really started to build. There was that minor trade of Esmil Rogers to Toronto for a backup middle infielder and what was considered a marginal catching prospect. There was the surprise signing of Michael Bourn late in the year (thanks to Pittsburgh failing to sign their 2012 first rounder), but also the less-herald signings or Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn and even Jason Giambi. Progress was being made at Ubaldo Jimenez's home in the Dominican Republic, but what exactly that progress was wouldn't be known until well into the season.
In other words, there was not one thing that led to today, but many many things. Were there missteps? Absolutely there were, but each step back seemed to lead to two steps foreward. Brett Myers was a disaster, but it led to Corey Kluber getting a chance. Mark Reynolds had that great month, but then he stopped hitting and ended his season with the New York Yankees. Carlos Carrasco was awful in the rotation, but then he pitched better in relief. Trevor Bauer proved that he wasn't ready for the big leagues, but then Danny Salazar proved that he was. Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano had poor seasons, but Cody Allen had a breakout season, and guys like Bryan Shaw and midseason acquisition Mark Rzepczynski picked up the slack. I could on and on.
But even though this season was thought a success, they still entered the month of September on the outside looking in. On the morning of September 1st, the Indians had lost five in a row, was seven games behind then-AL West-leading Texas, and 3.5 behind Tampa Bay. But they won that Sunday in Detroit, and took the Baltimore series, and then the Mets series, and then stuff started to get real. The front-loaded schedule finally began to ease up, but because they were so far back, they couldn't afford any missteps. And even, worse, Justin Masterson was out with a strained oblique, an injury that usually takes 4-6 weeks to recover from.
But then help came from a very unexpected source. Ubaldo Jimenez had been pitching very well in the second half, but after Masterson's injury he suddenly turned back into the pitcher that dominated the National League in 2007. And as the Indians continued to win, Terry Francona used the remaining off days to set up things so that Jimenez would be pitching on the final day of the season if needed. Well, he was needed, and boy, did he come through.
Ubaldo Jimenez gave up a hit to the first batter of the game, and after that retired the next 17 batters that he faced. He got into a bit of trouble the sixth, but struck out Trevor Plouffe with runners on second and third. Then he got into more trouble in the seventh, allowed a run, and was pulled. Scrabble struck out pinch-hitter Chris Colabello to end the threat, meaning that Jimenez's final line looks like this:
6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 13 SO
In what was in essence a playoff game, Jimenez rose to the occasion, finishing off a run almost unprecedented in franchise history. His second-half ERA ranks up there with what Bob Lemon did in 1954 and 1956, and anytime you get yourself into a comparison with Lemon then you've done something special.
On offense the Indians got onto the board in the first inning with the hits provided by the two big free agent signings last winter. Michael Bourn led off with a sharp single up the middle, and Swisher (who not coincidentally was hitting right-handed) drove a two-run homer just over the wall in left field. The score remained 2-0 until the 6th inning, when two Twins errors handed the Indians a couple runs on a silver platter. Carlos Santana reached on throwing error, and after a Ryan Raburn bloop fell in, Asdrubal Cabrera laid down a sacrifice bunt. Twins starter Scott Diamond threw the ball away, allowing Santana to score and Raburn to go to third. Yan Gomes drove home Raburn with a sacrifice fly.
After Scrabble got the first batter of the eighth inning, Justin Masterson came into the game. And although he at times was wild, he got through the eighth and came out for the ninth. So the guy who threw the first Tribe pitch of the season would throw the last pitch. With two outs in the ninth, Clete Thomas hit a grounder that got past Nick Swisher, but Jason Kipnis made a fine diving stop and threw to Masterson for the playoff-clinching out. Masterson held the ball up as the team converged on the infield, celebrating an amazing season. They had to go 10-0 to end the season to avoid playing a tiebreaker, and they did it, becoming the first club to pull off that feat since the 1971 Baltimore Orioles.
How this season ultimately ends is yet to be determined. The journey that started in early April could end this Wednesday, or it could end much later than that. But regardless of how it ends, it will have been a journey to relish.
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