Every single time you try to bury this Indians team, they come back with a vengeance. They are like Frank Costanza cooking at Jewish singles night for the first time since the Korean War: “like a Phoenix….rising from Arizona!” (I know that makes no sense, but anything Frank said was funny). The weekend series in Oakland, one of the teams the Indians are directly chasing, turned out to be a flop as they lost two of three and once again had trouble scoring runs. On Monday, they sat four and a half games back of the Wild Card spots, heading to Anaheim to face the sad sack Angels. Winning this series was a must. For the Tribe to stay in this race until the end, beating the teams they are supposed to beat is an absolute must. The Angels fall into that category.
Behind terrific pitching, they took the first two games and went into last night’s game looking for a sweep. Oakland had already lost earlier in the day, giving the Indians a chance to gain another game in the Wild Card standings. At this point in the season, every game is important.
With a bullpen completely gassed, Tribe ace Justin Masterson knew he had to go deep into this one. With the 4:05 PM local start time in Anaheim, the creeping shadows were going to give a big assist to the both starters. Also coming into play were two offenses that in their current state won’t be mistaken for the 1995 Indians.
The last time we saw Los Angeles pitcher Jerome Williams, he was cruising into the sixth inning with a five run lead in Cleveland before imploding 10 days ago. In the third inning one of the many slumping Wahoos, Michael Bourn, led off with a triple, which surprisingly was just his second on the season. The guy who started the Tribe’s comeback on that sunny Sunday, Nick Swisher, repeated his heroics with his second straight two-run homer off of Williams. The original blast got something going with Swish, who since that day has four homers, a hit in eight of the last games, and is in the middle of a nine for 27 stretch (.333) with four walks.
“I’m just trying to get the ball up in the air,” Swisher said. “He tried to paint a fastball in and I was just lucky to get the head on it.”
A 2-0 lead looked as if it would be plenty for Masterson who despite not being as sharp as he could be, wiggled his way through six and two-thirds innings of one-run ball. You can usually tell right away of Justin is going to have it or not and in this one, the command was a bit off. Walks can be a problem for him and last night he issued five of them, but each time he managed to work around the problem.
In addition to the shadows, the Angels injury issues played in Masterson’s favor. There was no Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, or even Howie Kendrick to face. Instead, manager Mike Scioscia put out a lineup that resembled the 2012 Indians of August. When Hank Conger is hitting fifth, that’s probably not a good sign. The bottom five of the Los Angeles order might as well have been “Duncan, Canzler, Kotchman, Rottino, Hannahan.” That is what Conger, Kole Calhoun, Chris Nelson, Andrew Romine, and Peter Bourjos look like to me.
All you can do is pitch to the guys in front of you and that is what Masterson did.
The Angels tried to get a rally going in the seventh. Trailing 2-1, Masterson decided to issue a leadoff walk to the .172 hitting Romine. Bourjos then put down a perfect bunt single to put the Angels in business. A second straight bunt, this time from J.B. Shuck, moved both runners into scoring position. But Masterson reared back and came up with a huge strikeout of Erick Aybar for the second out. With the left-handed hitting Josh Hamilton due up, Francona called for Rich Hill. Hamilton has been brutal against lefties this year (.176), so the move made sense. The Angels big offseason free agent signing tried to go the other way. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall made a beautiful play on the ball and threw across the diamond to end the inning. Chiz’s play definitely saved the day.
“That was a nice play by Lonnie,” said Francona. “It wasn’t hit that hard, but he still had to dive. If the ball gets through, that’s two runs.”
The book was now closed on Masterson as well. He did exactly what Francona needed him to do. He pitched into the seventh with minimal damage. “It feels nice to be disappointed that I only went six and two-thirds,” said Masterson. “The goal, good or bad, is to get as deep as I can. This is one of those days where you need to do that. . .It worked out well.”
Hill gave way to Cody Allen for the eighth, who struck out the side sandwiched between a rocket shot double by Calhoun. The Tribe badly needed an insurance run and would get one in the ninth thanks to a Mike Aviles single and two wild pitches from Dane De La Rosa.
Chris Perez came on to hold the Angels down for his 20th save. The 3-1 Tribe win gave them the sweep they needed. Masterson did what he needed to do and continued the stellar run of Tribe pitching. Kudos must also go to the bullpen who went 12.1 innings in this series, giving up just one run (a ninth inning solo homer on Monday night with the Tribe ahead by four). The entire staff pitched in for this sweep, holding the Angels to four runs in three games.
The Indians are coming. They now sit just two and a half games back of the second Wild Card spot. The schedule will soon soften. If they can just get through the end of August relatively unscathed, the Indians could be in good shape. After this weekend home series with the Minnesota Twins comes an extremely tough week on the road against two of the best teams in baseball – the Atlanta Braves and the Detroit Tigers. All we asked for was meaningful games in September and we are just about there folks. Finishing off that sweep of the Angels was a big time momentum gain.
“We wanted to come out and get this game,” said Swisher. “After winning that 14-inning marathon, that’s something you can rally around. We got guys who want to do that. We got guys in here who want to be in the playoffs and who are working hard to get there.”
Today the team will enjoy a much welcomed day off. More good news for the Indians – The Twins will be without the services of Tribe killer Joe Mauer when the come in this weekend, who was placed on the 7-day concussion DL yesterday.
(AP Photo/Jae C Hong)