Professional athletes have this way of lulling you to sleep with their excellence—what is labeled "routine" in any of the major team sports is usually an incredibly complex concert of mental and physical processes, requiring levels of motor memory, hand-eye coordination, and physical dexterity that most of us can't bring to bear on even a simple task in a low-pressure environment. We don't think of "routine plays" that way, though; we think of them as routine. As a result, of course, when the routine goes wrong in pro sports, it's jarring and strange.
Tonight, the Royals and Indians both struggled with the routine, collaborating to build a game that I can only describe as weird. Kansas City had notched two runs in the sixth to take a 3–2 lead, and the Indians seemed poised to return fire after Michael Brantley started the seventh off with a walk. With Brantley at first base, Jeremy Jeffress made the first move to push the game into the weird, turning to throw to first so poorly that the ball actually ricocheted back into the field of play, creating enough time for Brantley to advance from first to third. Tom Hamilton called it, and I'm quoting loosely, "THE MOST ATROCIOUS PICKOFF ATTEMPT IN THE HISTORY OF BASEBALL!"
Matt LaPorta, not content to drive in Brantley in any way that might be construed as reasonable, hit a slow roller into left field, one that just barely eluded a diving Alcides Escobar. This was something of a companion piece to LaPorta's second-inning excuse-me single on a half swing up in the zone. LaPorta's numbers this year are pretty impressive, but he's not consistently made hard contact, and while perhaps this is confirmation bias, it certainly seems like he's benefited from a lot of odd circumstances.
Regardless, Jefress was only able to retire the number-nine hitter, Jack Hannahan, before walking Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera. Now, the Indians had the bases loaded with only one out, and their three and four hitters, Carlos Santana and Shin Soo-Choo, coming to the plate. Ned Yost, who looks like a character actor in a revival of Oklahoma!, went to another young relief arm, Aaron Crow. If you don't already hate Crow, you should; he refused to sign with the Washington Nationals, who selected him ninth in the 2008 draft. Instead, on the advice of
Scott Boras Randy Hendricks, he spent a year playing Independent League baseball before re-entering the draft, being taken by the Royals twelfth, and finally signing for a half million less than what the Nationals had offered him. How karma has allowed him to reach the majors is beyond me.
Somehow, Crow avoided the big inning, striking Choo out on a called strike three that no one seemed to think was actually over the plate, and then coaxing a pop-up from Santana. Bases loaded, one out, Choo and Santana facing a rookie reliever. Result: 1 run in the inning, 0 runs from bases loaded, one out.
It's generally a poor idea to squander such an opportunity, and it looked like the Indians were going to to pay for their incompetence when a walk and an error in the eighth preceded Joe Smith's entrance into the game. Smith was brought in to face Jeff Francoeur, a right-handed hitter who in his career has struck out four times for every one time he's walked against right-handed pitching. Of course, Smith, our beloved ROOGY, has struck out two righties for every one he has walked in his career. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Francoeur walked. Hamilton's mood became downright melancholy at this point, and he began to wail, and again I quote loosely, "SMITH IS NOWHERE NEAR THE PLATE! HE HAS NO IDEA WHERE IT'S GOING!"
Walking the free-swinging Francoeur meant that Smith would have to get the last out of the eighth against the switch-hitting Wilson Betemit, who has a career OPS of 810 versus righties, as opposed to only 716 against lefties. Leaving Smith in to face Betemit was a prayer, a doomed marriage, a sterile hybrid, a possibly very bad idea. Smith cannot get lefties out at all, and Betemit is actually a decent hitter from the left-side. Of course, it worked. Weird. Smith then worked a hitless and scoreless bottom of the ninth, setting up the Indians offensive explosion in the top of the tenth.
The Tribe offense managed four runs off of Tiny Tim Collins, yet another young Royals relief arm, although this one is adorable and tiny. Shelley Duncan put the Indians in front with a pinch-hit RBI double; his ability to come off the bench and hit lefties with power looks like a skill that will keep him on a major league payroll for a long time. The first insurance run came on what could've been a double-play ball off the bat of Matt LaPorta, but, in what was another weird play, Escobar, Kansas City's all-glove shortstop, threw the ball away on the turn to first, allowing LaPorta to advance and pinch-runner Adam Everett to score.
Jack Hannahan also contributed with an RBI double, and Grady Sizemore picked up an RBI by hitting the ball very hard and directly at second base, which it struck before caroming into shallow left center. It was a fitting and weird way for the final run of the game to be plated.
With a four -un lead in hand, Manny Acta elected to go with Justin Germano to end the game, and Germano made him look smart, going three-up-three-down through the heart of the Royals lineup. It was a move that showed Acta didn't view the next three batters as the heart of a contender's lineup, but rather saw it for what it really is: Melky Cabrera (who can't hit), Alex Gordon (who hasn't ever hit before his hot streak to begin 2011 and had already struck out twice on the day), and Billy Butler (who legitimately can hit). Worst case, though, the next guy in the lineup is Kila Ka'aihue (the Hawaiian who can't hit). The likelihood that the meat of the Royals lineup would give Germano trouble was low, and besides, there was always time to go get Rage.
Although the Smith move was a tightrope act, Manny Acta played his bullpen cards right again, getting 3.2 scoreless innings of relief from Pestano, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, and Justin Germano. I'm not sure if he set out to give Tony Sipp and Chris Perez a day off, but he found a way to do it in a tight game. On the offensive side, any discussion over Grady's lineup spot and its effect on Brantley, which was stupid to begin with, has become totally irrelevant, as Brantley and Sizemore combined to get on base seven times tonight, and Sizemore has started his season with three extra-base hits in two games. In other 2006 news, Hafner looked good driving a double the other way and drawing a walk. Santana perked up a bit as well, doubling to left-center and drawing a walk.
Almost forgotten in this quagmire is Carlos Carrasco, who was really quite good in his 6.1 IP of work, escaping a tight spot in the sixth and showing good command all night. Carrasco has surrendered only one home run in 19.2 innings of work, a good result on what had been identified as a key indicator for the young and occasionally flyball-inclined righty.
With the win, the Indians stretched their lead over the Royals for first place in the AL Central to two games. Cleveland is now 12–4 and will face Kansas City again tomorrow, as Jeanmar Gomez makes his 2011 debut against Bruce Chen, at 8:10 PM EST.