June 15, 2013
The Indians seemingly had the momentum going into the late innings, having recovered from an early 5-0 deficit to take the lead on one of the National League's best pitchers, but the home run bugaboo suddenly reared its ugly head.
The pitching draw for this weekend's series was probably the toughest possible for the Indians. Not only were they facing the team's personal nemesis, Gio Gonzalez, but the early front-runner for the NL Cy Young award, Jordan Zimmerman. And a couple innings into the game, they were down five runs to a pitcher that counts seven innings and three runs as a bad outing. Zimmerman has averaged 7.1 innings a start, and 1.6 earned runs per start. I suppose it's more difficult to dread a pitcher that you haven't seen before (Zimmerman hadn't faced the Indians until last night), but all the statistics said that at best the Indians were going to lose 5-2, so mentally I was resigned to that fact.
But before getting to the comeback, let's take a look at the wreckage that was Scott Kazmir's start. This was a completely different pitcher than the one that held down the Texas offense the start before. In Texas, Kazmir was not only aggressive, but pitched inside. The Ballpark in Arlington punishes pitches that leave pitches out over the plate to right-handed hitters, and Kazmir understood that. But last night, at least in the first, he abandoned that principle, leaving pitches up and over the outer half of the plate to right-handed hitters very capable of hitting home runs to right and center field. First was Ryan Zimmerman, who lined a solo homer to right-center, and then Jayson Werth smashed a pitch over the center field fence. The pitches hit out weren't high-80s junk, but mid-90s fastballs, so the problem wasn't stuff, but location.
In the second inning, Ian Desmond led off by hitting the third home run of the young game, a line drive that just cleared the fence in left field. Anthony Rendon led off the third inning with a double down the left field line, and three walks and a wild pitch later, the Nationals had a 5-0 lead, and Terry Francona was walking out to the mound to take the ball.
So the outlook to that point was fairly bleak. With the Tribe middle relief coming into a 5-0 game in the third inning, and with the NL's best pitcher on the mound, the chances the Indians would even make a game of it was slim (and slim was walking his car). But the Indians have rose to the occasion against very good pitchers before, and last night they did it again. The comeback started slowly, with a run in the bottom of the third on a Jason Kipnis RBI single, then picked up steam with two home runs off the bats of Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds in the fourth, then went into full throttle in the fifth. With two outs in the fifth, the Indians had runners on first and second for Nick Swisher, who has been in a month-long slump, but Swish came through this time, serving a single over the shortstop's head to make the score 5-4. Then Michael Brantley completed the comeback with a two-run double.
None of this would have possible had Matt Albers and Bryan Shaw not held the Nationals in check. Too many times last year a nascent comeback was strangled when the middle relief coughed up runs, but this time the bullpen did its job in allowing the offense time to claw back into the game.
And then the late relief blew the game. With two outs in the eighth, Joe Smith gave up an 0-2 home run to pinch hitter Chad Tracy, tying the game at 6. And then, with two outs in the ninth, Vinnie Pestano induced Rendon to hit a pop fly into foul territory, but Swisher and Kipnis let the ball fall between them. And wouldn't you know it, later in the at-bat Rendon hit a home run to give the Nationals the lead.
The Indians though had a very good chance to tie the game in the ninth off Washington closer Rafael Soriano, as Mike Aviles hit a two-out double and Michael Bourn then hit a rocket down the right field line, but Adam LaRoche was right in the path of that rocket, and he caught it to end the game.
This was a game that, early in the contest, the Indians had no business winning, but by the end of the game, it was a contest that the Indians should have won but didn't.
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