July 27, 2013
One year ago yesterday, the Indians came back to beat Justin Verlander and the Tigers 5-3 to pull within 3.5 games of first place. After that dramatic win the Indians would lose 11 in a row, and you all remember what happened then.
To this point this year's Indians have record-wise been in a similar spot as last year's Indians. They have a better record, but then again, so do the Tigers. But what this team has that last year's doesn't in the pitching that can keep them in the race. Over the past month the Indians as a team have a 3.58 ERA, over the past two weeks a 2.57 ERA. And more importantly, the starters have been going deep into games, minimizing the amount of innings that the bullpen has to throw.
Tonight it was Justin Masterson's turn, and he drew a tough assignment. He was facing the Texas Rangers, but more importantly, he was facing Yu Darvish, who ranks sixth in the league in ERA and leads the AL in strikeout despite missing several weeks due to a lat strain. Thankfully Darvish made one mistake, and not only did Michael Bourn capitalize on it, but so did Justin Masterson. Bourn lined Darvish's mistake just over the yellow line in the right field corner to start the game, and that would be the only run scored tonight, thanks in large part to Masterson. After the home run, Darvish allowed the Indians just two more hits, though the Indians did force him out early through lengthy at-bats. Darvish has as complete an arsenal of pitches as any pitcher in the game today, but it's how he uses it that makes him so good. He'll throw any of his 5 (or is it 6?) pitches in any count or in any situation, and that was on full display tonight. He struck out 11 Indians in six innings.
But tonight Masterson was better. He pitched 7.2 innings, striking out 8 and just walking one batter. His fastball had that sharp movement, and his slider was just unhittable. In the first inning, Ian Kinsler swung at a slider that ended up in the other batter's box, and later, in the eighth, he got deep into Kinsler's kitchen, getting a weak grounder back to the mound. It was that movement that allowed Masterson to cruise through most of the game, with only one jam of note. In the fifth inning, the Rangers loaded the bases* for Nelson Cruz, but Masterson got him to ground into a force play to end the threat. After that, Masterson allowed just one hit.
That hit (a Cruz single up the middle) ended Masterson's night, as Terry Francona chose to with Joe Smith against Adrian Beltre, the Rangers' best hitter. At the time it seemed a curious choice, as although by that time Masterson had thrown 113 pitches, he didn't show any signs of tiring. And of course the previous evening Smith had given up the tying runs. When Beltre initially made contact, I thought he had hit a two-run homer, but the ball must have hit a bit towards the handle, as Michael Brantley was able to run under it to end the eighth inning.
If not for Chris Perez's pitching the last month, the Indians would have been in deep trouble. Everyone else in the bullpen, from Joe Smith to Vinnie Pestano to Cody Allen to Bryan Shaw, has had at least one streak of poor pitching, but because Perez has pitched so well, to this point it hasn't sunk the Indians yet. Tonight Perez made short work of the Rangers, only needing to throw 6 pitches to finish off Texas.
With the win, the Indians now are closer to a Wild Card spot than the Division lead, trailing Baltimore by 2 games (assuming the Red Sox hold on to beat the Orioles). And they can leapfrog Texas in the Wild Card standings by winning tomorrow.
One more piece of trvia: with this win, the Indians have now clinched a season series win over the Athletics, the Rangers, and the Mariners, currently the top three teams in the AL West. They are now an amazing 15-4 against the AL West.
*Thankfully it was catcher Geovany Soto at second when Engel Beltre singled, otherwise the Indians and Rangers might still be playing.
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