July 31, 2013
One year ago today, the Indians were in the midst of an epic implosion. They would end the month of July on a four-game losing streak, and wouldn't win again until August 8th. That massive losing streak brought the Indians from the brink of contention (50-49, 3.5 GB) to the brink of a total team makeover.
The Indians came back from the road trip with a 53-48 record, and in a very similar position to the 2012 team (3.5 GB). But instead of starting a losing streak to end the month, the Indians have gone the other way, and after tonight's borderline miraculous win would make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Starting pitching was the reason why the 2012 club fell off the face of the earth after the All-Star break, and starting pitching is the reason why this year's club is poised for a pennant race. Corey Kluber took the ball tonight, and with the exception of one inning was outstanding. He started the game with five scoreless frames, using a steady diet of fastballs and sliders. And not only was he effective, he was efficient, getting through the five innings having just thrown 50 pitches. The White Sox caught on to his pattern in the sixth, though, and hammered out three quick runs on four hits, which tied the game. At that time it seemed as though Kluber was destined for an early exit, but after Mickey Callaway paid him a visit, Kluber started to throw his curve, and after getting out of the sixth, cruised through the seventh and eighth innings.
The Indians had methodically built a 3-0 run lead, tallying single runs in the first, fourth and fifth. In each of the innings they had an opportunity to score more, but never could. Those missed opportunities almost cost them the game. In the first inning the Indians scored a run on a fielder's choice, but could have tacked at least one more run on after Nick Swisher got to third with one out after a bad throw on a rundown went out of play. Michael Brantley doubled home a run in the fourth, but he was left on base after both Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs made outs. And in the fifth, Carlos Santana's double drove a run and pushed a runner to third, but Mike Aviles popped weakly to second base.
After the White Sox tied the game in the sixth, the score didn't change until the ninth inning. Kluber came out because he had only thrown ~85 pitches, and had an excellent chance of pitching a complete game if the Indians won the game in the ninth. And after retiring the first two batters of the inning quickly, it looked like he'd finish nine at the very least, but a Conor Gillaspie single caused Terry Francona to go to the bullpen. In came Cody Allen, who just had to retire one batter to give the Indians an opportunity to walk off a winner in the bottom of the inning. Allen got ahead of Dayan Viciedo with two high-90s fastballs, then threw a high fastball out of the zone. Then he tried to fool Viciedo with his spike curve, but Viciedo was waiting for it, and smacked it into the outfield. That placed runners at first and third. Then Allen couldn't find the strike zone, first walking Gordon Beckham, then falling behind pinch-hitter 3-0. Allen got the count full, and threw a pretty decent fastball for the payoff pitch, but Keppininger hit a liner past Jason Kipnis to drive home two runs and give the White Sox their first lead of the game.
Finally Chicago had a chance to use their closer after not being able to get to him on Monday or Tuesday. Addison Reed is one of the better young closers in the game, but tonight he was just wild enough to let the Indians back into the game. The inning started with Michael Brantley's line-drive double down the right field line, which proved to be the only legitimate hit of the inning. Jason Giambi pinch-hit for Mark Reynolds, and fell behind 1-2 before Reed hit him with a pitch. That placed the tying run on base with Drew Stubbs coming up. You figured that Stubbs would be bunting here even though the Indians were down two, because Drew is fast enough to beat out even a decently-fielded ball. And that's what he did. After laying down a bunt his foot and the ball reached the base at the same time, and the bases were now loaded. Michael Bourn, after a tremendous at-bat, hit a sacrifice fly to make the score 5-4, and after Nick Swisher was walked, Jason Kipnis hit a sac fly of his own. The score was tied. Somehow the Indians had gotten themselves back into this game.
After Chris Perez had an easy top of the tenth, Carlos Santana led off the bottom of the inning. Santana took a 3-1 pitched that he thought was out of the strike zone, and had almost tossed his bat towards the dugout when the pitch was called a strike. No matter, though, for he hammered the payoff pitch into the right field seats to complete a remarkable game.
I don't want to try to explain why the Indians won this game, because that would just detract from the enjoyment of it. You've probably several misgivings in your mind about the top of the ninth, but pay them no heed. Sometimes you just have to let the baseball be the baseball.
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