May 21, 2014: Indians 11, Tigers 10 (13 Innings)
It's a little unfair to label this game the "walk-off balk" game because so much else happened in this 5 hour and 16 minute war of attrition, but way the game ended was rather fitting, so let's go with "The Game So Crazy that a Walk-Off Balk was the Perfect Ending."
The setting was Progressive Field, a day game at which the club held its annual Weather Education Day for local kids. The opponent: the Detroit Tigers, last year's AL Central champion and off to a great start. The Indians came into the game having won the first two games of the series but still 7.5 games behind Detroit in the division standings.
The pitching matchup: Zach McAllister versus Max Scherzer. McAllister was coming off an historically awful game against the Oakland A's in which he gave up eight earned runs in the second inning. Scherzer was coming off six shutout innings against the Red Sox. Needless to say, it was not seen a favorable pitching matchup at the time or in retrospect. Max Scherzer will become one of the highest-paid pitchers in the next couple weeks, while Zach McAllister is not guaranteed a spot in next year's rotation.
On this day, though, it was an even matchup: both starters would struggle. McAllister only lasted 2+ innings, allowing 5 runs (4 earned) on 5 hits, 2 of which were home runs. And while Scherzer would last 7 innings, he'd have his worst start of the season to that point , allowing 7 runs on 12 hits. Although the clubs would be tied after seven, the Tigers had the decided advantage because they had only use one pitcher (Scherzer) to that point, while the Indians had to use four pitchers (McAllister, Atchison, Scrabble, Carrasco). One advantage that the Indians had was that after the sixth inning they no longer had to worry about Miguel Cabrera, for he was ejected after disputing a check-swing call that video replay showed as correct. Given Cabrera's proclivity for late-inning damage against the Indians, that ejection might have been the deciding factor.
Cody Allen was not going to pitch today because he had pitched the previous 3 games, so Francona sent John Axford out to pitch the eighth, saving Bryan Shaw for the ninth or perhaps extra innings. Axford, who had started the season as closer but had lost that job, gave up a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler and walked Don Kelly. Victor Martinez then hit a grounder to second baseman Mike Aviles, who got greedy and tried to start a double play, but his throw to second tailed into the runner and got past shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Kinsler scored on the play, and Kelly would score after J.D. Martinez singled. That would be it for Axford; Josh Outman, who normally was a matchup left-hander, got the Indians out of the mess by retiring the next three Tigers, two of them right-handers.
But it looked like the damage was done. Because Scherzer had gone seven innings, the Tigers were set up well to finish the game. Setup man Joba Chamberlain pitched a scoreless eighth inning, so closer Joe Nathan came into the game in the ninth with a 9-7 lead. But the Indians weren't done yet. With one out in the ninth, Michael Brantley singled (his third of four hits on the day). Then David Murphy tied things up.
And so the game headed to extra innings. Which was great, but now the Indians were starting to run out of pitchers. Through nine innings, Terry Francona had used seven pitchers, and Cody Allen was not available because he'd pitched the previous three days. Kyle Crockett, who was pitching in just his three major-league game, pitched the top of the ninth and two outs into the tenth. Bryan Shaw, who Francona didn't want to have to use, finished the tenth. It looked like the Indians would win the game in the bottom of the inning, a double play on a potential sacrifice fly ended the threat and the game went into the eleventh inning.
With nobody left in the bullpen, Francona turned to Josh Tomlin, who at the time was in the starting rotation. He pitched a scoreless 11th and 12th, but with two outs in the 13th, Alex Avila put the Tigers ahead with a solo homer. But the Indians had yet another comeback in them. Mike Aviles singled to start the bottom of the inning, and later scored the tying run on another Michael Brantley single. After a groundout sent runners to second and third with two outs, Al Alburquerque came into the game, then intentionally walked Yan Gomes in order to pitch to former Tiger Ryan Raburn. At the time I didn't understand why the Tigers didn't just have Phil Coke do the intentional walk, but you couldn't argue with the overall strategy of the move. But all that strategy was upended when Alburquerque flinched while in the set position prior to make a 1-0 pitch to Raburn. A balk was called, which forced home the winning run. It was a fitting cap to a wild and wacky game.