Thursday was a great day for baseball and the Cleveland Indians did not disappoint. Thanks in part to some timely hitting and a vintage performance from Justin Masterson, the Indians were able to roll to a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers to complete the three-game series sweep. In the process, they strenghtened their hold on the AL Central lead and now head to Chicago with some serious momentum on their side.
Of course, the sweep of the Tigers didn’t come easily. After the first two nail-biter wins, the Tribe was faced with the difficult task of solving the puzzle that is Justin Verlander, arguably the best pitcher on the planet right now. However, there was significantly less pressure thanks to the previous wins; the Indians had clinched the series victory and at worst they would end the series having added a game to their cushion over the Tigers.
Verlander did what you would expect Verlander to do. After giving up a rare leadoff home run to Shin-Soo Choo, he settled in and pitched a nearly flawless eight innings, giving up six hits while walking one and striking out seven. The only other real blemish came in the fourth: With two out and no one on, Michael Brantley hit an innocent single to right field and then immediately stole second base to put himself into scoring position for the suddenly red-hot Jose Lopez. Lopez, who has now hit safely in 10 straight games, singled to right scoring Brantley all the way from second.
That would be all the run support Masterson would need on the day. The Tigers didn’t go down without a fight, but they were simply no match for the Indians’ ace. Over the course of seven solid innings, Masterson allowed five hits and five walks while striking out four, but never really got into any tight jams. The Tigers’ lone legitimate threats came in the first inning when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hit back-to-back singles with two outs; in the third when Quintin Berry led off with a double and scored; and finally the seventh, when, after the first two batters reached, Manny Acta made the gutsy call to stick with Masterson. He got the Andy Dirks, Cabrera, and Fielder to strike out, fly out, and ground out, respectively, to escape the jam without any damage.
Vinnie Pestano followed Masterson and pitched a perfect eighth inning, though he ended his streak of 23 straight appearances with at least one strikeout. Given the result, I’m sure he’s okay with the streak coming to an end. Meanwhile, Chris Perez came on to another standiong ovation and closed out the game to earn his 16th save of the season.
It was a great game, made even greater by what was at stake. Sweeping the Tigers out of Progressive Field felt like a defining moment for the 2012 season, almost as if it were a proclamation of the Indians saying, “We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. Get used to it.” They showed a tremendous amount of fortitude over the past three days by coming back from behind, battling out of bases loaded jams and defeating the most dominant pitcher in baseball. If you aren’t ready to jump on board this team’s bandwagon after this, I don’t know what else to tell you.
The Good: There is so much good to take out of this game I don’t even know where to begin. Choo’s home run really got things going from the start. It got Progressive Field’s 23,000-plus fans rocking and rolling and gave the Indians an “If it bleeds, we can kill it” moment against Verlander. Sure, they didn’t explode for eight runs, but it gave them some early confidence against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Second has to be Jose Lopez. He’s been on fire filling in for Jack Hannahan. Over the last 10 games he’s batting .353 (12-for-34) with four doubles, a home run, and 8 RBI. Who would have thought Lopez would have such an impact seemingly out of nowhere? Now the question is, what do the Indians do with him once Hannahan is ready to play? Does Manny Acta put him out in left field? Stay tuned.
Lastly, Justin Masterson did exactly what he needed to do today against Justin Verlander. He matched Verlander pitch for pitch and never allowed the Tigers’ offense to get anything going. That’s the type of performance you expect out of your ace and is the type of pitching we’ll need to continue to see out of Masterson moving forward.
Here’s a bonus one, though it has nothing to do with the Indians: Justin Verlander…wow. He’s incredible. In the eighth inning, knowing he needed to keep it to a one-run game, Verlander took the mound and struck out the side in order. Not only that, but he did it while throwing between 100-102 mph. In the eighth inning. He was unhittable in that sequence. I actually felt bad for Asdrubal Cabrera when Verlander threw a 102 mph fastball to start the at-bat, followed it up with an 82 mph curve, and then finished him off with another 100 mph heater.
The Bad: Not much. The Indians got the sweep and beat Justin Verlander in the process. Sure, you could make a case that all of the strikeouts and 0-fors were bad, but again, they were facing Justin Verlander. We can let them slide.
The Huh?: In the seventh inning with the Tigers threatening to score, Manny Acta came out to the mound. Everyone assumed Masterson was coming out of the game, because that’s what happens when the manager goes out to the mound. Even Joe Smith figured Masterson was coming out so he started making his way onto the field. The only problem was Acta never signaled for him and decided to leave Masterson in the game. As a result, a rather hilarious sequence as Smith ran several feet out of the bullpen and then scurried back off the field just as fast while everyone stood on the mound looking confused.
Interesting Tidbit: Choo’s home run—an absolute bomb that landed in the second deck of right field—went an estimated 444 feet. It is was the third longest home run Verlander has given up since 2008.