Thanks to a strong pitching performance by starter Corey Kluber (6.2 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 9 K, 0 BB) and a five-run seventh inning featuring home runs from Michael Brantley and Mike Aviles, the Indians beat the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday, 6-3.
The Rays got their share of hits off Kluber, including two doubles, but they weren’t able to string enough of them together to do any serious damage. Kluber’s rockiest inning came in the fifth, when two singles and David DeJesus’ second double increased Tampa Bay’s lead to 2-0, with runners on second and third. If the next batter, Ben Zobrist, had gotten a hit, the Rays would have been up 4-0. But Kluber got Zobrist to hit a routine grounder to second base to end the inning.
In the sixth inning, Asdrubal Cabrera, whose batting ability I scorned the last time I posted here, homered to make the score 2-1. In the seventh inning, the Tribe bats really came alive. Brantley led off with a homer to tie the score. Later in the inning, a Carlos Santana walk, followed by singles from Cabrera and Yan Gomes, gave the Indians a 3-2 lead. With Cabrera and Gomes on base, Goon Squad member Mike Aviles homered to left, making the score 6-2.
I like it when the Indians can take a four-run lead into the ninth inning. I have come to think of such games as being Axford-proof, meaning that as it is a non-save situation, there is little or no chance of Indians closer John Axford coming out to pitch in the ninth. Oh, how naive I was to think so! Because lo, Terry Francona did in fact bring Axford out to pitch the ninth. Ax started out great, getting each of the first two Rays out on called third strikes.
But then Bad Things began to happen. Logan Forsythe doubled, and Ryan Hanigan walked on four straight pitches. Axford went 3-0, then 3-1, on the next hitter, DeJesus, who hit Axford’s fifth pitch for his third double of the game, scoring Forsythe and advancing Hanigan to third, and bringing the tying run to the plate in the presence of Zobrist. Axford greeted him with three straight balls, then got the count to 3-2. Zobrist fouled off a few before taking ball four, thus loading the bases and making Kluber, watching the game from the dugout, very nervous. Axford had already cost Kluber two victories, and it looked like he was on the way to making it three.
But Francona had finally seen enough, and took Axford out in favor of Cody Allen. With a full count, and after fouling off a couple of pitches to add to the drama, James Loney finally hit a fly ball to right for the 27th out.
What to do about Axford? As Hank Hill would say, that boy ain’t right. At times he simply can’t find the strike zone, which causes him either to walk batters, or to throw a pitch down the middle of the plate, where it can be hit for extra bases. And you can’t have that, not if you want to be a closer. I applaud Francona’s decision to use him as he did, figuring that Ax would benefit from working in a low-stress situation. But it nearly backfired, and Francona, rightly, didn’t trust Ax to get that last out. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t bring Axford on in a save situation for a while.
Since I bad-mouthed Cabrera the other day, he’s been on somewhat of a tear, going 9 for his last 11 at-bats, including three doubles and two home runs. I can’t take any credit for this reversal of fortune, but I’m thinking about doing so anyway.
The two teams face off again today at 7:10 PM. Zach McAllister gets the start for the Indians, and Erik Bedard will pitch for the Rays.