The Indians keep reeling off wins – despite the efforts once again of embattled closer Chris Perez – holding on Thursday to notch their seventh consecutive victory with a 6-5 win over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
Entering the game with a five-run lead in the ninth in his first appearance since blowing Tuesday’s save (only to be rescued by a Jason Giambi walk-off home run) Perez nearly repeated the feat against the Twins.
In just 2/3 of an inning, the former All-Star right-hander dished up four runs on four hits within a 19-pitch sequence to give the host life in a game they had no business making that close.
After giving up a two-run home run to Josmil Pinto that inched Minnesota within a run, Perez was mercifully pulled in favor of set-up man Joe Smith.
Smith continued to walk the tight rope by allowing two more base runners via a bunt up the third base line and a walk before getting pinch hitter Oswaldo Arcia to strike out and notch the elusive save.
“That didn't go as planned,” Indians manager Terry Francona deadpanned minutes afterward. “That got a little closer than we wanted but we won…but that was a little nerve-wracking.”
If it’s not enough that Perez is doing his best impression of a ticking time bomb at the worst possible time for his team, Tampa Bay continues to match the Indians win-for-win.
The Rays also recorded their seventh consecutive victory via their American-League leading 17th shutout of the season with a 4-0 win over the New York Yankees, keeping a tight hold onto their one-game lead of the AL’s first wild card.
Even in escaping with a win, the Indians didn’t pick increase their ground over Texas, either. The Rangers used a dramatic walk-off win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to remain just a game behind the Tribe for the second Wild Card spot.
Before all the late dramatics and with the Indians taking an early lead in the fourth inning Thursday, all the struggling Twins could manage was to spoil the Tribe’s bid to match the Rays with their 17th shutout of the season thanks to Brian Dozier's RBI single in seventh.
That’s because the Indians had a better approach to Twins starter Andrew Andrews than the first time they faced him when the left-hander twirled a two-hit shutout. Thursday, Albers (2-5) held his own for only two innings before the Tribe quickly loaded the bases in the third inning with a two-out rally.
Little surprise that it was Michael Brantley who got the ball rolling with a single to left. Nick Swisher followed with a walk and Jason Kipnis reached on a fielding error on Dozier at second base. But designated hitter Carlos Santana flew out to right field to quell the threat.
But the Tribe quickly made up for the lost opportunity in the previous inning by pelting Albers in the fourth for three runs. Ryan Raburn singled to left field, took second on an Albers balk then scored on Asdrubal Cabrera’s sacrifice bunt and another fielding error, this time on Twins first baseman Chris Colabello.
Yan Gomes gave the Indians some early seperation with a two-run home run off Albers that increased their lead to 3-0. Gomes’ 11th homer came via a 381-foot laser that banged off the far corner of the ribbon scoreboard that borders the second deck in left field.
On Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox, Francona started managing like the Tribe was in the thick of playoffs in the sixth inning. With a pinch runner and a pinch hitter sent to the plate just to sacrifice bunt. The moves worked then - and did again a night later - when Francona started pushing all the right buttons an inning earlier in the fifth.
With Indians starting pitcher Zach McAllister having thrown just 68 pitches in the fifth inning, Francona lifted the right-hander with two on and one out. The move promptly paid off, as reliever Bryan Shaw needed just one pitch to enduce Ryan Doumit into an inning-ending double play to get the Tribe out of the jam to keep the Twins off the board.
McAllister admitted he was surprised when Francona went to the bullpen after just 4 1/3 innings.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “As a starter, you definitely want a chance to get the win out there and try to stay in the game as long as you can. But it's September now, we have a lot of guys in the bullpen and every game's an important one. You can't question anything. I understand why.”
The red-hot Brantley, who with three more hits Thursday became the first Indians player since Minnie Minosa in 1959 to record four consecutive games with at least three hits and one RBI, put an end to Albers’ outing in the sixth with a run-scoring, bases-loaded single that gave the Tribe a 4-0 advantage.
“He's staying on the ball and he's staying through the ball,” Francona said. “He's using the whole ball park, and it couldn't come at a better time.”
With right-handed reliever Ryan Pressly called into service with the bases still loaded, Swisher was called out on strikes to end the inning. But the Tribe came back and tacked on an insurance run in the seventh against Pressly. Kipnis led off with a walk, took second on a wild pitch and scored on Santana’s double to right.
After the Twins broke up the shut out bid in the seventh, Brantley made sure the Indians got the run right back in the eighth with his third hit of the night – which ended up being key given Perez’s all-too familiar ninth-inning melt down.
Over nearly the last two months (dating back to Aug. 1st), Perez owns a 7.52 ERA - having given up 17 runs on 30 hits that includes seven home runs. Over that 20 1/3 inning span, he’s blown three saves and taken two losses as batters are hitting at a .345 clip against him.
Unlike ealier in the season in May when Perez struggled before going on the disbaled list with a shoulder injury, Francona said he’s not hurt.
“No, he's making mistakes,” the veteran skipper said. “Balls are running over the plate…it started kind of innocent, that little flare to left….balls that came right over the plate, they hit pretty good.”
With the possibility of playing in the post season within the Indians grasp for the first time since 2007, Francona sounded like a man who knew a change has to made. Still, he refused to commit either way with emotions still running high.
“In situations like this, you never make decisions five minutes after a game,” he said. “(Perez) popped his head in here after the game and was actually really good about it. He was like, 'Hey, I don't want to cost us games because I'm not locating.' But we'll figure it out.”