The Indians relied on their best defense of the year Wednesday to aid their first walk-off win of the season, a rousing 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
In the top of the ninth inning, third baseman Carlos Santana caught Sam Fuld’s high pop-up that had drifted into the front row of the stands – contending with a fan in his face using his cap to try to catch the ball – halting the Twins two-on, two-out rally against embattled Tribe closer John Axford.
But the Indians offense had a little two-out magic of its own in the bottom of the inning.
Asdrubal Cabrera led off with a double against Twins reliever Casey Fien - a ball that likely would have been caught by a regular left fielder. However, with infielder Eduardo Escobar starting in the outfield for the first time, he misplayed Cabrera’s shot, whiffing entirely as he lunged for sideways for the ball as it sailed past him.
Lonnie Chisenhall followed with a sacrifice bunt to advance Cabrera to second. With the Tribe down to its last out after Yan Gomes grounded out, Mike Aviles sent a sharp single up the middle for the game winner before being mobbed by his teammates as he reached first base.
“My first swing I was trying to hit it about 800 feet, which was kind of dumb because that’s not something I can do,” Aviles said. “After that swing I told myself to calm down. All we needed was a base hit and a bloop would work. Go mentally on a two-strike approach of stay-up-the-middle and see what happens. And I got a pitch I could hit up the middle.”
Earlier in the game, the Indians starting rotation continued its trend of quality outings when Danny Salazar – also aided by some fine defense behind him - limited the Twins to three runs in the third game of this four-game series at Progressive Field.
“Santana was doing magic with his glove,” said Salazar, which is not only a poetic observation, but also an ironic one, given that the Indians defense had been dreadful so far this season.
In a rarity, however, the usually steady bullpen couldn’t do its job of stranding inherited runners. Reliever Bryan Shaw allowed two of Salazar’s runners to score in the seventh on two hits in his 2/3 of an inning, tying the game 3-3.
But the team’s much-maligned defense came to the its pitching staff’s aid once again. Aviles made what might have been the biggest defensive play of the game – a diving, back-handed stab off the bat of Trevor Plouffe to halt the Twins rally and get Shaw out of the jam.
“It’s hard to chart, but I think we took maybe five or six hits away,” Francona said. “Defensively, we did a lot of good things.”
Right-hander Cody Allen then did all the right things in relief of Shaw, settling down the Twins by retiring the side in order in the eighth inning – including strikeouts to set up the memorable events of the ninth inning.
“That was nice,”Francona said, “we needed that (win). We hung in there. They came back and tied it, but we didn’t let them take the lead. And we’re playing at home. When you get to hit last, you always feel like you have a chance.”
With the game still knotted at three runs apiece, Axford emerged from the centerfield bullpen in a non-save situation, looking to shrug off his last two rough outings that had to a pair of losses after a blown save followed by a blown hold. After getting the first two outs, Axford gave up a double by Twins rookie shortstop Danny Santana, then issued a walk to Brian Dozier before Santana’s web gem bailed him out of the jam.
“I tired to follow the ball,” Santana said. “I (had) a chance. It happened when I caught it.”
Salazar opened the game with 6 1/3 solid innings, striking out seven and issuing one walk, while benefiting from two outstanding defensive plays by Santana and a highlight-reel leaping grab atop the centerfield wall by Njyer Morgan. Morgan’s one-handed grab in the third inning robbed Josmil Pinto of extra bases.
“You know, my boy T-Plush was about to come back out (from) vacation on that one," Morgan joked about his alter ego Tony Plush, whom he's kept under wraps for the most part this season. "But you know it was just a great play and I just trying to back up (Salazar), who was throwing a heck of a game.”
However, with two outs, Salazar walked nine-hole hitter Pedro Florimon (batting .109), and it came back to haunt him. Florimon promptly stole second and then advanced to third on Yan Gomes’ throwing error – the ninth of the season on the Tribe’s catcher. Back to the top of the order, Dozier drove in Florimon with a double over the head of Brantley in left center for the first run of the game.
But the Indians loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning for Brantley, whose double drove in their first two runs to give the Indians a 2-1 lead. The Twins challenged whether Brantley was safe at the close play at second base. But after a two-minute delay, the call was upheld. In the fifth, Gomes helped make up for his earlier miscue with a leadoff home run to pad the Tribe’s lead to two runs, 3-1.