The Indians took advantage of their best defense of the year Wednesday to aid their first walk-off win on the young season, resulting in a 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins.
Third baseman Carlos Santana caught a high pop-up in the front row of the stands – with a fan in his face using his cap to try to catch the ball - in the top of the ninth inning to halt the Twins two-on, two-out rally against embattled Tribe closer John Axford.
But the Indians had a little more two-out magic in them in the bottom of the inning. Asdrubal Cabrera led off with a double off Twins reliever Casey Fien, a ball that would have been caught by a regular left fielder. However, with Eduardo Escobar playing in the outfield for the first time, he misplayed Cabrera’s shot, whiffing entirely as he lunged for it sideways.
Lonnie Chisenhall followed with a textbook 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.
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.
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 just 2/3 of an inning, tying the game 3-3.
But the team’s much-maligned defense came to the aid, as 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. Right-hander Cody Allen then came on after Shaw and settled down the Twins bats with a 1-2-3 eighth inning that included two strikeouts, setting up the memorable events of the ninth inning.
With the game still knotted at three runs apiece, Axford trotted out to the mound from the centerfield bullpen in a non-save situation, looking to shrug off his last two rough outings that led to losses via a blown save and blown hold. After getting the first two outs, Axford allowed 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.
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.
However, with two outs, Salazar committed the cardinal sin of walking 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 – already 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.