John Axford stood up and looked right into the bright lights of televeision cameras, speaking loud enough for the microphones from the gathered group of media to pick up the audio clearly while explaining what went wrong in the 10th inning of the Indians 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins Monday night.
“It was a fastball that cut back over the plate,” Axford said, referring to the game-winning solo homer to right field that he dished up to Eduardo Escobar on just his second pitch. “My fastballs were cutting - and that was one of them.”
It was the second consecutive game that Axford spoiled an outstanding start by one of the team’s young starters, with Sunday’s blown save and Monday’s blown hold suddenly leaving doubt about his ability to shut the door for the Tribe after leading the American League with nine saves before hitting a rough patch.
In just his last two brief outings, Axford’s ERA has more than doubled – going from 2.31 to 4.85 in a mere span of 1 1/3 innings.
Worse, Sunday’s rough outing leading to a 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox that overshadowed Corey Kluber’s career-high 13-strikeout, eight-inning gem. Monday’s extra-inning loss erased Zach McAllister’s gutsy 6 2/3-inning outing in which he struck out a career-high tying eight batters.
“(They’ve) been unbelievable,” Axford said. “It’s a shame that my performances in the back end the last two days has kind of taken presedience over a great hitting performance by (recently-called up catcher) George (Kottaras) and two outstanding pitching performances by Kluber and then Mac.”
Across the clubhouse, third baseman Carlos Santana sat quietly at his locker, the only offensive player availible to shed light on what Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson did so effectively to limit the Tribe’s batsmen to two hits over seven innings and a total of three hits on the night.
“He’s a pitcher with a good approach,” said Santana, who went 0-for-2 but walked twice in the game. “He had good inside command and a good changeup. Made for a good combination.”
McAllister had a good combination going as well, with five of his strikeouts looking. On a night when his offense couldn’t even give him one run to work with, he sensed it was up to him to pitch the Indians to a win. Not known for revealing his emotions on the mound, but even he couldn’t help but give a little fist pump after getting the Minnesota Twins’ No. 3 and 4 hitters – Trevor Plouffe and Chris Colabello - out on called strikes on fastballs to strand a runner at third in the sixth inning Monday.
“I knew it was a big part of the game right there,” McAllister said. “To have (Sam) Fuld on third base with less than two outs. Maybe there a ground ball or a ball hit in the air can score him with his speed. So, to get both strikeouts right there, it was a big part of the game for me and I had to let some emotion out. I was definitly excited to get those two guys out.”
McAllister may not be as robotic as is Kluber, but he’s usually good at disguising his emotions publically. But on the bone-chilling night with a constant wind blowing in and knocking down every ball save for the most important one hit to the outfield, McAllister and Gibson matched each other zero for zero into the seventh inning.
When he was lifted with two out and two on in the seventh, steady reliever Bryan Shaw quickly quelled the threat by getting a ground out to end inning. Shaw continued to keep the Twins off the board with 1 1/3 hitless innings. Cody Allen worked around a two-out infield single for another scoreless inning that included him striking out two.
But Axford couldn’t continue the shutout theme when Indians manager Terry Francona turned to him for the third consecutive day, hoping to help him erase the pervious night’s bad outing from his memory. Instead, Axford only compounded the situation.
“It’s something that’s happened to me before, I tend to lean maybe a little too much and it will affect my breaking pitches,” Axford said of the issue in his delivery that he and pitching coach Mickey Callaway identified as the culprit that marred Sunday’s game. “So I corrected it tonight. But (Monday) my was still cutting just like it was (Sunday). The fastball just wasn’t staying straight.”
McAllister’s performance marked the third consecutive standout start by an Indians starter. The Tribe’s rotation has combined for a 1.33 ERA on the homestand, including a stingy 0.41 ERA over the last three games - including 27 strikeouts to four walks over 22 innings.
But just as the Indians hurlers have found their groove, the offense went AWOL Monday night, sending the game into extra innings for the first time this season – the last major league team to offer free baseball this season.
“There’s certainly not much wiggle room right now,” Francona said of the team’s slumping offense.
Gibson had a lot to do with that Monday, limiting the Tribe’s batsmen to two hits and three walks over seven innings. But he was matched by McAllister for the most part, as the right-hander escaped the sixth-inning jam. He then teamed with Shaw in the seventh to halt another Twins rally with a man in scoring position. With two outs, Josmil Pinto drove a McAllister pitch down the left field line for a double. Minnesota’s highly-thought of infield prospect Danny Santana came on to pinch run for Pinto, making his major league debut.
Santana almost made it a debut to forget when he strayed halfway between second and third base before sprinting back safe just ahead of shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera’s tag following a laser throw by catcher Yan Gomes. Although the throw appeared to get to the bag before a scrambling Santana, he reached a hand in safely that made him look to have beaten the tag in real time.
Still, with a tight game in which one run looked like it’d likely decide the victor, Francona challenged the play anyway. But after a minute and 46-second delay, the call stood as expected. With McAllister over 100 pitches and responding to the delay with his only walk of the night to Chris Herrmann, he left the mound to an appreciative standing ovation by the 9,037 hearty fans who braved the cold. Not long afterward, the same crowd rained hearty boo’s onto Axford in a forgettable 10th inning that he was professional enough to stand up and take the heat for.