By Stephanie Storm
Beacon Journal sports writer
MINNEAPOLIS: That the Indians wanted Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound to help clinch their American League wild-card berth Sunday said it all.
Jimenez, who has struggled at various points the past two seasons, took his team’s trust and turned it into a perfect backdrop for a wild Tribe celebration at Target Field.
Jimenez limited the Minnesota Twins to a run and struck out a career-high tying 13 on the final day of the regular season to give the Indians a 5-1 win and a playoff berth in the wild-card game Wednesday night at Progressive Field. They will play the winner of a tiebreaker game tonight between the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers.
With a huge hand from Jimenez, the Indians bypassed the need to endure an extra sudden-death game, winning their 10th consecutive game.
“I feel really proud because I never gave up,” Jimenez said. “Even after last year, that tough year, I never put my head down. I always came to the stadium to work hard every day. Hoping that things were going to change, and they changed. Like a dream come true. It was a perfect moment.”
Before the game Indians manager Terry Francona was asked whether he thought about holding Jimenez back for the potential wild-card game. Francona seemed shocked by the suggestion. He said he was so proud of Jimenez turning his season around during the second half that the starting rotation was juggled recently to ensure he would pitch the last game of the season if a win was needed.
It was, and he did.
“He went out there and just pounded the strike zone and changed speeds,” Francona said.
Nick Swisher got the Tribe off to a 2-0 start in the first inning when he hit home run No. 22 into the left-field bleachers after Michael Bourn led off with a single to start the game.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Swisher, sporting swimming goggles with champagne dripping from the brim of his soaked wild-card cap. “You play 162 in 183 days, and to be standing where we are right now, man. I don’t think anybody on the planet thought the Tribe would be where we are right now. No one expected anything of us. No one’s gonna still expect anything of us. We just gotta keep going out there and doing our thing.”
Just like Jimenez did over a solid 6⅔ innings in which he retired 17 consecutive batters after giving up a leadoff single to the first batter he faced, Alex Presley.
Later, with two on and no outs, three Twins errors helped the Indians tack on two runs in the sixth inning to push their advantage to 4-0. Asdrubal Cabrera laid down a textbook sacrifice bunt to move the runners over into scoring position, but a throwing error on pitcher Scott Diamond allowed Carlos Santana to score from third. Two batters later, Yan Gomes hit a sacrifice fly to left field to score Ryan Raburn.
In the seventh, Santana’s RBI double off the right field wall scored Jason Kipnis.
“We kept pushing,” Francona said. “We didn’t get a ton of runs, but we kept pushing so that if a guy makes a mistake, it doesn’t possibly cost us the game.”
After cruising though the first six innings, Jimenez allowed three consecutive singles in the seventh, with Eric Fryer producing their lone run.
“He just held them down and gave us a chance,” Francona said of Jimenez, who had a 1.72 ERA with 94 strikeouts and just one home run allowed over 78⅓ innings since July 28.
After Jimenez’s exit, left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski cleaned up the inning by striking out pinch hitter Chris Colabello. Rzepczynski also faced the first batter of the eighth inning before Justin Masterson came out for the final two outs of the game.
It was fitting that Masterson, the team’s ace who recently missed three weeks with an oblique injury, finished the final game of the regular season.
Although he walked the first batter he faced in his third consecutive relief outing, he rebounded to retire the next two to clinch the win.
From there, the Indians celebration was on. First with hugs and congratulatory pats on the back on the field.
Then spilling into a plastic-covered and soon alcohol-soaked visitor’s locker room joined by Francona and key front office personnel including team owner Paul Dolan, team President Mark Shapiro and General Manager Chris Antonetti.
“I’ve known [Shapiro and Antonetti] for such a long time, I care so much about them and I respect them so much,” Francona said. “So, to go through it together — that was my biggest hope. And to be able to come down here and be in the middle of that [locker room] scrum with those guys, I wanted them to be a big part of it. That was by choice and that was very meaningful.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.