CLEVELAND: The Indians’ overriding strategy against opposing pitchers has been to force them to have a bad day.
The idea is to swing only at the most hittable pitches and watch the others smack into the catcher’s glove.
But there’s a catch: Pitchers try to make almost every pitch look like it should be whacked over the fence, but at the last millisecond, the ball dives or dips or rises out of the strike zone.
So there are complications with this approach as with any plan to foil a major-league pitcher. Yet even the best pitchers can be vulnerable.
The Tribe took apart former Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez on Sunday, in the first two innings, pasting a five-spot on his chest like a name tag and scoring another run later, as the Mariners fell 6-0 at Progressive Field.
The Indians this year have faced R.A. Dickey, David Price, Phillip Humber, Mark Buehrle, Bartolo Colon, Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander and Hernandez, who have an aggregate 0-7 record and 12.32 ERA against the Tribe. What do these pitchers have in common? All have won a Cy Young Award, thrown a no-hitter or both.
Three other no-hit perpetrators or Cy guys (Jon Lester, Ervin Santana, Jake Peavy) are 3-0 with a 2.14 ERA against the Wily Wahoos. But isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
By the time Hernandez (5-3, 2.07 ERA) had completed the second inning, he had thrown almost 60 pitches, so it was clear the Indians’ plan was working.
“It’s just hard labor,” Mike Aviles said, describing the tactic. “Nobody wants to do hard labor. I know I don’t. I want it to be the easiest way possible.”
But hard labor is what Hernandez was subjected to. That and some over-the-top hustle.
Michael Bourn led off the first inning with a routine single to center, but instead of stopping at first, he raced to second ahead of the throw by Michael Morse.
One out later, Michael Brantley drove in Bourn with a single and advanced to second when Morse overthrew the cutoff man, leading to the inning’s second run that scored on an error by first baseman Justin Smoak.
“If you can’t get excited about that play — that’s about as fun as baseball gets,” manager Terry Francona said. ‘“And Aviles did the same thing. Those plays are fun to watch, they’re intelligent and they’re inspiring.”
Aviles hustled his way to a run when he scored from second on Drew Stubbs’ topped ground ball to the catcher, who threw out the batter at first.
“I didn’t think Felix or the catcher could get back to the plate in time,” Aviles said. “And it would have taken a perfect throw. We had a five-run lead, so why not try it? If we had a one-run lead, I might not have done it.”
The point is, opposing players have to keep an eye on the Indians every second or risk having the Tribe swipe the wrist bands off their arms.
Brantley delivered the biggest hit of the game, a three-run homer in the second.
“I just wanted to make sure I got a quality at-bat,” Brantley said. “I tried to get good pitches early. Also we needed to get to him in the early innings to put a little more pressure on him.”
Brantley’s father, Mickey, was watching.
“My father was in attendance,” Brantley said. “I wanted to tell him he did it right.”
Mickey Brantley is a former major-leaguer.
When Hernandez’s pitch count rose to 107 in five innings, he gave way to a reliever after giving up six runs (five earned), eight hits (five for extra bases) and no walks, striking out eight. In his previous four starts, Hernandez had allowed only four runs in 46 innings.
“We made him work early, and we made him work hard,” Francona said.
As efficiently as the Tribe offense played Hernandez, that’s how thorough was Justin Masterson’s domination of the Mariners. In seven innings, Masterson (7-2, 2.83 ERA) yielded three hits and two walks, while striking out 11. He has not given up a run in 19 innings.
“We knew we were going up against Felix, but there wasn’t one person in this clubhouse that didn’t think we had a chance to win,” Francona said. “That’s a pretty good compliment to Masterson. He came out firing, but he also was pitching.”
As always, Masterson gave credit to his teammates and added: “Hernandez is by far a better pitcher than I am. It was just our day. He’s one of the best and always will be.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.