CLEVELAND: Another close game, another win for the Indians, this time 3-1 over the Rays on Thursday night at Progressive Field.
The Tribe is 23-13 (15-6) at home in games decided by two runs or one run. But why?
“It’s the bullpen; the bullpen has been phenomenal all year,” said Michael Brantley, who hit one of three home runs.
Echoing his teammate, Josh Tomlin added, “When they [relievers] come in, the game is pretty much over.”
And this one was, as Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez shut the door in the eighth and ninth innings.
To manager Manny Acta, a close win carries special significance.
“It’s a sign of a good team,” he said. “Over the years seeing and analyzing a lot of baseball, I notice that when a team wins a lot of close games, it’s a good team. It’s getting pitching and people are catching the ball.
“Every time you lose by one run, you can look back and see how many times you have done something right but didn’t.”
Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner also homered, but the player who steered the ship was Tomlin (5-5, 5.45 ERA).
Tomlin was in charge for seven innings, giving up one run and two hits but no walks. It was reminiscent of the “old” Tomlin of last year and 2010, his rookie season, when he often dominated opposing lineups with pinpoint command, forcing batters to guess which of five pitches (including two fastballs) was on the way to the plate.
“Tomlin did a fantastic job,” Acta said. “He threw 16-of-24 first-pitch strikes and he didn’t walk anyone. That’s the only way you can beat these guys, because they have such good pitching.”
His only problem inning was the fifth inning, and that would not have been an issue had Shin-Soo Choo gotten a better read of a drive off the right-field wall by Will Rhymes. Choo retreated too far too quickly, as the ball struck the wall and rolled halfway back to the infield, allowing Rhymes to end up with a triple. Jose Molina followed with a bouncer to short, allowing Rhymes to score.
Ben Zobrist hit two balls with authority to the right-field track, but Choo snagged both, one on a terrific catch as he backpedaled toward the wall. Jack Hannahan also made a superlative play on a hard-hit ball to third by B.J. Upton, but for the most part, Tomlin did not need extraordinary assistance.
“The only time I worry about Tomlin is when he doesn’t have his command and walks guys,” Acta said.
High-quality starts have been the exception for Tomlin this season. He held the Mariners to one run in eight innings on April 19, limited the White Sox to two runs in 7⅓ innings May 7, stopped the Cardinals on two runs in seven innings June 8 and held the Reds to one run in 6⅔ innings June 19.
His other eight starts have been on the forgettable side. But the fact that five have been standouts probably indicates that Tomlin is capable of better things to come.
“The only difference for me is that my command has not been as good as it was last year,” Tomlin said. “Inconsistency this year is my biggest disappointment. Last year, I felt I could always figure out a way to go deep in the game. But maybe this will be the start of something for me.”
The Indians’ offense came suddenly but almost too rarely. Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson (5-5, 3.41 ERA) gave up a home run to Choo on a 2-and-0 pitch leading off the first inning and yielded another solo with one out in the second inning on a 1-and-0 pitch to Brantley.
But after the Rays cut the lead to one run in the fifth, the Tribe failed to take advantage of a would-be rally in its half of the same inning. Two walks put runners on first and second with one out, but Jason Kipnis grounded out and Hafner struck out, protesting vigorously to umpire Mike Muchlinski.
Just when it looked as if Perez was going to have to make do with a one-run lead in the ninth, Hafner whacked a high drive off Jake McGee with one out in the eighth to give Perez a little breathing room to earn his 24th save of the year.
“Hafner’s home run was huge,” Acta said. “Having a two-run lead is not the same game as having a one-run lead.”
In the eighth, Aaron Cunningham, a seventh-inning defensive replacement for Johnny Damon, hustled after Elliott Johnson’s bloop single that struck the left-field line and threw the runner out at second, saving possible trouble for Pestano.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. 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.