By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
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ATLANTA: In the midst of a wild-card race, the Indians have been forced to rely on pitching while their search for a powerhouse offense has been filed in the wait-till-next-year cabinet.
On Tuesday in the first of a crucial nine-game stretch, it was their bats that predictably let them down against the Atlanta Braves. On Wednesday, it was unpredictably their base running.
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was caught stealing in the eighth inning just as the Indians had tied the game and were threatening to take the lead. The Braves prevailed 3-2 on Chris Johnson’s walk-off single to left with two outs in the ninth. Johnson’s hit scored Jordan Schafer from second as the Braves took the first two of the three-game interleague series at Turner Field.
The Indians trail the Detroit Tigers by 5½ games in the American League Central and trail the Oakland A’s by four games for the second wild card.
Cabrera may wear the goat’s horns for more than 24 hours, at least from the fans. Some on Twitter compared his gaffe to those of former star slugger Manny Ramirez.
For the eighth looked to be the Indians’ breakthrough inning.
Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis started it with singles, with Kipnis’ hit going off second baseman Dan Uggla’s glove. After Carlos Santana fouled out, Mike Aviles came through with a sacrifice fly to right field that scored Swisher to tie the game and sent Kipnis to third.
Cabrera followed with a walk, but with Michael Brantley at the plate, Cabrera was caught stealing.
“[I thought] Michael hit a foul ball, I thought it was straight back to the net,” Cabrera said. “I thought the catcher missed the ball, too.
“The third base coach told me, ‘Hey, go back to second base,’ but it was too late. That was really bad for the team. It was my fault.”
Tribe manager Terry Francona said Cabrera didn’t hear what his coaches and teammates were yelling from the dugout.
“It’s kind of a frustrating feeling because he thought it was a foul ball,” Francona said. “There’s nothing you can do. We’re too far away.”
Francona didn’t fault Smith (5-2), who entered with two out in the eighth and took the loss.
Schafer got it started for the Braves with one out in the ninth as he beat out a single to second.
“That’s how it goes. I’m a ground-ball pitcher and they’ve been finding holes lately. That one cost us big,” Smith said.
With Justin Upton batting, Schafer stole second, then Upton flew out to center. Freddie Freeman (batting .308) was intentionally walked, bringing up Johnson (hitting .329).
“Those two guys are two of the best in the NL,” Smith said. “We elected to face Johnson. On the 2-2 pitch I messed up, I thought I would have had him if I could have gotten it in more. I missed, then came with a fastball and he hit it where they weren’t.”
All the Indians’ runs were produced by Aviles, who hit a solo home run to left in the fourth. That gave the Tribe 11 players with eight or more home runs, the most in the major leagues and the most in team history, according to the Indians.
In the post-game clubhouse, Indians starter Justin Masterson wanted to take his share of the blame.
Masterson ran into trouble in the second inning as the Braves put together four hits, three with two out. The big blow was a two-run single to left field by Schafer. That plated Brian McCann, who had singled to left, and Andrelton Simmons, who doubled off the wall in the left field corner.
“Don’t let Joe fool you, I’m the reason we lost the game tonight,” Masterson said. “In the second inning we had two outs and Andrelton Simmons in a good count. I hang a slider to him; he hits a double. They’ve got the pitcher up next; I walk him. Schafer makes a good play on the sinker away. That was the turning point for those two runs to score. That second inning was just not a very good one by me.”
Masterson and Smith feel the urgency of this stretch for the Indians, who visit Detroit this weekend before hosting the wild-card chasing Baltimore Orioles.
“We’re sitting pretty good as long as we start winning some games. Tonight [stinks]. We needed it bad. We could have gotten out of here with two out of three heading to Detroit,” Smith said.
“It’s not like we’re playing terrible baseball, we’re actually playing pretty good. It’s just one little thing,” Masterson said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.