It’s early August. It’s not a must-win situation, technically speaking, not with 50 games left in the season.
But for the Cleveland Indians, it sure felt like one.
Now, the players aren’t trained to think like that. In baseball, players are simultaneously taught to take ‘em one game at a time, but to understand that one game doesn’t mean that much in the big picture. That’s how you shake off last night’s defeat, why there is no momentum in baseball, why there isn’t necessarily a sense of desperation until the calendar hits September.
The reality, of course, is different. The Indians entered Tuesday’s game against Detroit trailing the Tigers by four games. Justin Verlander starts in the series finale on Thursday. They Indians know they need to start making up ground on Detroit … now.
Psychologically, the Indians entered the game with a 54-54 record. A loss would knock them under .500 for the first time since they opened the season with two defeats.
Must win? Maybe not. But as Nuke LaLoosh might say, the Indians needed to play this game with fear and ignorance -- the fear of losing but with ignorance about the pressure of the game’s importance.
The good news for Cleveland: It had its ace going in Justin Masterson, who entered with a 1.92 ERA over his past eight starts.
The bad news for Cleveland: A two-hour rain delay meant Masterson and Detroit starter Doug Fister both left after two innings, with the game tied at 2-2.
The game would become a battle of the bullpens. I would say tense, except it wasn’t tense. It was soft grounder followed by routine fly ball followed by strikeout. From the third through the 13th innings, the teams combined for only four baserunners to reach second base. Cleveland had the best opportunity, when Jason Donald pinch-hit for Lonnie Chisenhall leading off the bottom of the eighth and just missed a home run, doubling high off the wall in center field. A groundout moved him to third base and Manny Acta called for the suicide squeeze with Michael Brantley batting. Daniel Schlereth threw a big swooping curve way off the plate. Brantley missed (it was a very tough pitch to bunt) and Donald was out. Calling for a straight squeeze against a pitcher averaging 6.3 walks per innings wasn’t the wisest decision Acta has made in 2011.
Finally, in the 14th, Cleveland threatened again. David Pauley, who had pitched just 1 1/3 innings since July 25, walked Asdrubal Cabrera with one out and Travis Hafner’s hot smash bounced off the glove of Carlos Guillen. It was ruled a hit, but Guillen has to make that play. Jim Leyland questionably elected to walk Carlos Santana to pitch to Kosuke Fukudome ("I'm never a fan of the IBB to load the bases"); Pauley hit Fukudome on a 1-2 pitch. As the New York Times' Tyler Kepner tweeted, the Indians win on the Homer Simpson Special. The few diehards left in the stands are rewarded with a victory and that sense of relief that rises in the blood this time of year of avoiding the pain of defeat.
And the Indians are back over .500. They won a game in which they were held scoreless for 12 innings. They’re three games behind the Tigers and Ubaldo Jimenez starts Wednesday night. Maybe this is the game that sends Cleveland on a winning streak. Maybe Indians fans will someday recall that heroic effort of veteran reliever Chad Durbin, who entered with a 6.28 ERA and pitched three scoreless innings in that marathon game. Or that diving catch in the 14th inning by Jason Kipnis or the will of Kosuke Fukudome to coax the ball off his forearm.
A pennant race. One game at a time. There’s nothing better in sports.
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