Tribe overcomes scary ninth to stay in control
Indians hang on to Wild Card spot with seventh straight win
By Jordan Bastian / 9/27/2013 1:41 AM ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- The last thing the Indians need right now is controversy. Cleveland closer Chris Perez knows this as much as anyone inside the clubhouse, considering what is at stake and the fact that only three games remain guaranteed on the schedule.
In the aftermath of Thursday's 6-5 victory over the Twins -- a win nearly derailed by a disastrous ninth inning from Perez -- the embattled closer stopped by the office of manager Terry Francona. With one of the American League's two Wild Cards within reach for Cleveland, Francona might be forced to make a change with the closer's role.
Perez let his manager know ahead of time that he understands.
"You never make decisions five minutes after a game," Francona said. "He popped his head in here after the game and was actually really good about it. He was like, 'Hey, I don't want to cost us games, because I'm not locating.' We'll figure it out."
Thursday's appearance for Perez was supposed to be a confidence builder.
The Indians had a 6-1 lead and Perez's most recent appearance was a blown save on Tuesday night against the White Sox. Veteran slugger Jason Giambi bailed out the two-time All-Star closer with a pinch-hit, walk-off home run in the ninth inning, sending Progressive Field into bedlam and delaying the noise surrounding the closer's job.
Minnesota churned out four hits in a six-batter span againt Perez, who surrendered a run-scoring triple to Alex Presley and a two-run home run to Josmil Pinto during the onslaught. Sidearmer Joe Smith entered with two outs and, following some trouble of his own, struck out pinch-hitter Oswaldo Arcia to seal Cleveland's seventh straight win.
"We stayed in the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "and got some excitement there in the ninth."
It was a little too much excitement for the Tribe's liking.
Even so, the Indians remain one-game back of the Rays for the top Wild Card and one game ahead of the Rangers for the second.
That was Francona's focus in the moments immediately following the game.
"The good news is we won, and that's what we set out to do," Francona said. "That got a little closer than we wanted, but we won. Any time you hear music playing, especially this time of year, [it's good]. But that was a little nerve-wracking."
The Indians (89-70) have now won 12 of 14 to improve to 18-6 in September. Cleveland also has posted a 21-win improvement from a season ago, marking the second-largest year-to-year jump in victories in franchise history. Excluding strike-shortened seasons, the club record is a 24-win jump from 1985 to '86.
The problem is that Perez has been creating drama on the field for the better part of two months.
Dating back to Aug. 1, Perez has posted a 7.52 ERA with a .345 opponents' batting average and a 1.87 WHIP over 20 1/3 innings, during which he has surrendered 30 hits, including seven home runs. That is in stark contrast to the first four months, when the closer had a 2.41 ERA to go with a .206 opponents' average across 33 appearances.
Perez, who has not talked on the record with reporters in several months, was absent from the clubhouse after the game.
"It's tough," Indians starter Zach McAllister said. "Any time your closer is struggling a little bit it's tough. He's a great pitcher, and he's been great for his whole career. You don't become All-Stars for no reason. He knows how to pitch and he'll be ready."
Francona insists that Perez, who dealt with right shoulder woes earlier this season, is not hurt.
"No. He's making mistakes," Francona said. "Balls are running over the plate."
The near meltdown in the ninth inning overshadowed what had been a relatively drama-free evening for the Tribe.
McAllister gave Cleveland 4 1/3 shutout innings, bowing out due to minor left side soreness in the fifth inning. Reliever Bryan Shaw entered in his place and needed just one pitch to escape a two-on, one-out jam to keep the Twins off the board. Minnesota was blanked until the seventh inning, when Ryan Doumit delivered an RBI single against Cody Allen.
Against Twins lefty Andrew Albers, Indians catcher Yan Gomes launched a two-run homer to give his team a 3-0 lead. Carlos Santana also chipped in an RBI double, but the Tribe's offense was led by another three-hit showing by left fielder Michael Brantley. In the process, he became the first Cleveland batter since Minnie Minoso (1959) to turn in four straight games with at least three hits and an RBI.
"He's staying on the ball," Francona said of Brantley. "He's staying through the ball. He's using the whole ballpark, and it couldn't come at a better time."
Perez's struggles, however, could not have come at a worse time.
It is a situation reminiscent of Detroit's troubles a year ago. The Tigers ran to the AL Central crown, but entered the postseason with closer Jose Valverde struggling. That forced Detroit to make a change to that critical role while trying to balance a postseason run.
"We're not a team made of one person," Francona said. "We'll figure it out."
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti is in Minnesota with the team, so he will undoubtedly meet with Francona to consider their options for the ninth inning. Cleveland's setup men include Smith and Allen, and its hottest hand is Shaw. There is also an intriguing option in sinkerballer Justin Masterson, who is the team's No. 1 starter but is currently filling a relief role in his comeback from an oblique injury.
With fans still exiting the ballpark, Francona was not about to announce any decisions.
"We need to settle down and kind of think it through," he said. "Five or 10 minutes after the game is not the time."