Covering the Bases: Game 97

Final:

Indians 3, Tigers 2

FIRST: If this was Aaron Cunningham’s final game with the Indians, he went out in style.

Prior to Tuesday’s game against Detroit, Cleveland swung a trade with Boston to acquire super sub Brent Lillibridge. He can play four infield spots, but Tribe skipper Manny Acta said Lillibridge’s main role will be a late-inning defensive replacement for the team’s left fielders.

That sounds an awful lot like Cunningham’s current job.

The Tribe will make a roster move on Wednesday.

“There is concern,” Cunningham told MLB.com’s Justin Albers. “We kind of do the same job. He’s a good player that hasn’t gotten many at-bats himself. He’s done a good job with what he has.

“There’s a little concern, but I can’t worry about it. We’ll just wait and see.”

The stars aligned just so for Cunningham to play an integral role in Tuesday’s victory. With one out in the seventh, and the game caught in a 2-2 tie, Travis Hafner sent a pitch from Detroit righty Doug Fister off the wall in left-center field for (wait for it) his second triple of the season.

Acta promptly pulled Hafner in favor of a pinch runner, backup catcher Lou Marson. When Cunningham, who entered as a defensive replacement a half-inning earlier, fell into a 1-1 count, the Indians decided the time had come to take a risk.

“He’s a good bunter,” Acta said of Cunningham. “He’s shown that throughout the year. Fister could be very tough on right-handed hitters. After that first swing that he took on a 1-0 count, we decided it was a good time to take a chance.”

The plan worked to perfection. Cunningham squared around and Marson sprinted home from third base. The baseball was chopped in front of the plate, where Fister ran it down. But the pitcher’s relay to home was wild, allowing Marson to score and Cunningham to reach second on the play.

“I thought he might wait to see if he got the count in his favor,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “It was a great call by Manny. He didn’t wait, he got it down and they got the run in.”

Cunningham was thrilled to be a part of it.

“I’d do anything for this team,” he said. “If they want me to rub [baseballs] down or whatever, I’ll do it. To be able to do something, to come in late in the game like that, and be able contribute, it’s unbelievable.”

SECOND: Ubaldo Jimenez didn’t get the win (more on that in the next section), but he gave the Indians the kind of outing they had in mind when they traded for him last summer.

Six shutout innings with seven hits scattered, four strikeouts and two walks.

‘We were envisioning a guy like that,” Acta said.

Leyland called it the best outing he’s seen from Jimenez (against Detroit) since the pitcher joined the Indians. Jimenez’s fastball was sharp, but his splitter was “the equalizer,” as Acta phrased it.

That’s how Jimenez managed to escape a handful of jams. And there were plenty, considering the leadoff man reached in five of his six frames. Given the circumstances, Jimenez agreed that one could argue this was his best start since donning a Cleveland uniform.

“They just gave me a fight,” Jimenez said. “They have a really good lineup. Especially the leadoff guy of every inning, they found a way to get on base. It was really tough, but I was able to execute my pitches and get ground balls.”

THIRD: Jimenez did not get the win, because sidearmer Joe Smith allowed a game-tying home run to slugger Miguel Cabrera in the seventh inning. Smith was more frustrated with the two-out walk he issued to Quintin Berry before the blast.

“Where I screwed up was walking Quintin Berry,” Smith said. “I got him 0-2 and he fouled a good pitch off and I threw him four straight balls. That’s where you get in trouble. Miguel Cabrera is going to get his homers. He’s going to get his RBIs. He’s going to get his hits.

“But you’ve got two outs and nobody on base, and you walk a guy to get to him? It doesn’t matter what the track record is against him, and it doesn’t matter who you are. He’s arguably the greatest hitter in the game right now.”

No harm done in the end. The turn of events in the bottom of the seventh — Hafner’s triple and Cunningham’s successful squeeze bunt — rendered Cabrera’s home run moot, and actually sent Smith to the win.

That was quite a swing of emotions for the reliever.

“It’s like my truck is sitting on top of me,” Smith said. “And then all of a sudden somebody lifted it off.”

HOME: It has been said in recent weeks that the Indians might only go as far as Carlos Santana’s bat takes them. Well, the catcher has started to hit much better of late. Santana has reached base safely via hit or walk in all 18 of his games in July.

Over that span, Santana has hit .309 (17-for-55) with two home runs, six doubles, eight RBIs and 16 walks. He’s posted a .479 on-base percentage along the way. Cleveland can only hope this is the start of a two-month tear for their switch-hitting backstop.

On deck:

Tigers (52-45) at Indians (49-48)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

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