Covering the Bases: Game 159
Some notes and quotes from Friday’s 7-2 win over the Royals
FIRST: The first pitch that Yordano Ventura threw to Francisco Lindor in the fifth inning on Friday night tailed low and inside, striking the Indians’ shortstop on the front leg.
Lindor smiled, because that’s what he always does, but he did so while standing in the face of catcher Drew Butera. This was a come-on-man, smile. Home-plate umpire Greg Gibson quickly got between Lindor and Butera, just to make sure nothing escalated. Nothing did, and Lindor took his base.
Did Lindor think Ventura hit him on purpose?
“Next question,” said the shortstop.
If there was intent, it probably stemmed from what happened in the third inning. That is when Lindor pulled a pitch from Ventura off the right-field wall for a double, ending a drought during which the Tribe’s shortstop had no hits in 27 at-bats. He hadn’t collected a hit since a first-inning single on Sept. 16. So, when he doubled off Ventura, Lindor smiled, because that’s what he always does, and thrust his arms in the air in celebration.
This wasn’t showboating by Lindor. This was relief. And, when Lindor pulled into second base and looked to the dugout, he saw his teammates on the top step, celebrating with him. Jesus Aguilar grabbed the railing and shouted. Trevor Bauer was grinning wide and raising his arms, too. There were cheers and clapping and Lindor reacted like a guy who, well, hadn’t had a hit since Sept. 16.
“It felt good. It felt good,” Lindor said. “It felt even better when I looked to the dugout and everybody had their hands up. It was pretty good. It was pretty awesome. That’s why I love this team. They were behind me the whole entire time.”
Lindor said the slump was wearing on him.
“To be honest, yeah, I thought about it,” he said. “There were times I was like, ‘Wow, am I going to get a hit?’ But, the team was always supportive. Nobody ever even mentioned it to me. Everybody was just going along like nothing was happening, and we kept on winning, and everybody kept on doing their job.
“I felt like I was having good at-bats, and that helped me a lot. The coaches, nobody really mentioned it. That helped me a lot, so I just continued to do the same thing.”
Did Ventura take the celebration the wrong way?
“Next question,” Lindor repeated.
There was no retaliation on the part of the Indians, but Lindor got his revenge. In the seventh inning, he pulled a pitch from Brian Flynn to deep left, where it soared over the wall for a three-run home run. With an exit velocity of 112 mph, it was the hardest ball that Lindor has ever put in play in the Majors.
“That’s good to know,” he said with a smirk.
“That is about the best way possible [to retaliate],” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I think Frankie had a little extra motivation in that at-bat, as he should.”
SECOND: Indians ace Corey Kluber is out at the moment due to an injury, as are right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Cleveland is still fighting for home-field advantage in its American League Division Series matchup, and is currently playing the reigning World Series champions.
That was the landscape for rookie Ryan Merritt — a 16th-round pick by Cleveland in the 2011 MLB Draft — for his first Major League start on Friday.
No pressure, kid.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I was pretty nervous,” Merritt said. “I’ve put in a lot of time and worked really hard to get here. So, this is the biggest step. This is the big leagues. I definitely was nervous.”
Billy Burns greeted Merritt with a broken-bat leadoff single in the first inning. Whit Merrifield then moved him to second with a bunt. The strategy worked, as Eric Hosmer gave K.C. a quick 1-0 lead with an RBI single to right. Kendrys Morales followed suit, pushing a pitch into right for another base hit. Four batters, three hits, one run.
“The first couple hitters hit the ball hard,” Francona said. “But, he didn’t back off.”
Maybe it was rookie jitters out of the chute. Or, maybe it was just rust. Merritt’s only three MLB appearances came on May 30, Aug. 4 and Sept. 12, and now he was asked to start for the Indians with ALDS seeding on the line.
Well, as Francona said, Merritt didn’t back away from the challenge. Over the years, that’s been Merritt’s M.O. His competitiveness is often the first attribute mentioned by front-office members. Against the Royals, that held true. The little lefty from Celina, Texas, didn’t allow anything following Morales’ hit.
The Royals went 0-for-13 the rest of the way off the 24-year-old, strike-pumping southpaw.
“He did a heck of a job,” Indians closer Cody Allen said. “He went out there, competed and he threw strikes. He got a lot of ground balls. It never seemed like he lost his poise or anything. He just controlled the situation. He did a heck of a job for us.”
Merritt logged 62 pitches in five innings, strikeout out four and walking none. That gave Cleveland’s offense time to go to work, and set things up nicely for Francona to get his main relievers some work. After the five-inning outing, Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Allen all made appearances.
“Today worked out so well. We were really fortunate,” Francona said. “Merritt pitched so well that it set it up for the rest of the game. And we were going to pitch those guys anyway, but to let them pitch with a lead was good. Nobody got over-extended and we used them all, the last four, which was good.”
And Merritt picked up his first career win as a result.
“It’s still kind of surreal,” he said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. But, I’m sure later tonight or tomorrow it’ll sink in.”
THIRD: After the last out of a win, the catcher typically meets the pitcher between the mound and the plate for a handshake. Friday was no exception, but the postgame ritual carried a little more weight this time.
Popping out of the crouch was Yan Gomes, who logged his first game action since July 17. The Indians made a surprising move prior to Friday’s game, activating the catcher from the 60-day DL after he sustained a non-displaced fracture in his throwing hand. Gomes defied the odds, putting in work behind the scenes that convinced Cleveland to take him off the shelf.
Gomes entered the game in the seventh and caught the rest of the game. At the end, Allen got to shake his hand and give him a quick hug.
“It’s incredible, what he’s been able to do,” Allen said. “He’s had some tough, tough breaks this year. Some unfortunate things happened to him. For him to just continue to grind and grind and grind, trying to figure out a way to help this team, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Asked how good it was to see Gomes behind the plate again, Allen smiled.
“It’s awesome,” said the closer. “The guys we’ve had with him gone have done a tremendous job for us, but Yan’s been the guy here for a few years now. The first thing I said to him after the game was, ‘Hey, man. It’s good to see you.’ It was pretty cool.”
Francona was thrilled to have a situation that allowed him to put Gomes in the game.
“I still am amazed that he’s doing this,” said the manager. “Then, you watch him, he looked great. And we’re not going to let him hit yet. He’s dying to, but I think we’ve got to let this thing play itself out a little bit more. But, knowing that he can be back there defensively is a lift in itself.”
HOME: Merritt’s outing, Lindor’s big day, solid relief work and a near cycle for Carlos Santana (he went 3-for-5 with a single, double and triple in the win) helped the Indians take care of their end of things for the AL postseason picture.
Out of Cleveland’s hands was the fact that the Rangers won, securing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. The Indians are now fighting the Red Sox for the right to open their AL Division Series at home.
The Indians are now 92-67, putting them a half-game behind Boston (93-67). If Boston goes 0-2 and Cleveland goes 2-0 over the next two days, the Indians will open at home. If Boston goes 1-1 and the Indians go 2-0, or Boston goes 0-2 and the Indians go 1-1, Cleveland will have a half-game lead through Sunday. That would make Monday’s makeup game with Detroit necessary for the Indians. A win on Monday would then secure home-field in the first round for the Tribe. If the Indians end Sunday a half-game back of Boston, Monday doesn’t matter for Cleveland, because the Red Sox own the tiebreaker.
Got it? Of course, even if the Indians-Red Sox seeding is settled through Sunday, Monday’s game will be played if it impacts the AL Wild Card race for the Tigers in any way. As of this writing, Baltimore owns the top Wild Card spot and Toronto has the second seed, with Detroit a half-game behind, and Seattle one game back.
Fasten your seat belts.
Stay tuned for more…