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August 30, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Cleveland Indians @ Toronto Blue Jays, 8/28/05

by Jonah Keri

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We've arrived at the time of year where the Prospectus Game of the Week starts to enter deja vu land. With 28 of the 30 teams covered, we're going to focus on games with playoff implications down the stretch. (With the exception of Sunday Sept. 11--tune in to see the final two teams we haven't yet covered, the Rockies and Diamondbacks, do battle, in hot NL West action!) Getting a second look at a team, a lineup, or even a single player can be illuminating, especially when seen several months after first exposure.

When we last left the Indians seven weeks ago, for instance, the team looked like a fringe playoff contender, buoyed by a solid core of offensive talent, above-average starting pitching, and players such as Aaron Boone and Casey Blake who by dint of sheer regression to the mean figured to add to the team's second-half success. Yet that day's column focused more on the demise of Randy Johnson as a top-flight pitcher than on a possible Cleveland playoff run.

Not this time. A win in this game against the fading Blue Jays would give them a 5-2 road trip, keeping them within one game of the wild-card lead. With perhaps the most balanced team among the wild-card contenders (the Yankees, Twins, and the loser of the A's/Angels AL West battle), they've served notice--the Indians are for real.


CF Grady Sizemore
LF Coco Crisp
SS Jhonny Peralta
DH Travis Hafner
C  Victor Martinez
2B Ron Belliard
1B Ben Broussard
3B Aaron Boone
RF Casey Blake

Victor Martinez, who despite a far superior pedigree joined Boone and Blake in Mendoza Land in the first few weeks of the season, has come roaring back. Heading into Sunday's game he was hitting .600 (15 for 25) on the road trip. For the year Martinez has bumped his EqA up five points (.291 vs. .286) from his excellent 2004 campaign, no mean feat for someone hitting .193/.263/.273 as of May 28. With Travis Hafner further asserting himself as one of the best hitters in the game after a breakout 2004 season, Jhonny Peralta looking like Miguel Tejada Jr., and rising talents like Grady Sizemore coming on, this is a dangerous lineup.

It'll have to be a patient lineup, facing Josh Towers. In his last seven starts entering Sunday's game, Towers had put up a 2.34 ERA, tossing 50 innings and yielding four walks; his 1.3 walks per nine innings ranks sixth in the AL. Armed with a darting cut fastball, curve, slider and change-up, the Indians should expect him to be in and around the strike zone all day.

True to form, Towers comes out throwing strikes. The problem with having great control but only lukewarm stuff, though, is that good hitters can spoil the tough pitches and drive the one where you let up. Sizemore starts the game by working Towers for nine pitches, fouling off an assortment of well-placed slop. A 10th-pitch slider gets slammed off the right-field wall, and just like that the Indians are in business.

Coco Crisp follows with a bunt. Veterans of GotW anti-bunt tirades need not fear, though--this was a well-placed drag bunt that nearly went for a hit, a nifty play by Towers just nailing Crisp.

That brings up Jhonny Peralta, who's quietly put up a monster season, ranking an improbable 11th in the AL in VORP, just behind Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero. This was the guy, remember, who at one point looked to be held back while the Indians groomed Brandon Phillips to be the team's next great middle-infield prospect. But huge years at Triple-A in '04 at age 22 and in the majors in '05 at 23 have put those thoughts to rest. Peralta still walks less than once every 10 times up, though--this time he swings at the first pitch and grounds out to third, failing to cash the run.

The Tribe get nothing, thanks to a great play by all-bargain team catcher Gregg Zaun. On a 1-1 count, Hafner takes a fastball for strike two. On an apparent designed play, Corey Koskie streaks over to the bag, where he receives a perfect throw from Zaun and slaps the tag on Sizemore, who was only barely leaning. Picked off, inning over. This would be the first of many sparkling defensive plays in the Web Gemmiest GotW of the year.


SS Russ Adams
LF Frank Catalanotto
CF Vernon Wells
3B Corey Koskie
1B Shea Hillenbrand
C  Gregg Zaun
DH Eric Hinske
RF Reed Johnson
2B Orlando Hudson

It's the return of Jake Westbrook! GotW's second viewing of Westbrook this year reads like the first. Westbrook comes in with the highest GB/FB ratio in the AL and an ERA and W-L record well behind last year's 14-8, 3.38 mark despite similar peripherals to 2004. This demonstrates both the unpredictable fluctuations those stats often show and the dangers a pitcher who puts a lot of balls in play faces, with the outcome of his starts largely placed in the hands of his defense. In fact, Towers and Westbrook are extremely similar pitchers, the main difference in this case being Towers' groundballs have been turned into outs more often in '05 than '04, resulting in the reverse effect of Westbrook's last two years.

Impressive rookie shortstop Russ Adams leads off by grounding out to second, one of many knocks induced by Westbrook in Ron Belliard's direction on the afternoon. Frank Catalanotto then follows with a ringing one-out double. (Check out this old Q&A Keith Law did with Catalanotto eight-and-a-half years ago, before he helped nudge J.P. Ricciardi to sign him--the best part may be the Jose Lima comment at the end.) The Jays continue to hit Westbrook hard, but get no luck: Vernon Wells hits a hard liner up the middle, but Belliard, shaded that way, snags it; Koskie crushes a long drive into the upper deck in right that goes foul before reaching on a HBP; Shea Hillenbrand hits another shot, resulting in another good play, this time a sliding pickup by Ben Broussard and a flip to Westbrook for the out.

More defense:

  • With one out in the third, Adams loses a ball in the high sky in foul ground behind third base, then spots the ball at the last moment and makes a lunging catch after falling down.

  • After a Hillenbrand leadoff single in the fourth, Westbrook stabs a comebacker and throws toward second. Peralta swoops to the bag, snares the throw coming across, takes one step, vaults over Hillenbrand and completes the double play.

  • On the next pitch, Eric Hinske crushes a long drive to left. On a dead run, Crisp crashes into the wall and makes the catch.

  • With one out in the eighth, Hillenbrand smashes a pitch to center. Sizemore races all the way to the wall and hauls it in on the run.

And we haven't discussed the best defensive display of the game yet. More on that in a minute.

Partially due to great Tribe defense but also to generally squandered opportunities, the Jays let the game slip away from them. Zaun, Hinske and Russ Johnson start the 2nd with singles, giving Toronto a 1-0 lead and putting runners on first and second with no one out. But Westbrook throws a wicked fastball that tails back over the inside corner to punch out Orlando Hudson for the first out. (Rick Manning, a sharp color commentator for the Indians who impressed all game long with his observation, astutely notes how it's the same pitch Westbrook threw to Koskie that just missed being a homer in the first, only with much better location.) Adams then lines a 1-0 fastball right to Boone, who quickly turns a 5-4 double play to end the inning. The Jays then strand one in the fifth, two more in the sixth, managing only that one run.

Meanwhile the Indians scrape together just five hits in seven innings against Towers. But all five are shots: solo homers by Boone and Blake, ringing doubles by Sizemore, Hafner and Peralta. Combined with two Jays errors--it wasn't all a defensive clinic, but then what would you expect from Shea Hillenbrand?--that's enough for the Indians to tally four runs.

Still, the Jays come up in the seventh down by three and looking to mount a threat. Only Belliard--a below-average defender for most of his career who according to BP's fielding stats is having a renaissance of sorts this year--suddenly puts on a show. Johnson leads off the inning with a shot up the middle that's almost directly behind second. Belliard ranges far, far to his right, takes three small steps, then fires a Jordanesque fallaway jump shot to first to nip Johnson by an eyelash. Westbrook smiles over at Belliard and pumps his fist. Hudson drives a one-strike offering to deep center for a double, another hard-hit ball off Westbrook, raising concerns he might be done. When an Adams high chopper induces a nonchalant--and wild--throw from Peralta, the Jays have runners at the corners with one out, and Westbrook's pulled from the game.

But wait, there's more Belliard. With the Indians bringing in lefty Scott Sauerbeck to face Catalanotto, the Jays counter with righty-swinging Alexis Rios. On the first pitch, Rios does just what the Jays want him to, whacking a liner up the middle--only Belliard makes another sparkling play, snaring the liner and nearly turning an impossible 4-3 double play. The Indians then bring in Bobby Howry to face Wells. By now both the Indians announcers and the entire dugout are buzzing over Belliard's defensive display. On the second pitch, Wells lines another shot up the middle--and Belliard grabs it again, making a spinning play on a short-hopped screamer and throwing him out to end the inning. In the inning Bellliard makes dazzling plays for three different pitchers, and all three go to greet him, smiling--nearly laughing--at how their unassuming second baseman has suddenly turned into Ozzie Smith in a cameo appearance at the deuce.

When the errr... horizontally gifted Bob Wickman sets the Jays down in order in the ninth, the Tribe walk away with a 4-1 win and another successful road trip.

Thinking about two of the hottest teams in their respective leagues, one can't help but imagine a possible World Series rematch of the Indians and Marlins, if a few things go both teams' way. A year ago, who could have imagined Todd Jones and Bob Wickman as effective major league pitchers, let alone successful closers on contending clubs? Close your eyes and imagine a World Series Game Seven, 10th inning, 0-0 tie, Jones and Wickman dueling for the fate of the baseball world. I Live For This, indeed.

--

The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Sunday, Sept. 4, as the Houston Astros battle the St. Louis Cardinals at 2 p.m. ET, Channel 739 on DirecTV. Chris Carpenter goes for his 20th win against Wandy Rodriguez as the pennant race heats up.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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