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October 2, 2005

Prelude to the Playoffs

Saturday at the Jake

by Dave Haller

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Few things are as potentially relaxing as watching Saturday afternoon baseball. Of course, this is far more likely to be true in June, or if the game is between two teams you don't care about. That's not the case today; today will not be relaxing. Today, an Indians victory would mean they can still control their destiny--another win Sunday would at worst force a one-game playoff, at best secure the wild card. A loss today, and the Indians are at the mercy of the Fenway game Sunday, and must bounce back to win Game 162 and force a one-game playoff.

While roaming the Jacobs Field concourse before the Indians/White Sox game, I force myself to pause and enjoy a trumpet/clarinet/banjo trio playing "Oh When the Fans Go Marching In" like it's the Roaring Twenties. Much to everyone's chagrin, Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker are nowhere to be seen. Ah, horsefeathers!

Chicago's lineup is mostly serious today compared to yesterday's Quadruple-A bunch, and features six lefty bats. Still, Timo Perez, Ross Gload, Geoff Blum and Pablo Ozuna are starting the game. Nothing is unusual about the Indians' nine. Jake Westbrook faces Jon Garland, two similar pitchers in many respects. Both induce ground balls, pitch to contact, throw lots of innings and lots of strikes. Each parlayed an improved walk rate into a breakout season in his mid-20s.

Four innings pass and the game is still scoreless. The White Sox are hitting the ball very hard, with only Perez' single to show for it. Early on most everything Chicago hits is in the air, unusual for a team facing Westbrook. Garland has been very impressive. Through four innings, he's allowed two hits (one an infield single), fanned four and walked no one, pounding the strike zone like mad (49 pitches, 35 strikes).

There's no point in watching the scoreboard today. Since Boston and New York are locked up, the Indians are hoping for one of them to win today and tomorrow; it doesn't matter which one. Regardless, watching the scoreboard (5-2 Yankees, bottom of the second) is much more exciting than this game has been.

Things pick up a bit in the fifth. A.J. Pierzynski and Blum lead off with singles just past Ronnie Belliard's reach. Ozuna tries to bunt them over--logical, until he tries bunting again with two strikes and fouls out. Yes, the top of the order is on deck, but Ozuna's numbers are a fair amount better than leadoff man Perez (.220/.263/.301). Perez drills a line drive that Belliard barely snags with a leap, and Pierzynski is hung out to dry at second, end of inning. Belliard's catch saves at least one run.

Cleveland picks up another cheap hit when Belliard beats out a chopper to short. Ben Broussard and Aaron Boone pass the torch of futility, however, with two quick outs. The Tribe's seven-, eight- and nine-hole hitters are a combined 0-for-19 in the series when Casey Blake drops a single in front of Perez in right, who boots the ball and allows Belliard to score the game's first run.

The sixth inning lasts just six batters, and despite a 1-0 score the bullpens will start coming in to play soon. Last night really stretched the relief corps thin, especially Chicago's, and I'm expecting Guillen to tap into his lesser-used pitchers so the big boys can finally get their rest.

The White Sox' batsmen start finding holes in the sixth. Three singles, the third one very strange, plate a run. With the bases loaded, Blum bounces one so high in front of the plate I can't help but wonder if it actually hit rubber; Carl Everett scores as Boone and Westbrook wait an eternity for the ball to drop. I think they should have let it hit the ground; the runners on first and second weren't going anywhere, and a ball hit like that probably has some wild spin that might have bounced itself foul. They were well into fair territory, but between the two of them, they could have controlled the ball even if stayed fair. Three batters later, with two outs and two on, Tadahito Iguchi takes Westbrook deep on a low sinker, ripping about 30 feet past the center-field wall. Four to one, Chicago.

In the bottom of the seventh, Garland's pitch count takes a hit during Victor Martinez' nine-pitch walk. Martinez reaches second on Belliard's ground out, and Garland leaves the game after striking out Broussard. Guillen opts for Luis Vizcaino, who gets Boone to swing at a couple of really bad pitches before giving up a single up the middle that scores Martinez. Blake follows with a double to left, barely fair, and it's 4-3. Damaso Marte enters and ends the rally, striking out Grady Sizemore.

Howry replaces Westbrook entering the eighth, and the Sox get men on first and second with one out before Jhonny Peralta turns a quick, smooth 4-6-3 double play to retire the side. It's Cleveland's third twin killing of the day.

With six outs left, the afternoon shadows begin to creep onto the field. Coco Crisp wastes an at-bat, feet shuffling about, watching three pitches pass for strikes. Peralta singles to right. Travis Hafner nails a 1-2 offering deep to the opposite field, hitting more than halfway up the wall for a double, and Peralta is held at third. Guillen calls for the intentional walk of Martinez, and Marte is pulled in favor of Cliff Politte. Bases loaded, one out, and a one-run deficit brings the crowd to its feet and Indians players to the top step of the dugout. Belliard jumps on Politte's very first pitch and pops it foul to the third baseman. Broussard then flies out to center. After eight frames, Chicago still leads 4-3.

Howry, Cleveland's de facto "lefty" specialist, stays in to face three lefties in Blum, Ozuna and Perez. He doesn't look too sharp but they go down in order.

Bobby Jenks trots in from the pen, seeking his third save in three days. So much for resting the bullpen. Perhaps aided by the shadow patterns cast across the infield, Jenks sifts through Boone, Blake and Sizemore quite easily to end the game. Sizemore, the man I tabbed as Cleveland's key player on BPR this morning, finishes 0-for-5.

Cleveland's last six games:


Date Opp W/L RS RA
9/25 KCA  L   4  5
9/27 TBA  L   4  5
9/28 TBA  L   0  1
9/29 TBA  W   6  0
9/30 CHA  L   2  3
10/1 CHA  L   3  4
------------------
Record: 1-5  19 18

Blame it on whatever you want. There are always little things here and there that could have fallen differently. Sizemore lost a ball in the sun. Blake botched a sac bunt. The bottom third of the order had an 0-for-19 skid against Chicago; all three play "power positions," and range from .296 to .310 in OBP. The simplest answer is the offense hasn't hit enough lately. And any time a team loses five one-run games of six there's a large amount of chance involved. As Joe Sheehan noted yesterday, the Indians are simply in a funk.

It's a steep uphill climb for the Indians now. Even if they do defeat red-hot rookie Brandon McCarthy on Sunday, they'll walk down the tunnel, gather round the clubhouse TV with luggage in hand, and hope against hope that the Red Sox forgot to put on their clutch hitting caps that morning.

I'll get my hopes up if the Indians pull out a win Sunday. Until then, their playoff odds are sagging.

Dave Haller is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

Related Content:  Cleveland Indians,  Jake Westbrook

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