Cleveland Indians' Defense Run Down Minnesota Twins and Their Hopes

Alex BrownContributor ISeptember 7, 2009

GOODYEAR , AZ - MARCH 06:  Michael Brantley #61 of the Cleveland Indians bats against the Milwaukee Brewers during the spring training game at Goodyear Ballpark on March 6, 2009 in Goodyear, Arizona. The Brewers defeated the Indians 17-7.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

To brew up a classic pitcher’s duel, you need two hurlers at the top of their game, a reasonably generous umpire, and alert fielders.

Only the fielders did their part on Sunday afternoon’s game between the Twins and the Indians, but the game stayed hitless until the fourth, and scoreless until the fifth.

And no floodgates opened, even then. The Twins acquired one run, and scored first, and then the Indians tied it in the sixth and scored two more in the seventh to win 3-1.

David Huff started for Cleveland, and through seven innings had the distinction of throwing only slightly more strikes than balls while holding the Twins to two measly hits.

The first of them was a double by Nick Punto that scooted obediently just fair of the first base bag, then dribbled up the line, allowing the hustling Punto to make second. Denard Span followed with an RBI single to center to put the Twins up 1-0.

The line score makes Huff look like a colossus, but the actual pitching component of his game was a good deal less impressive than the single earned run and two hits. Huff was never overpowering and in addition to the four walks he allowed, Twins hitters could have coaxed a few more with some effort, not to mention some hits.

All credit to David Huff, but it looked like the Twins had a collective batting lapse today. No one made good contact, it’s that simple, and when an entire lineup hits that anemically, you assume the pitcher is the reason why.

But pitch by pitch, Huff was in the low 90s/high 80s with so-so control and no special zip or movement on his pitches.

I watched the game trying to look past the smoke and mirrors. Why was Huff baffling us? Well, sometimes a baseball game just bends one team’s way, and there may be no explaining it.

Meanwhile, Nick Blackburn was pitching with much better control and economy, and for the first five innings dispatched the Indians easily.

The home plate umpire was kind to neither pitcher. Pitches on the corners, particularly the inside to right handed hitters, weren’t getting called strikes no matter how picture perfect they looked in replay. Huff and Blackburn each managed a few strikeouts, but they felt like the results of lengthy petitions to the governor.

Blackburn was sharp, but in the sixth, Michael Brantley led off with a broken bat single. The ball left the bat weakly, but in a cascade of splinters that made its trajectory hard to read, and now the Twins’ 1-run lead looked tenuous. Blackburn had allowed only two prior hits, and was in serene control, but innings can break apart at the slightest touch.

Asdrubal Cabrera sacrificed Brantley over to second, and, as always, it was even odds that the gamble would pay off. The Indians gave up an out to a pitcher who seeks out double plays. But they also advanced their runner in the late innings while fighting a 1-run deficit.

Now we get a chance to see if Blackburn can stay tough. Because he pitches to contact, it takes little to pry a hit out of him. He has to stay true to his game and let hitters peck away, while trying to control what, exactly, they can do with the ball.

He faces Shin-Soo Choo, a lefty, and strikes him out. Blackburn still looks the master of the game, even if the umpire is allowing nearly nothing inside.

This sets the stage for the pressure of a two-out hit. The verdict on the sac grounder was still out: a single ties the game, but a ball any fielder can reach quickly ends the inning.

Jhonny Peralta, a good but not great contact hitter, raps a ground ball up the middle to score the runner. Sometimes baseball is that simple, and that sad.

Blackburn may be close to the unraveling point, where I’ve seen him flounder before. Travis Hafner whom he’s foiled all afternoon, now smacks a neat, sharp line drive to right center to put men on first and third.

Matt LaPorta, suffering from a hitting slump, can break the tie if he can defeat his hitting demons. Blackburn’s 89th pitch is a bloop to shallow center. Carlos Gomez sprints to run it down, and the inning is over. Tie game, preserved by Blackburn. Though he gave up a crucial run, he stayed steely to finish the inning and keep the Twins within reach.

The seventh inning will prove a worse test of fire. Luis Valbuena leads off with a single, and Andy Marte follows with a sacrifice to nudge him on to second. So far, it’s a carbon copy of last inning.

With two outs, Brantley is up again, and this rookie has been proving himself during his late season call-up. He hits a clutch single to right and what he does next is either a blunder or a stroke of genius. He starts running past first, and either he’s trying to draw a throw to improve Valbuena’s chances to cross the plate or he’s over-reached.

But the Twins allow the worst to happen. The run has long ago scored and Brantley’s in a rundown between Michael Cuddyer at first and Nick Punto at second. Cuddy has the ball and he knows Brantley’s fast so he’s got the ball in his bare hand, ready to make the throw to Punto.

But Brantley’s very fast, and the distance keep collapsing. Cuddyer now sees his only chance is hurling himself onto Brantley to apply the tag. And for a moment, it looks like he’s gotten the third out.

It would certainly look that way to the second base umpire, but for those of us watching from TV’s high home camera, the ball Cuddyer has dropped is all too awfully evident on the ground. It fell from his grasp as he dove trying to tag Brantley, and there’s no disguising it loose in the dirt once Cuddy stands up. Brantley is safe, and on second at that.

Give Brantley credit for a fighting as fiercely through a rundown as any eager rookie can. And give the Twins a demerit for blowing the out.

Almost every rundown I’ve seen is a variation on the walls closing in, with things looking progressively worse for the runner, who’s eventually overcome in what’s nearly a videogame snuff-out. But today I was reminded of how rapidly this play moves, and how unpredictable the baserunner can be.

It’s two against one, sure, and the fielders have even more men backing them up, but the lone runner has the advantage of just plain making them get a little crazy out there.

Cuddyer held the ball too long, counting too much on the pure majesty of brandishing the thing against a helpless runner. But Brantley wasn’t cowed, and by extending the time of the play, he shortened the distance to the point Cuddyer flinched.

And there would be consequences. Jose Mijares is brought in to relieve Blackburn, and to face Cabrera. The Indians seem comfortable collecting two-out hits, for Cabrera knocks in the runner with a double.

It’s 3-1 Indians, and there it stays as the Twins fall to Tony Sipp in the eighth and Kerry Wood in the ninth. The Indians take the series two games to one, and suddenly the Twins’ second wind seems to have blown itself out.

We’re in that most familiar territory again—.500, with 68 wins and 68 losses. Hovering at this balancing point all season long is no longer a way of staying in contention. It’s a way of fading away.


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