Indians bullish on relief corps

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

CLEVELAND – Someone was going to have to throw a pitch in Game 2, someone who could find an arm slot and a release point that resulted in something more than a grooved fastball, something braver than a complete bailout.

These Cleveland Indians, after all, had one of the better pitching staffs in the American League as of dinnertime Friday. That ought to amount to more than waiting out curtain calls and getting another fresh baseball from the umpire.

Just when it was becoming clear that the team that knocked off the Boston Red Sox simply was going to have to stand and hit with the middle of the Red Sox order (the locals already were dreaming of a Colorado-Boston World Series, pronounced in these parts "Saucks 'n' Raucks"), a task that buried the Los Angeles Angels in the American League division series and already has stressed the Indians (their two Cy Young Award candidates in particular), the Indians did, indeed, throw that pitch. And then another.

Dragged along by a valiant bullpen Saturday night and into Sunday morning in Game 2, the rest of the Indians are back in the game, back in the American League championship series. In between Rafael Perez, the wispy left-hander who has turned vulnerable in October, and closer Joe Borowski, who gets the job done but tends to do it while backing up third base, the Indians got their season back with a 13-6 victory after 11 innings.

As Fenway Park absorbed a late-evening chill, three relievers took the ball with a one-run deficit, back-to-back home runs by Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell still ringing in their ears, and gave the ball back with a seven-run lead six innings later.

Before them, Fausto Carmona was erratic and Perez was, if the sound and trajectory of the home runs were an indication, predictable.

Jensen Lewis and Rafael Betancourt got the next 14 outs, Betancourt by throwing more innings (2 1/3) and more pitches (42) than he had in any game in the regular season. And Tom Mastny, given the thorny task of plowing through David Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell in the 10th inning, required only 11 pitches to plow through.

Frustrated, perhaps, by the one hit their lineup had generated after the fifth inning, or lured into big swings in big-swing moments and eager to live to their walk-off reputations, Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell were uncharacteristically jumpy.

Ortiz worked the count to 3-and-1, and the crowd stood and braced for the inevitable Papi-ness. He grounded to the right side, against the Papi shift.

Ramirez took a curveball for ball one and a fastball for ball two, meaning Mastny had nowhere to hide, and again the blue-hats and pink-hats rose up, cleared their throats and watched Manny being … meeker. He got a fastball well off the barrel, broke his bat and popped to shallow right field.

Three pitches into his at-bat, Lowell lifted a fly ball to right field and flung his bat in anger, J.D. Drew skip-dancing over it in the on-deck circle.

And maybe the Indians were onto something after being knocked around for a game and a half, after watching the Angels give up 19 runs, five home runs and 16 walks over their three-game series.

Neither C.C. Sabathia nor Carmona seized the strike zone in their starts, Carmona throwing an average of five pitches per batter in Game 2. Indians relievers, however, have been more precise. Mastny has thrown 37 pitches in three scoreless innings. Betancourt faced eight hitters in Game 2, and 11 of his 42 pitches were to Kevin Youkilis in a single, game-extending sequence in the ninth. Betancourt's last nine pitches to Youkilis were strikes.

"You're facing great hitters in that lineup," Betancourt said. "That's the way you have to pitch. You can't be pitching around these guys. If you do, later on you're thinking, 'Why did I pitch that way?' "

Yeah, Sabathia and Carmona had those thoughts.

If you're unfamiliar with Mastny, he's right-handed, is the first major-league player ever born in Indonesia, appeared in 51 games for the Indians, won seven of them and isn't one of the Rafaels. Right-handers and left-handers hit him about equally, which is to say reasonably well, but nothing too destructive.

Early Sunday morning, Mastny stood in a clubhouse littered with duffel bags and reporters and said, "I'm on the playoff roster for a reason."

That 10th inning was a good start.

"We knew we weren't out of it," he said. "(Curt) Schilling was struggling just like Carmona. We knew we were going to get him."

Now, as to what got them even in the series, Mastny grinned and shrugged. It hasn't been pretty, particularly in the early innings. And if the Red Sox get after Jake Westbrook (Monday night, vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka) and Paul Byrd (Tuesday night, vs. Tim Wakefield) like they did Sabathia and Carmona, the Indians could be playing for their very survival again.

A few more strikes in the early innings would be a start, one good pitch better than the alternative.

"In the whole scheme of things, it's just baseball," Mastny said. "You can't dwell on the details."

All of which leaves us with a series, unlike anything else that's come along in the past two weeks.

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