CLEVELAND – A rare weekday afternoon game at Progressive Field turned into a nightmare for the Indians.
Seemingly en route to a sweep-avoiding win over the Blue Jays on Wednesday, the Indians instead found themselves on the losing end again, squandering a two-run lead in the ninth inning to drop an agonizing 5-4 decision.
A crucial error from shortstop Luis Valbuena and another collapse from closer Chris Perez earmarked Cleveland’s fourth straight defeat.
“Tough loss, tough series and a tough homestand so far,” said Cleveland manager Manny Acta, whose last-place team has dropped six of its last seven games to fall seven games under .500. “Nothing is more discouraging then battling for 8 2/3 innings and then losing.
“Whether you’re on the winning or losing end, you’ve got to love this game, because you can’t freeze the ball. You have to get 27 outs and we weren’t quite able to do that.”
The ninth inning began without incident, as Perez, who got the final two outs in the eighth, retired the first two batters he faced. But with Cleveland an out away from a much-needed victory, things took a drastic turn for the worse.
Perez allowed a double to Fred Lewis but still appeared headed for his fifth save of the season when the next batter, Aaron Hill, hit a ground ball right at shortstop Luis Valbuena.
Instead of making the routine play, Valbuena let the ball get under his glove and through his legs to score Lewis from second. Unable to shake off the tough luck, Perez allowed a game-winning, two-run home run to the following hitter, Adam Lind, on a 1-2 pitch.
The mind-boggling scene played out in front of 12,563 fans, who voiced their displeasure by booing Perez off the mound when he finally recorded the final out of the inning.
“It’s easy to sit here and blame Valbuena, but the fact is that I didn’t make the pitches when I needed to,” said Perez, who had been performing better out of the closer role since struggling mightily at the outset of the season. “I’m totally to blame for this. It’s easy to blame Luis, but he didn’t throw those pitches.”
Still, the game would have gone in the win column for the Indians had Valbuena made the easy play.
“It was a routine ground ball. I don’t have an excuse for that,” Valbuena said. “I feel bad, because if I make that play, the game is over. Right now, we lose.”
Valbuena was at short for the second straight game in place of an injured Asdrubal Cabrera, but wouldn’t use that as an excuse, and neither did his manager.
“A ground ball is a ground ball,” Acta said. “He’s played enough shortstop. He just made an error at the wrong time. But we win as a team and we lose as a team.”
Perez also had a flimsy excuse for his failure, being called on to pitch more than one inning for the first time this year. Acta felt comfortable with the strategy because his closer hadn’t gotten much work as of late, his last appearance coming Saturday.
“It’s no secret that we haven’t been playing good baseball and there haven’t been many save opportunities, but at the same time, I was called on to do a job,” Perez said. “We wouldn’t be talking about any of this if I would have made the pitches.”
Cleveland starter Fausto Carmona made enough pitches to give his team another positive outing, the right-hander allowing two runs on seven hits over 6 1/3 innings.
Carmona departed with his club in front 3-2, the Indians adding another run in the eighth, ironically enough on a two-out RBI double from Valbuena.
“He fought hard against a very good lineup,” Acta said of Carmona, who has worked at least six innings in all of his six starts this season.
Cleveland’s sagging offense showed signs of life for the second straight day, spreading its four runs over four innings and getting a rare homer from designated hitter Travis Hafner — his third of the season.
The Indians entered the game with the third-lowest homer total in the majors (14), while Hafner had not gone deep since April 20. The Blue Jays, who lead the majors with 43 homers, went deep for the 15th time in their last seven games.
“We’re making progress offensively, but we’ve still got to win as a team,” Acta said.
Wins have been hard to come by for the Indians, who posted another losing record in April and have begun May with three losses in four games. Still, Acta is staying positive.
“We know what we signed up for,” he said. “It’s a long season. These guys are going to come around and play better.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or email@example.com.