CLEVELAND – The Indians are back on their American League schedule but they must have learned something during their recent interleague road trip.
Taking a page from its National League opponents Monday night at Progressive Field, Cleveland orchestrated a squeeze play to manufacture the winning run in a 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays.
With one out, runners on second and third and the game tied at 1 in the sixth inning, newly acquired infielder Jayson Nix dropped down a bunt in front of the pitcher’s mound and to the right of Jays starter Ricky Romero.
A diving Romero tried to field the ball and flip it to home plate in one motion with his glove, but the throw was errant and wouldn’t have been in time to get Travis Hafner, who slid in with the go-ahead run.
Though it was a surprising sight from an AL club, it wound up being the perfect approach on this night.
“It’s not a secret that we don’t have an offense like the team we’re playing against,” Indians manager Manny Acta said of Toronto, which entered the series ranked first in the league in home runs and second in slugging percentage. “We’ve struggled to score runs, so we went for it.”
It was the second successful squeeze of the season for the Indians, who hadn’t been able to accomplish the feat since 2003, and it led to their first win of the year when scoring two runs or fewer.
Cleveland used two unpredictable participants to pull it off in Nix and Hafner. Nix was playing in just his fourth game for the Indians after being claimed off waivers from the White Sox and said he had never executed a successful squeeze bunt on the major league level.
“The main thing is just getting it down,” said Nix, who did just that on an 0-1 fastball. “Anytime you get a sign like that, especially in a tight game with a new team and you wind up getting the job done, it’s a good feeling.”
With just two stolen bases since 2004, Hafner wasn’t exactly the ideal squeeze candidate, but according to Acta, maybe that’s why it worked.
“The best time to put a play on is when everyone thinks it’s a bad time,” he said.
“It’s all about speed,” joked Hafner. “You don’t want to go too early and tip your hand. When he starts going home, you take off. Nix put down a perfect bunt.”
The squeeze play made a winner of Jake Westbrook, who worked one of his finest outings of the season, allowing just a run on six hits over six innings.
Westbrook surrendered a run in the first but just three hits and a walk the rest of the way to earn his fifth win.
“I was able to settle down after the first inning and did a good job of keeping them off balance,” said Westbrook, who struck out four of the six hitters he faced over the second and third innings.
Westbrook and the Indians got a big lift from the bullpen, with a quartet of relievers – Joe Smith, Rafael Perez, Chris Perez and Kerry Wood – combining to shut out Toronto on three hits over the final three innings.
Wood, who has been shaky for much of the season, allowed a hit in the ninth inning but held the lead for his second consecutive save conversion and seventh of the year.
“The bullpen was unbelievable tonight,” Westbrook said. “They came in and shut it down.”
Staying with the surprise theme, Cleveland got rare production from the bottom of its lineup as the No. 7 (Nix) and No. 8 (Matt LaPorta) hitters collected four of their team’s nine hits.
In his second game back after a promotion from Triple-A Columbus, LaPorta had two hits and a walk. He just missed a homer on a drive into the wind to left field that went for a double in the eighth inning.
“We have high hopes for the kid,” Acta said of LaPorta. “We expect a lot of this kid. He’s going to get an opportunity here. He’s done it his whole life. There’s no reason he can’t do it here for us.”
There were a number of subplots but the story of the night was the successful squeeze.
“We didn’t play all that great tonight offensively, but we found a way to win,” Westbrook said. “We got the new guy (Nix) and our DH (Hafner) in there (on the squeeze). To win like that, that was great.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• WHO: Cleveland vs. Toronto
• TIME: 7:05
• WHERE: Progressive Field
• PITCHERS: Carmona (6-6, 3.64 ERA) vs. Morrow (5-5, 4.50)
• TV/RADIO: SportsTime Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM