A ninth inning rally off of Oakland’s new closer Jim Johnson earned Cleveland its first win of the season, as the Indians knocked off the Athletics by a 2-0 final Monday night.
Deadlocked in a scoreless ballgame in the top of the ninth inning, Johnson (0-1) took the mound and brought a gas can with him. Asdrubal Cabrera led off the inning with a five pitch walk. David Murphy singled to right just past the glove of Nick Punto at second. Yan Gomes was hit by a pitch in the left arm to load the bases.
With the pressure on, new Indians center fielder Nyjer Morgan lifted a sacrifice fly to left center to plate the first run of the night. Nick Swisher followed with a single to center, scoring Murphy from third and pushing the lead to 2-0. Fernando Abad relieved Johnson of his duties and retired the final two outs of the inning.
“The pressure was all on the pitcher,” said Morgan. “I just looked for a ball up in the zone and got something I could handle.”
“In Spring Training, he was on a mission. It was fun to see him contribute like he did,” said manager Terry Francona about the veteran Morgan. “He got on base first inning with a walk, got a big sac fly, and played a nice ball game. I think that’s what we thought he could do.”
John Axford worked the ninth on the night before his 31st birthday, walking a pair and striking out a pair to secure his first save opportunity in a Cleveland uniform.
“That was a team effort right there,” said Morgan. “We all stick together. That’s how you put up a solid win tonight.”
Rains all day couldn’t chase baseball away on Opening Day in Oakland. For those who endured the late scheduled West Coast start time, they saw a classic season opening pitchers’ duel between Oakland’s Sonny Gray and Cleveland’s Justin Masterson.
Until the ninth inning, the story of the game for the Indians revolved around bad situational hitting.
Gray immediately led off the first inning with some potential Opening Day jitters. He walked Morgan on four pitches and surrendered another base on balls to Swisher. A strikeout of Jason Kipnis, a fielder’s choice by Carlos Santana, and a groundout to short by Michael Brantley defused the early scoring opportunity.
The Indians failed to plate base runners again in the fourth. Santana worked the count from 0-2 to a walk and advanced to third as Brantley laced a double over the first base bag. Designated hitter Ryan Raburn struck out and Cabrera grounded back to the mound, where Gray was able to catch Santana in a run down between third and home. Murphy grounded out to second baseman Eric Sogard to end the threat, the second time Cleveland would strand a pair after getting the first two batters on board in an inning.
The Tribe missed another big chance to touch the scoreboard first in the top half of the sixth. After Santana popped up a 3-2 pitch for the first out, Brantley doubled off the wall in straightaway center field. He moved up to third on a Raburn single to right. On the first pitch of his at bat, Cabrera again grounded right back up the middle, hitting Gray in the foot. The ball ricocheted away from the pitcher, but he recovered in enough time to throw to the plate to get the advancing Brantley for the second out. Murphy struck out swinging to end the rally, inning, and Gray’s night.
Gray was erratic out of the gate, but settled in to limit the Indians to five hits and three walks in six innings and 102 pitches of work while not factoring in the decision. He struck out seven and stranded eight Cleveland runners on base.
“We gave ourselves a lot of opportunities, which is good,” said Francona. “Once we got our opportunties, I think you got to give Gray some credit because he had a breaking ball, he had a cutter, and a fastball. We didn’t go out of the zone very much. That’s one of the things we really wanted to do was keep it in the zone. So I think you gotta sometimes give the opposing pitcher a little credit. He got in front of one too that cost us a run. It was hard to push runs across.”
Meanwhile, Masterson retired seven straight batters and ten of eleven heading into the sixth inning before issuing his first walk of the night to Sogard. From there, the inning only got more challenging for Masterson but, in his first true test of the season, he worked some magic.
Sogard was moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt by Coco Crisp. A liner up the middle by Josh Donaldson could have scored Sogard, but he broke back to second before advancing. A wild pitch from Masterson eliminated the double play possibility, but Jed Lowrie lined the ball back into Masterson’s glove, which he dropped but threw to first in plenty of time for the second out. Brandon Moss lifted a fly ball to center fielder Morgan for the final out of the inning.
Luke Gregerson, acquired in the offseason in a trade with San Diego, and Sean Doolittle each worked scoreless innings in relief for Oakland, striking out a pair each. Oakland pitching registered 12 strikeouts on the night. Kipnis was responsible for three of them.
Masterson’s night was done after striking out a pair swinging to end the seventh. He threw 92 pitches over seven innings of work while allowing three hits and one free pass in a no decision. He struck out four on the evening. In his two previous Opening Day starts, he worked a combined 14 innings, struck out 15 batters, and allowed one earned run in each outing. He walked five and allowed five hits over those appearances.
“The guy is good. He was hitting his zone. He kept us in the game,” said Morgan. “As long as you keep us in the game, we’re going to be able to do big things.”
“For the most part, I thought he worked ahead. Good two-seam movement,” said Francona. “I thought he showed enough of his four-seamer to get them off of it. A couple of times he got into a jam and worked out of it. The one time he stood in front of the liner, which is okay. I thoguht he was really good.”
Twelve different times in 2013 the Indians scored two runs or less for Masterson in a start, so Monday’s game was familiar territory for the Indians’ ace.
Oakland put together its first real threat in the bottom of the eighth as Marc Rzepczynski took the mound for Masterson. Daric Barton singled to center and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Cody Allen one batter later. Allen walked Crisp before Donaldson sent a long drive to straightaway center field. The ball glanced off the top of the wall before being scooped up by Morgan. Barton did not get a good read and managed to only advance to third on the play, giving Donaldson a 400 foot single. With the bags full, Allen set down Lowrie swinging and Moss on a grounder to Swisher at first base to escape unharmed.
“It was a nice tone, it’s as good a tone as you can set aside from going eight or nine innings,” said Masterson about his outing. “It was great. Marc and Cody came in, had some fun in the eighth inning, got through that. Cody did a tremendous job getting through that.”
Allen (1-0) earned the win with two-thirds of an inning of scoreless relief.
“It’s nice to win every game you play,” said Francona. “Everything seems a little bigger because it’s the first game, first week, whatever. It’s hard to get past that. It is only one game. But heck yeah, we showed up this morning to win and we did so now we can show up tomorrow and see if we can do it again.”
Indians were 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and stranded eleven base runners.
Oakland has now lost ten consecutive season openers. Cleveland has now won eleven consecutive regular season games.
Barton made his fourth Opening Day start at first base for Oakland, second only to Mark McGwire’s nine in Athletics history.
Left-hander Scott Kazmir will make his first start for Oakland after signing as a free agent in the offseason. He was 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA with Cleveland in 2013. Corey Kluber (11-5, 3.85 in 2013) will take the mound for Cleveland. He has an 0-2 record in three games (two starts) against the A’s in his career, but has allowed just three earned runs in 12 1/3 innings (2.19 ERA).
Game time is scheduled for a 10:05 PM ET first pitch. Follow the action on Fox Sports SportsTime Ohio, the MLB Network, or on the Cleveland Indians Radio Network.
Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images