Tell me if you’ve heard this one before – the Cleveland Indians got a quality start, little run support, and fell in a 3-2 final to the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night.
If that gave you a bit of déjà vu here in the 2020 Major League Baseball season, you’re not alone. There were, however, a few differences in the tale of the tape this time around – the opponent was different, the game was delayed two hours and two minutes at the outset by rain, and for the first time this season, the Indians blew a lead in order to find themselves on the short end of the stick.
In a tough matchup with Cincinnati’s Sonny Gray, the Indians jumped out to a first inning lead with what felt like shocking run support after a quiet offensive weekend in Minnesota. Continuing their aggressive approach at the plate, the first two batters of the game were retired on just five pitches, with Cesar Hernandez grounding to first and Jose Ramirez flying to left. Francisco Lindor fell behind 0-2, then got two balls to even the count before he caught a fastball in that he yanked over the wall in right to give the Indians a rare 1-0 lead. Carlos Santana followed with a single to right before Franmil Reyes struck out swinging.
Zach Plesac took the mound for the Tribe for the first time since a stellar eight-inning, eleven-strikeout performance in his debut outing last Wednesday. He worked around a one-out walk by Joey Votto in the first, but otherwise got the job done before his offense padded the lead.
It was Gray’s own mistakes that led to trouble for the Reds in the top of the second. After a lineout to center by Daniel Johnson, Oscar Mercado got his third hit of the season with a single to center. With catcher Sandy Leon at the plate, Gray threw wild to Votto at first, allowing Mercado to move up on the throwing error. A wild pitch allowed Mercado to advance to third before Leon drew a walk to put runners on the corners with one out. Greg Allen was unable to get the run home, striking out swinging for the second out, but Gray once again hurt himself with Hernandez at the plate, uncorking another wild pitch. Mercado scored on the play, giving the Indians a 2-0 lead, and Leon moved up to second. Hernandez could not expand on the lead though, grounding to first.
Plesac struck out a pair to open the home half of the second before Cincinnati notched its first hit of the day, an infield single to second by Freddy Galvis. Plesac responded with a grounder to first to strand his second base runner of the game.
Gray locked in after the shaky second. He struck out Lindor and Santana to end the third and struck out the side in order in the fourth. The Reds rewarded his efforts with a run of support in the bottom of the frame. In a long battle between Plesac and Nicholas Castellanos, the newest National League Player of the Week worked the count full on a pitch way up and in, then snatched up a fastball that caught too much of the plate and sent it over the wall in center for a solo home run, cutting the deficit to 2-1.
Gray worked a perfect fifth and got some help from his catcher Tucker Barnhart in the sixth after a one-out single by Lindor the opposite way to left. He was caught stealing before Santana drew a walk, but Reyes rolled over to short to strand a man again.
Plesac retired six in a row after the Castellanos homer, but got himself into a standoff in the bottom of the sixth as the tides shifted. Shogo Akiyama, the 32-year-old rookie outfielder with nine years of time spent on the diamond in Japan, slapped a single the other way to open the inning and caught Plesac’s eye plenty, leading to five pickoff throws over to the bag with Votto at the plate. The count went full to Votto, and with the bat choked up several inches, he pulled his hands in with a gator-arm swing and parked the payoff pitch over the wall in right for a two-run home run, putting the Reds out in front for the first time, 3-2. Plesac got the next three, but the damage was done.
Gray, now the pitcher of record, left after six innings of two-run baseball for the Reds bullpen. Michael Lorenzen retired the side in order with a pair of strikeouts in the seventh. Plesac exited after the bottom half, recording his sixth and final strikeout in the process in seven full innings of work.
The Indians had a chance to tie the game in the eighth, but ran and swung themselves out of the inning. Allen was plunked on the shoe top by Nate Jones to start the inning and moved to second on a bad hop grounder that ate up Galvis at second base off of the bat of Hernandez. Ramirez was no match for Jones’ sinker-slider combo, whiffing on four pitches for the first out. Lindor stepped in with a chance for a third hit and a needed RBI, but the inning began unraveling on an 0-2 pitch in the dirt. Allen broke for third, but Hernandez got a late jump waiting to make sure Allen was going to try to advance. Barnhart alertly threw behind the play, and coupled with a bad slide by Hernandez, the Tribe’s second baseman was out at second on the tag. With the tying run at third base but now two outs on the scoreboard, Lindor took a ball before cutting and missing on a slider low and in as the team’s best scoring opportunity was squandered.
After a 1-2-3 inning from Oliver Perez in the bottom of the eighth, the Indians had three outs remaining as Raisel Iglesias took over against the middle of the order. He got a comebacker off of the bat of Santana for the first out before striking out Reyes on a sinker in the middle of the plate. Johnson was retired on high heat, sending the Tribe to its fourth straight loss.
The Indians (5-6) are below .500 for the first time this season and have scored just 28 runs through eleven games. The Reds (5-5) are back to the .500 mark with their third straight victory and are now in second place, three games in back of the Chicago Cubs.
Gray improved to 3-0 on the year with six quality innings of work. He was charged with two runs (just one earned due to his own error) on four hits with a pair of walks and eight strikeouts. He left after 102 pitches, as the Indians adjusted at the plate after an aggressive approach out of the gate.
“We got his pitch count up there a little bit. We tried to drive the ball up the middle, go the other way. He has great stuff,” said interim Tribe manager Sandy Alomar Jr. “We kind of let him settle down a little bit after a while and he was able to pitch to the sixth inning.”
It was a tough luck loss for Plesac, who again handled the pitching duties admirably while watching his offense fail to do anything against the opposition. He worked seven innings, allowing three runs on four hits (two home runs) with a walk and six strikeouts on the day.
“Plesac did a pretty good job again. If we would have scored runs, that outing would have been perfect,” said Alomar Jr. “I think he lost a little concentration and got a little pick happy with Joey Votto at the plate. He was a little preoccupied with the runner. Sometimes that happens with him. That’s part of maturation. I think that was a little hiccup in the game, if he could have just focused a little more on the hitter.”
“I really think I commanded the ball really well,” Plesac said after the game. “I kept them off balance. I didn’t feel like they were on any of my pitches throughout the game. I caught too much plate a couple of times. I felt good. Made some pitches. Sandy [Leon] worked his butt off back there.”
The home run by Votto marked the first multiple-RBI homer hit by an opposing player against the Indians so far in 2020.
Speaking of Votto, his third home run of the season and his two RBI proved to be the difference for the Reds. It marked a solid piece of hitting from the crafty hitter, who was able to get his hands in on a ball in a tough location and managed to poke it over the wall for the deciding runs while Plesac was caught in a cat-and-mouse game with Akiyama at first.
“In that situation, you have a good hitter at the plate. Focus should be more on him. Learning experience for me,” said Plesac of his battle with Akiyama and Votto in the sixth. “I saw a guy get a big lead over there, he was kind of playing with my feet, so I was going to play with him back and see if I could get an out. Couple close plays. That 2-1 pitch, if I would have executed that, I would have been ahead in the count, in the driver’s seat. I worked back from behind and made a pitch. I tip my cap to him because he was ready for it.”
It continued a long period of success for the veteran first baseman, who now owns a .293 batting average in his career in 57 games against the Indians with 16 homers and 40 runs batted in.
Castellanos’ homer was his fifth of the year and drove in his 12th run, coming in his first game after being named the top player in the Senior Circuit last week. Aaron Judge took home the honor in the American League.
The Indians had a needed two-hit game from Lindor, who hit his third homer in the first before a single later, but he missed opportunities later in the game with a pair of strikeouts. Allen struck out twice as well, while Reyes and Johnson each pulled off the hat trick with three each as the Indians amassed 14 Ks on the night.
The Reds will host the Indians again in an earlier start on Tuesday night, with the game’s first pitch scheduled for 6:10 PM ET. The Reds will send out Tyler Mahle (0-0, 4.50 ERA), who has had a tough time in two previous starts against the Indians over the last two seasons. The Indians will look to ace Shane Bieber (2-0, 0.00 ERA) to end the team’s four-game losing skid while continuing his incredible debut to the shortened season.
Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images