CLEVELAND — Patience and power. They are two elements not normally associated with Jason Michaels. But for one key inning Thursday, they came together with remarkable results.
Michaels smoked a prodigious three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning off Oakland Athletics reliever Ron Flores to lead the Indians to a 4-3 victory at Jacobs Field.
It was yet another dramatic comeback for the Indians, who seem to be making late-inning turnarounds a hallmark of their 2007 season. Cleveland now sits at 46-32 overall and a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers in the Central Division standings. Twenty-three of the team’s wins are via come-from-behind victories.
“That’s the way this team’s gone all year,” said starting right-hander Paul Byrd, who improved to 7-3 overall after pitching seven efficient innings, allowing 10 hits and three earned runs. “Every time you think this team is going into a slide, something happens and we pull out of it. This team has a lot of character. This was a prototypical Indians ballgame.”
The A’s appeared to be cruising behind the highly effective work of right-hander Joe Blanton, who has now allowed three or fewer runs in each of his last six starts.
The Indians were putting runners on base, moving them into scoring position and making solid contact with the ball — only they were hitting it right at Oakland’s defenders.
Nevermore was this true than in the decisive seventh inning when Grady Sizemore launched a rocket deep into the gap off Flores. But Ohio State product Nick Swisher, manning right field, made a leaping catch on the warning track to prevent two runs from scoring that would have tied the game at 3.
“I really thought that was going to be it — that was our chance,” said Byrd. “Every ball was going at someone and it just wasn’t our day.”
But as it turned out, it was.
Michaels stepped up to the plate riding his hottest streak of the year, having raised his batting average 41 points in the last six weeks to .303. Over his last 10 games, he has 14 hits in 34 at-bats.
Holding tight on a 2-1 pitch, Michaels spotted a fastball right down the middle and sent it soaring 415 feet.
“All I wanted was to hit it back up the middle,” said Michaels. “I’m not a home run hitter. That’s not my lane. My lane is doubles.”
It didn’t matter. The shot galvanized the ballclub.
Rafael Betancourt sent the A’s down quickly in the eighth, providing further ammunition for his All-Star candidacy, while closer Joe Borowski pitched a scoreless ninth and now sits tied atop the American League with J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez with 22 saves. Borowski has converted each of his last 10 save opportunities.
The victory ensured the Indians another series win at home. They are now 11-2-1 at Jacobs Field.
That it would come against as formidable opponent as Oakland was especially important to Indians manager Eric Wedge.
“It’s tough to win a four-game series against anyone,” said Wedge. “But having it come against a starting staff like (Oakland’s), I’m very pleased about that.”
The A’s entered the series with the top rotation in the American League by a fairly wide margin. Oakland’s staff has a combined a 3.15 ERA, lowest in the majors. Only San Diego’s 3.29 mark is in shouting distance.
Still, Cleveland hit an impressive .286 off Oakland in the four-game series, averaging six runs per game and 9.3 hits.
“I don’t even know how to explain that,” said Casey Blake. “You come home facing a great pitching staff and your concentration level has to go up.”
It also helps that the starting pitching continues to be one of the most reliable in baseball.
In what appeared to be an ominous sign, Byrd allowed six hits over his first two innings, including a line drive homer off A’s first baseman Dan Johnson.
“I was trying to be aggressive and I ended up hanging a few pitches,” said Byrd, who notched his first win since May 30, a span of four starts. “I had trouble settling in and they stuck it to me early. Fortunately, I was able to bounce back.”
Over his next five innings, the A’s scattered four hits but never threatened.
“They were swinging the bats real well,” said Wedge. “It’s a good time for them to leave town.”
The Indians improved to 9-3 in one-run games at home. They’re 13-10 in one-run games overall, compared to 18-26 a year ago.
To Byrd, that’s a sign of good things.
“I think we’re here for the long haul,” he said. “We’ve had guys hurt, but we’re still (near the top of) the division. I think our best baseball’s still ahead of us.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7137 or email@example.com.
WHO: Cleveland vs. Tampa Bay
WHERE: Jacobs Field
PITCHERS: Westbrook (1-3, 7.08 ERA) vs. Jackson (1-8, 7.39)
TV/RADIO: STO; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM