In a season opener as anticipated as any in recent years, the Indians kicked off a new era by turning back the Blue Jays and their Cy Young knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, 4-1, in front of a sold-out Rogers Centre.
It was the home opener for a revamped Toronto team, but it was Cleveland’s manager Terry Francona celebrating a victory in his debut — a win that snapped a four-game losing streak for the Indians on Opening Day.
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“I was so nervous the whole game. It surprised me,” said Francona, who estimated that he went through three pouches of chewing tobacco to get through the night. “I think it kind of hit me how much I care about these guys already.
“We played a good game.”
It was close to a perfectly scripted win for the Indians, who got an effective, if not dominating effort from starter Justin Masterson, some timely hitting, quality defense and a lockdown performance from the bullpen.
It all started with Masterson, who wasn’t nearly as good as he was in last year’s season opener, but kept his team in the game through six innings against a potent lineup. The right-hander worked out of a number of jams, allowing just a run on three hits, while walking four and striking out five.
“He obviously didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled,” reliever Vinnie Pestano said of Masterson, who threw over 60 pitches through the first three innings, but stranded five runners over the span. “That’s the definition of pitching.”
Masterson was the beneficiary of what is expected to be a top-notch fielding team, with the Indians making a number of above-average defensive plays to help keep Toronto in check.
“We played a solid defensive game and on top of that we made some spectacular plays,” Francona said.
Dickey’s knuckleball was dancing in his debut for the Jays after being acquired from the Mets following his brilliant 2012 season. But the Indians were patient, scratching two runs off the right-hander in the second inning, before Asdrubal Cabrera landed the biggest blow of the game.
Toronto had pulled within a run in the third inning when Michael Bourn led off the fifth with a base hit and Cabrera followed with a two-run home run just over the wall in right field on a 1-0 pitch from Dickey.
“We’re facing a Cy Young guy,” Francona said. “We didn’t give in. It’s not an easy guy to face. We certainly didn’t knock him around the park, but we did enough.”
Cabrera was surprised he made contact against Dickey, let alone putting enough on the ball to take it out.
“It’s not easy. He’s got really good stuff,” Cabrera said. “I guess I got lucky.”
With a three-run cushion, it was up to Cleveland’s 1-2-3 punch of right-handers Joe Smith, Pestano and closer Chris Perez to finish off the Jays.
Smith and Pestano retired the side in order, with Perez allowing a two-out double to J.P. Arencibia before striking out Colby Rasmus to get the save.
“It went pretty much according to plan,” Francona said of his pitching plans to get Masterson through six innings before turning it over to his formidable bullpen trio.
“That’s what we pride ourselves in,” Pestano said. “We want the starters to know that if they get through six innings, they’re more than likely going to get the win.”
Perez was in an almost identical situation to the one he failed in last Opening Day in Cleveland, with the Indians up 4-1 and the right-hander coming off a spring training injury — this time, a right shoulder strain that limited him to a handful of exhibition outings.
“I was definitely thinking about it,” Perez said. “It was the same situation except the part of the order. I was worried about the injury last year. This year, I’m not.”
Much like the Indians, Toronto’s fans are excited about the prospect of their club, which acquired a number of big-name players this offseason. Jays fans were at a fever pitch early on.
“The Canadians put on a nice little show, 48-49 thousand people here today, loud and yelling,” Masterson said. “It was just a great atmosphere. Just to be able to win a ballgame in that atmosphere was pretty good too.”