But as the Braves swept the three-game interleague series with a 3-1 victory Thursday night in Turner Field, the Indians found a consistent way to fail.
For three consecutive nights, one bad inning virtually spelled their demise.
In the finale, catcher Brian McCann’s three-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez provided all the scoring the Braves needed in the third inning. Four of the Braves’ seven hits off Jimenez came in that inning.
“Right now, we’re in this situation if you make a mistake, you’re probably going to pay for it with a game,” Jimenez said. “We’re not scoring runs. That’s part of baseball.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the second inning was the Achilles’ heel for starters Danny Salazar and Justin Masterson, who both allowed two runs. The Indians managed to rally to tie the score Wednesday, only to fall 3-2 on Chris Johnson’s walk-off single to left in the ninth.
McCann hit his 19th home run of the season, powering a 1-1 pitch from Jimenez into the right-field seats. That scored pitcher Kris Medlen, who reached on a fielder’s choice, and Justin Upton, who singled to center.
“I was trying to throw a back-door slider, but I pulled it a little bit and it came back to him,” Jimenez said of McCann’s homer.
Jimenez (9-9, 3.95 ERA) dropped to 1-4 in August with a 3.10 ERA, but he’s finishing strong. Jimenez went seven innings and posted his second consecutive 10-strikeout game, following an Aug. 23 performance against the Minnesota Twins. It tied for his second-longest outing of the season and was his longest outing of the month, surpassing 6⅓ innings against the Los Angeles Angels on Aug. 10.
“His last two times, whatever the reason this late in the season, he seems to have found a little extra gear,” Francona said of Jimenez. “When he has velocity, there’s life on his fastball and with that comes more deception on the off-speed pitches. He’s always had real good deception, but when you even have a little more differential, it makes it that much better.
“He made a mistake to the wrong guy and that was their three runs. The whole series was their ability to get a big hit and we didn’t.”
Asked what has been working his last two starts, Jimenez said, “Throwing the fastball consistently 94-95 and being able to locate it wherever I want. And I’ve been throwing a real good breaking ball.”
Jimenez added to the Braves’ extensive injury list when he hit Upton on the left hand in the fifth inning. Upton was lifted from the game, but X-rays were negative.
The Indians were outscored 8-3 by the Braves in the series and batted .227. They went 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position. They never held a lead in the series.
“We’re not hot right now by any means,” Francona said. “We didn’t do much against their starters. When you’re not knocking the ball all over the ballpark, getting key hits is huge and we haven’t been able to.”
It was not the way to start a crucial nine-game stretch, with three games in Detroit against the American League Central Division leading-Tigers tonight through Sunday, followed by three games at home against the Baltimore Orioles, like the Indians also chasing an AL wild-card berth.
The tone of the Braves’ finale was set in the second inning, when Michael Brantley was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single to right. After that, the Indians never put together more than two hits in an inning off Medlen (11-12). Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes singled in the seventh, but Asdrubal Cabrera flied out to center and Mike Aviles lined out to left to end the inning.
Medlen went seven innings and gave up six hits, striking out six and walking none.
Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall hit his first career pinch-hit home run and his eighth of the season off right-hander David Carpenter in the eighth inning. With two outs, Jason Kipnis walked and stole second, but Santana grounded out to short against a shift to end the threat.
As disappointing as the series was, Francona doesn’t feel the Indians’ playoff chances slipping away.