CLEVELAND — The Indians manipulated their rotation in order to start right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez in a pivotal regular-season finale Sunday at Target Field.
The Big U didn’t let them down.
Continuing his dominating second-half with gusto, Jimenez pitched the Indians past the Twins and into the postseason for the first time since 2007, as Cleveland finished off the regular season with a 5-1 victory over the Twins.
“He went out there and pitched like an ace,” said manager Terry Francona, whose team finished the regular season on a 10-game winning streak and won 15 of its final 17 games. “You know last year he (was) the butt of jokes, but this year we end up arranging our rotation so he can pitch the game today. And he went out there and just pounded the strike zone and changed speeds. He just held them down and gave us a chance.”
Due in large part to Jimenez’s outing Sunday, Cleveland will host the American League wild-card game Wednesday against either the Rays or Rangers after
finishing a game ahead of both AL rivals, who will square off in the tiebreaker game at Texas today.
“I was really good today,” said Jimenez, who allowed just a run on five hits and a walk, while matching a career-high with 13 strikeouts over 6⅔ innings. “It was a really important game, I had to throw everything I had, because we really wanted to play at home. I just kept throwing strikes.”
Jimenez — 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA in 32 starts this season (1.82 ERA in 13 second-half starts) — didn’t allow a run over the first six innings, giving his offense the opportunity to get in gear against Twins starter Scott Diamond.
Cleveland started fast against the Minnesota left-hander, grabbing a 2-0 lead two batters into the game on Nick Swisher’s 22nd home run of the season.
The Indians added two more runs in the sixth and were never challenged by the Twins, who committed three errors on the day.
In a fitting finish to a memorable day, former-ace-turned-reliever Justin Masterson was on the mound for the final out. The right-hander, who made his way back from a left oblique injury, didn’t allow a run over the last 1⅔ innings.
“I thought I was done. I didn’t think we were done,” Masterson said. “The Good Lord must have touched my side to allow me to be able to pitch again and be part of the run these guys made. It is so incredible to be a part of it.”
It was a historical turnaround for the Indians, who won 92 games a year after losing 94, to tie the franchise record for increased victories from one season to the next.
It came with a number of new faces on the roster, including Swisher, Cleveland’s most recognizable offseason addition.
“This is what it’s all about,” Swisher said. “You play 162 games in 183 days and to be standing where we are right now, man … I don’t think anybody on the planet thought the Tribe would be where we are right now. No one expected anything of us. No one’s gonna still expect anything of us. We just gotta keep going out there and doing our thing.”
The Indians get two days off before beginning the postseason trail with a one-game, winner-move-on meeting against Texas or Tampa Bay.
“I don’t think you can ever really exhale until a season’s over,” Francona said. “I think we can regroup, which is good. We’ll give our bullpen a couple days off — they really need it. It’s an opportunity. We have an opportunity to keep playing. We’ll embrace it and see how we do.
“Whoever we play, I mean both teams are gonna go at it because if you lose you go home. So it’ll be exciting to be a part of that. We’re honored to be a part of that.”
Who would have ever thought that was possible when the season began?
WHO: Cleveland vs. Tampa Bay or Texas
WHAT: American League wild-card game
WHEN: Wednesday, 8:07 p.m.
WHERE: Progressive Field
PITCHERS: Salazar (2-3, 3.12 ERA) vs. TBD
TV/RADIO: TBS; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM