Masterson was an absolute ace on the mound, striking out the side in the 1st inning on his way to 10 Ks for the day (his highest total since 2009), giving up just two hits and one walk along the way. A 4th inning home run to demigod Jose Bautista was the only real blemish on his slate and the Tribe was still up 4-1 when Masterson gave way to closer Chris Perez for the 9th.
Before you could say "Get him out of there! Get him out of there! For the love of God, get that man out of there!" the lead had been vaporized by a full-blown Perez meltdown. Vinnie Pestano came on to finish the inning before Cleveland fell behind, and the Indians would get a runner to third with just one out in the bottom of the 9th, but they couldn't get him in and the game would head to extra innings. A lot of extra innings.
Neither team could find a run in the extra frames, just zero after zero on the scoreboard. The Tribe loaded the bases with one out in the 12th, but Asdrubal Cabrera hit into an inning ending double play. Cleveland wouldn't muster another hit for the rest of the day. When the game entered its 16th inning, it became the longest Opening Day contest in history. Moments later, a three-run blast by Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia basically ended things. Final score, Blue Jays 7, Indians 4.
Over the final fourteen innings, the Indians managed just four hits, none of them for extra bases. Newly acquired 1B Casey Kotchman went 0-7, the worst Indians Opening Day performance ever (at least 1918, which is as far back as Baseball-Reference's incredible Play Index goes). Lead-off man Michael Brantley went 1 for 6, while the newly extended Cabrera went 1 for 7. It was obviously an ugly day for the line-up. Masterson was a huge bright spot. I can't quite see him repeating his 2011 numbers, but am hopeful he can come close, and this was certainly a great step in that direction. Pestano, Smith, and Sipp, three guys likely to throw a lot of relief innings, combined for 4.1 scoreless frames. But Perez, oh Perez.
Only a few days ago, in my season preview, I wrote that having Perez as the closer wasn't the worst thing in the world, because closers often pitch in lower leverage situation anyway (so many of their appearances come with the bases empty and a two or three run lead, when almost any MLB pitcher is going to be able to hold on over 90% of the time), whereas other top relievers are likely to come into tie-games, and with runners already on-base.
Well, I hate to wildly overreact to one bad outing, but Perez doesn't belong in the closer role. Frankly, I'm not sure he belongs in any role for a Major League team.
Instead of seeing this as an over-reaction to yesterday, I'm going to view it as an under-reaction to how poorly Perez pitched last year. Perez's ERA spiked from 1.71 in 2010 to 3.32 in 2011. 1.71 was never going to be sustainable though, and 3.32 doesn't seem bad. Anyway, I wasn't expecting him to be Mariano Rivera in 2012, I just thought he would be a serviceable option for the end of games. Give him the glory of the meaningless save, while better arms handle the more difficult situations. Looking more closely at his 2011 numbers though, they are troubling:
- His line drive and fly ball rates climbed to career highs, making him more susceptible to the home run ball that can unravel a lead in a hurry.
- His K/9 ratio was 10.7 in 2009 and 8.7 in 2010, but last season, it dropped all the way to 5.9, not good for a relief "ace."
- His walk rate has been pretty steady, so his K/BB ratio has gotten worse over the years. It was just 1.5 in 2011 (meaning he struck-out just 1.5 batters for every batter he walked). Among all pitchers who pitched in at least 50 games and totaled at least 50 innings, that rated 106th out of 115. The few guys worse than him were mostly mop-up pitchers, little used in important situations.
One loss, even one as painful as yesterday's, isn't the end of the world, but there are more losses just like it ahead, if the Indians don't find a better solution to endgame scenarios.