The giant American flag was spectacular. The red, white and blue balloons drifted skyward right on cue. The ceremonial first pitches were touching.
Everything about Cleveland’s home opener seemed perfect.
Until it started.
Travis Hafner returned as a member of the Yankees and hit a three-run homer in the first inning and starter Ubaldo Jimenez struggled from the outset as New York beat Cleveland 11-6 on Monday, spoiling Terry Francona’s first home game as Indians manager.
Robinson Cano homered twice for the Yankees, who handed Cleveland its fifth straight home-opening loss.
This wasn’t the way the Indians wanted to start their home schedule, not after months of buildup following ownership’s unexpected $120 million spending spree in free agency. Still, it was only one game.
”I was so proud to go out there today, man,” said Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, who signed a four-year, $56 million contract in December. ”I mean that place was rockin’ and rollin’, you know, obviously, you wish you could have pulled out a `W’ in a game like that, but just the excitement that was there, just that feeling, that aura in the stadium, that was fun to be a part of.”
Hafner hit his tone-setting, three-run homer in the first off Jimenez (0-1) and drove in four runs in his Cleveland homecoming.
In a ballpark he knows better than any, Hafner turned pregame cheers to boos with one swing.
”If you’re playing for the Yankees and do well, you’re going to get booed,” he said.
Hiroki Kuroda (1-1) shook off a shaky, 34-pitch first and showed no signs of being bothered by a bruised right middle finger as the Yankees finally won a home opener after losing their own and Detroit’s last week.
It was a sweet return for Hafner, who spent 10 seasons with the Indians before the team decided not to exercise his $13 million club option for 2013. He signed a one-year, $2 million free agent contract in February with New York. His shot over the fence in center – his 100th career homer at Progressive Field – seemed to deflate Cleveland’s sellout crowd that had been counting down the days until Francona and the Indians came home.
So was that Hafner’s plan?
”Not a bad plan,” he said, smiling.
Cleveland’s loss could be compounded by an injury to Indians catcher Carlos Santana, who was forced to leave in the ninth inning after he bruised his thumb trying to catch a pitch from closer Chris Perez. The team said Santana was scheduled to undergo X-rays.
Mike Aviles hit a two-run homer in the eighth for the rebuilt Indians, who lost the opener of a 10-game homestand after going 3-3 on the road.
After Francona was hired in October, Cleveland owner Paul Dolan went out and signed Swisher, Michael Bourn and Brett Myers. The Indians, though, may not have enough starting pitching to contend and that was the case against the Yankees as Jimenez was tagged for seven runs in 4 1-3 innings.
Jimenez tied for the AL lead with 17 losses last season, and the Indians spent most of spring training working on his mechanics. He remains a project.
”I thought it was a struggle for him to get loose,” Francona said. ”Today was one of those days where I thought he fought his mechanics a little bit. He was rushing it to the plate, wasn’t as good as he had been, so pitches were flat. There wasn’t as much deception, especially to the left-handers. It was kind of evident from the beginning that it was a struggle.”
The Indians beat two Cy Young winners – R.A. Dickey and David Price – on their season-opening road trip, but couldn’t keep pace with the Yankees as Hafner got things started and Cano kept it rolling.
”When Cano starts feeling good, he can hit anybody, anywhere,” Francona said. ”That’s the last guy we want to get hot.”
The day started oddly for Francona, who said he got lost while making the two-block walk from his downtown apartment to Progressive Field. While he may have needed directions to find the ballpark, it was a special day for Francona, whose father, Tito, played for the Indians from 1959-64.
Before the game, the Franconas took part in a special Indians sons-and-fathers ceremonial first pitch that included the Swishers, Alomars, McAllisters and Brantleys. After catching his dad’s throw on one hop, Francona hugged his 79-year-old namesake, a touching moment on a day of pageantry.
After falling behind 3-0, the Indians responded with three runs in their first at-bat with sacrifice flies by Jason Kipnis, an RBI single by Michael Brantley and Mark Reynolds’ sacrifice fly.
While he was on base, Brantley said he felt Indians fans shake the ballpark.
”It was awesome,” he said. ”In that first inning when Reynolds came up to the plate, I was at second base and it got me goose bumps, it really did. I was just excited, it’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
NOTES: Swisher said ”it hurt” when asked how he felt when the Yankees chose not to re-sign him after four seasons. … Swisher has hit safely in 17 straight games in Cleveland, dating back to 2008 when he was with the Chicago White Sox. … Francona said Indians DH Jason Giambi will be added to the roster Tuesday. But with Andy Pettitte starting for New York, the 42-year-old Giambi probably won’t get his first at-bat until later in the week.