Perez's struggles overshadow win, leave Indians shaken
MINNEAPOLIS -- This is what Chris Perez has wrought.
With a spot in the postseason riding on the final three games of the season, the Indians and manager Terry Francona have to figure out what to do about their closer.
Because given a chance to build his confidence and his manager’s confidence in him, Perez did just the opposite.
Suddenly, it seems logical that the Indians were talking well into the night about what to do about the ninth inning.
Perez entered a game that seemed destined to be a smooth (pun intended for Michael Brantley’s three hits) and easy win. But given a six-run lead, Perez came within an eyelash of frittering it away by giving up four runs in two-thirds of an inning.
Joe Smith got the final out, but had to do so with runners on first and second.
What seemed like an easy win came that close to a disaster, because as Perez was giving up runs in the ninth, Texas was beating the Angels in the bottom of the ninth. The bottom line is good: The Indians kept pace with Tampa Bay and Texas by beating the Twins 6-5. They remain one game out of the first wild card, one game ahead of the Rangers.
But for the first time all season, Terry Francona did not show his typical post-game confidence -- and even spoke as if he was shaken by what he watched.
And the clubhouse had anything but the feel of a winning one.
This is what happens when a manager suddenly realizes he may have to figure out his closer’s spot with a playoff spot in the balance, and when a manager realizes he needs to do something he never wants to do -- and that's jumble his bullpen roles.
Francona, understandably, was not ready to make any decisions or announcements right after the game, but he didn't deny a change could be imminent.
“We need to settle down and kind of think it through,” he said. “Five or ten minutes after the game is not the time. You got to relax a little bit and talk where you can have a decent conversation.”
Which makes sense. But he also understood he’d be asked about Perez, whose struggles go well beyond his last two bad outings.
Since Aug. 3, Perez has given up 17 earned runs and seven home runs in 20 1/3 innings. That’s an ERA of 7.52, with opponents hitting .345 against him.
This is not a short-term problem.
Francona clearly hoped putting him in the ninth inning of a five-run game would help Perez find himself. Let him get an inning, get through it and gain some confidence.
“And it didn’t go as planned,” Francona said.
The manager said Perez is healthy, and added Perez is just not locating his pitches. Thursday Perez didn’t seem to have his normal velocity.
“He's making mistakes,” Francona said. “Balls are running over the plate. It started kind of innocent, that little flare to left. Balls that came right over the plate, they hit pretty good.”
Including a triple by Alex Presley and a two-run home run to right by Josmil Pinto that cut the deficit to one. One batter prior, Josh Willingham drove a ball deep to right-center that just missed driving to the stands.
Francona said Perez stuck his head in his office after the game, and it almost sounded as if Perez volunteered to take himself out of the ninth inning.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to cost us games, because I’m not locating,’” Francona said.
What to do is the question. No manager wants to change roles of relievers. As recently as Wednesday, Francona had said Perez was his closer and he didn’t want to upset things. Pitchers want to know their roles, and when Perez was going well earlier this season the bullpen was lined up and going just as well.
Suddenly, with three games left, they might have to switch, and the Indians might be trying a new closer.
“I think we’ll always figure out a way to win,” Francona said. “That’s kind of how I always view it.”
The most obvious choices come from the guys who have been pitching the most: Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith or Cody Allen.
The other options would require some moxie on the manager, because it would put guys in roles they aren’t accustomed to.
The clearest option seems to be Justin Masterson, who pitched the ninth on Wednesday. Masterson is the team’s No. 1 starter, and he’s returning from an oblique strain. He does not seem ready to start and pitch six or seven innings. But he does seem ready to pitch in relief -- though nobody knows if he can pitch three days in a row the way a closer does in the postseason.
A longshot: Danny Salazar, though that would move a guy the Indians love in the rotation out of the starting spot, and put a guy who hasn’t pitched more than a couple months in the big leagues in one of the toughest spots in the bullpen.
Masterson as the closer would probably affect the others the least, and he would be an imposing presence striding in for the ninth. He also has pitched in relief when he was with the Red Sox.
The other wild card: Zach McAllister, who was removed from Friday’s game in the fifth. Francona said McAllister had some soreness in his side; if he’s injured -- and that’s a big if -- that throws another wrench in the gears.
“We’ll figure it out,” Francona said.
Whatever decision he makes will be based on logic, because that’s the way he operates. He always wants a reason and an explanation to give his players, and he’ll explain it publicly.
If Perez isn’t pitching well, getting him out of the ninth might even help the team.
But that is based on the assumption that the Indians decide on the right closer.
Not much rides on the choice.
Maybe just a spot in the postseason.