CLEVELAND -- It was setting up to be déjà vu for the Indians. They had just blown a three-run lead in the eighth inning on Tuesday, and it seemed as if they were going to cough up a four-run lead in the ninth on Wednesday night. But Oscar Mercado thought otherwise.
With the bases loaded, Eloy Jiménez, who launched the game-winning home run the night prior, laced a line drive to deep center field that, off the bat, looked like another victorious swing for the White Sox. But an incredible diving catch by Mercado prevented any runs from scoring, allowing the Indians to walk away with an 8-6 victory at Progressive Field.
"The greatest [catch] I've ever seen," Indians designated hitter Franmil Reyes said. "And at that moment, we needed it. That was very impressive."
"Probably one of the best catches I've ever seen," White Sox manager Rick Renteria said. "And you guys, I'm sure you've seen a lot of baseball. That was one of the best catches I've ever seen."
The Indians' bullpen had been the best in baseball through the end of July, posting a 3.19 ERA. But entering play on Wednesday, it had owned a 4.86 ERA since the beginning of August. After Carlos Carrasco gave up back-to-back homers in the eighth inning to put the White Sox ahead on Tuesday, Brad Hand ran into trouble the next night after entering with a four-run lead.
Hand struck out the first batter he faced, but then the wheels fell off the cart. He gave up a single, then a two-run homer before loading the bases on two singles and a walk. Indians manager Terry Francona then came out of the dugout to pull Hand and call on Nick Wittgren to escape the jam.
"[Hand's] breaking ball is not quite at the depth that it's had," Francona said. "We really wanted him to pitch because it had been five days. I don't know if that has anything to do with it or not."
Then, Mercado became the hero.
Jimenez scorched a 110.8-mph line drive to center field that Mercado was able to snag on a leaping attempt, reaching over his head to secure the ball before tumbling to the ground.
"I couldn't really believe it," Indians starter Shane Bieber said of the catch. "I kind of put my hands on my head and I'm like, 'Holy ... smokes.' I think that was all our reaction in here. That was huge. I expect to see that on the TV for a week or so maybe, hopefully more."
As soon as it was barreled, the ball looked like a clear base hit, so much so that the White Sox were not tagging up. Mercado quickly got to his feet and fired the ball in to his cutoff man as all baserunners returned to their bags, preserving the two-run lead.
"I knew there was a guy at second base, and I wasn't sure what he was going to do," Mercado said. "So I just got up and threw it back. I threw it straight down to [Francisco Lindor]. I didn't even know what had happened. I didn't know the guy didn't tag. When they finally announced the pinch-hitter, I was like, 'The bases are still loaded?' Then I was like, 'Oh wait, he didn't tag.'"
As Jimenez rounded first, he threw his hands to his head in disbelief and tipped his helmet toward center field with a grin on his face.
"I don't know where he came from," Jimenez said. "But it was a nice play for him. I need to give him credit because it was a good catch and a good moment. ... I started laughing because I never expect him to catch that ball, but it's OK."
Mercado hit a rough stretch defensively while the team was in New York just over two weeks ago. In a three-game span, he committed three errors -- all in left field -- and was kept out of the lineup the next two nights.
"For a few weeks there I wasn't exactly living up to my own standards of defensive play," Mercado said. "I was working on it during batting practice. I just feel like getting more and more comfortable, back to what I know I'm capable of back there. Just the fact that I was able to help the team out is exciting."
Suddenly the somber mood throughout Progressive Field turned electric as the Indians were one out away from climbing within a half-game of the Rays in the American League Wild Card race and moving to 5 1/2 games behind the Twins in the AL Central.
Wittgren then got Ryan Goins to strike out to end the game.
"That got the whole dugout and the pitcher pumped up and fired up to battle with the next batter," Reyes said. "Things like that are gonna be the good things that help this team to go to where guys can take us."