KANSAS CITY -- The Indians had been down this extra-innings road before, including a handful of times in the last month. It was the same setup: Have closer Emmanuel Clase work the ninth and figure out who would be able to take the ball in the 10th if the Indians made it that far.
That person was Nick Wittgren throughout August, but after he suffered three losses in these exact scenarios, the team went a different route -- one that led them to a 5-3 victory over the Royals on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
This time, it was Blake Parker’s turn. A reliever who spent the majority of the early weeks of the season pitching in the middle innings has slowly started to work later and later in the games as the season has gone on. Now, it was up to him to try to escape a tie game in the bottom of the 10th unscathed.
“Those are the moments you live for, that you want to be in the game when the game's on the line,” Parker said. "There's no other moment like that in the whole game.”
Parker got the ground ball he was looking for to start the inning, but Yu Chang -- who was the hero who tied the game in the seventh on a pinch-hit homer -- committed a throwing error, resulting in men on the corners with no outs. A walk loaded the bases and the Indians' chances of winning plummeted to just 7 percent, according to Baseball Savant. But somehow, Parker pulled off a magic act that would put Harry Houdini to shame, striking out the red-hot Salvador Perez and forcing both Carlos Santana and Michael A. Taylor to pop out to escape the jam.
“Those are the moments that I like to take pride in,” Parker said, “and being able to control my heartbeat, take it one pitch at a time, try to execute the pitch the best I can and let the results happen.”
“That's what happens when you execute,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “You're talking about 3-4-5 in their lineup. That says a lot.”
That left the door open for the Indians to respond with a bloop single by Austin Hedges to shallow right field and a double from Chang to put Cleveland ahead by two runs. And once again, the team was faced with another decision of who to hand the ball to.
The first option would normally be James Karinchak, who is in Triple-A Columbus working through some of the issues that have plagued him over the last three months. Nick Sandlin would be the next best option, but he’s on the injured list. The team already used Bryan Shaw and Clase in the eighth and ninth, leaving a giant puzzle for the Indians coaching staff to piece together for the rest of the game.
While the situation caused problems for Cleveland’s bullpen management, it also opened opportunities for the team to learn who could possibly take on higher-leverage roles in 2022 and beyond. And the first person to be tested was Trevor Stephan.
Stephan was the Indians’ Rule 5 Draft pick this winter and has earned his spot in the bullpen for the entire season, improving as each day has passed.
“I mean you’ve just got to remember the guy hasn’t pitched in the big leagues,” Hedges said. “He was a Rule 5 guy and it’s not an easy thing to learn the big leagues as a rookie and he’s been outstanding.”
Stephan took advantage of the opportunity he was given. He forced a flyout before recording back-to-back strikeouts to post another scoreless frame to secure Cleveland’s eighth win in its last 11 games. But the efforts meant much more than improving the team’s record to two games above .500. This is the start of preparing for the future.
If the Indians are looking for another veteran presence in the ’pen like they usually do, maybe Parker can use this final month to prove he’s worth bringing back. And if the club is hoping more of the younger arms will be contenders to take on more high-leverage innings in 2022, Stephan just had an impressive first audition.
“He’s learned so much every time he goes out there,” Hedges said of Stephan, “and he gets more and more confidence and he was able to throw a split-finger in a big situation to strike out [Adalberto] Mondesi, which has been a pitch he’s been working on all year. If that thing clicks for him, we’re looking at a really nice high-leverage, late-inning bullpen guy.”