Tribe doesn't knuckle under on Opening Night
Masterson yields one run over six frames; Asdrubal hits clutch homer
TORONTO -- This was an evening celebrating heightened expectations. Both the Indians and the Blue Jays underwent dramatic roster makeovers over the offseason, inserting more star power to their respective lineups and generating renewed excitement within their title-starved fan bases.
It seemed fitting that the pair of overhauled ballclubs would battle it out on Opening Night.
In front of a sold-out and raucous Rogers Centre crowd, Cleveland claimed a season-opening 4-1 victory over Toronto on Tuesday night. Sinkerballer Justin Masterson fought his way through six innings and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera clubbed a critical home run, giving the Indians enough to survive against the unpredictable and often-dominating ways of Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
As he watched it all unfold from the visitors' dugout, new manager Terry Francona -- a man with two World Series rings and a life spent in and around the game -- found himself overwhelmed by nerves.
"I've been doing this for a long time," Francona said. "I was so nervous the whole game -- it surprised me. I think I kind of came to realize early in the game how much I care about these guys already. It hit me like a ton of bricks."
The hiring of Francona in October initiated the Indians' offseason facelift.
Ownership freed up the funds to land big-ticket free agents such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and general manager Chris Antonetti made a wave of trades -- big and small -- to address multiple needs on the roster and in the farm system. The result was an Opening Day roster featuring a dozen newcomers and an energized cast of players determined to swiftly move on from last year's 94-loss showing.
Winning on Day 1 was a great way to start.
"It's great to get one for Tito," said closer Chris Perez, referring to Francona, "but it's great getting one for our team, too, and the city. There's a lot better feeling after Opening Day this time than last year. He's going to get a lot more wins here, but it's good to get the first one out of the way."
Perez had been thinking a lot lately about Opening Day a year ago, and he thought about it some more when he was summoned from the bullpen in the ninth inning.
A year ago, following a strong outing by Masterson, Perez entered with a 4-1 lead against the Blue Jays and suffered a blown save that led to a 16-inning loss. The All-Star stopper emerged from the bullpen behind the right-field wall on Tuesday night with Cleveland clinging to a 4-1 lead.
The baseball gods have a cruel sense of humor.
"C.P. had the same stuff he had last year," Masterson said with a smirk, "and he came in and was able to slice and dice this year. It was nice."
Perez followed a flawless eighth inning by setup man Vinnie Pestano, who followed a one-two-three seventh turned in by sidearmer Joe Smith. That late-inning trio has been one of Cleveland's consistent strengths over the past two seasons.
"Being that force at the end of the game is exactly what us three want to be," Pestano said.
Dickey's signature knuckleball did its dance throughout the evening, but at times to his detriment. Catcher J.P. Arencibia was charged with three passed balls, including a pair that paved the way for Cleveland's first run of the season.
Michael Brantley opened the second inning with a single to center field and then advanced 180 feet to third base thanks to two knucklers that Arencibia was unable to corral. That turned a routine groundout to shortstop off the bat of Tribe third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall into a run-producing chopper, scoring Brantley from third with ease.
Drew Stubbs -- acquired from the Reds during December's blockbuster three-team, nine-player trade -- followed with an RBI single to left field to push the Indians to a 2-0 lead.
"It was moving well," said Dickey, who allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits with four strikeouts and as many walks in six innings. "Early on in particular, it was moving pretty violently right at the plate and you saw that manifest in J.P. struggling with it a little bit. That's part of it."
The Indians later ran to a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning, when Cabrera sent an offering from Dickey towering over the right-field wall for a two-run home run. Off the bat, Cabrera was not sure it had the distance. The baseball soared seemingly in slow motion before dropping into the netting over the fence.
"I'll say I got lucky there," Cabrera said with a smile.
Masterson did his part by sidestepping harm for the Indians.
The Blue Jays' lone breakthrough against Masterson came in the third inning, when Toronto loaded the bases with no outs. Adam Lind then sent a pitch from Masterson scorching up the middle, where Cabrera -- perfectly positioned -- made a quick back-handed grab, and then a flip to second baseman Jason Kipnis, starting a rally-killing double play.
A run scored on the play, but Masterson escaped further damage by striking out Arencibia.
"It turned into the Asdrubal Cabrera show, to be honest with you," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Big double play that he turned -- could have been a game changer early in the game. And then, of course, the big home run."
Masterson walked four and struck out five in his six innings, scattering three hits along the way. His pitch count climbed early, but Francona gave a show of faith in his staff leader by sending Masterson out for the sixth inning. The right-hander rewarded Francona's trust by retiring the final three batters he faced.
"We were just battling," Masterson said. "It was probably a little excitement, a little bit of everything. Then we were able to slowly make some stuff happen, and we were able to get through some balls, and then the last couple innings we finished off really, really good."
As a team, the Indians have started this season off really well.
That did not make it any easier on Francona's stomach.
"I was a nervous wreck," Francona said, "which hopefully will go away. Not the caring part. The nervous part."