CLEVELAND - A four-run lead is usually more than enough for a team’s closer to hold down in the ninth.
But thanks to another ratty outing from Frank Francisco, the Toronto Blue Jays' 4-0 lead wasn’t large enough.
Francisco wasn’t around by the time Travis Hafner hit a grand slam on the first pitch off lefty Luis Perez to win it 5-4 for the Cleveland Indians.
But it was Francisco who lit the fuse as he couldn’t retire any of the three batters he faced — resulting in two hits and a walk — before manager John Farrell had seen enough and yanked him from the game.
In came Perez and it was hardly a fair spot to place a rookie in asking him to put out the fire with the bases loaded and nobody out in just his second save situation of his major league career.
Perez started in the right direction by striking out Michael Brantley but then gave up a two-strike RBI single to Asdrubal Cabrera.
That brought the hulking Haffner to the plate. On Perez’ first pitch Haffner didn’t miss, and the rest is history.
“Regardless of the time of the season, that’s a gut-wrenching loss,” Farrell said. “It was evident through the first three hitters (Francisco) wasn’t sharp, the location wasn’t quite there and given where they are in the lineup with the left-handers coming I made the move to get Luis.
“I realize it’s a young pitcher in that situation but as susceptible as they can be against left-handers, and his sinking fastball, (we) looked to get a ball on the ground for potentially a double play in that situation.”
The only other option for Farrell after Francisco was right-hander Jon Rauch, who is not as effective against lefties as Perez has been.
In the Jays clubhouse, Francisco was running hot.
He waved a reporter over asking: “Are you looking for me?” Then when approached he turned and said, “F--- you,” and steamed towards the showers.
Francisco has blown hot and cold when called to close them out and on the season has 10 saves in 14 opportunities.
Rauch is 7-for-9 in save situations but doesn’t throw as hard as Francisco and relies on control and contact to get hitters out.
A dependable, consistent closer is something that the Jays haven’t been able to establish all year.
“Consitsency is the word,” Farrell said. “Franky was dominant, his last outing in Boston (three punchouts following a leadoff single). Yet he quite wasn’t there tonight.”
When Francisco wasn’t up to the task, Farrell believed his best option, given the next five Cleveland hitters either batted left-handed or were switch hitters, was his only left-hander available — Perez.
“With the left-on-left matchup, that was the choice,” he said.
The outcome ruined a Houdini-like outing from starter Carlos Villanueva.
He threw six scoreless innings, struck out a career-high seven batters and stranded nine runners along the way.
Man in motion
The Jays' opening run in the second inning was set up by their Man in Motion, Aaron Hill.
Prior to this season, Hill’s best season swiping bags came in 2009 when he stole all of six bases.
But this campaign, Hill has been off and running. In the second, he led off with a walk, stole second and ended up at third when the throw from the catcher caromed off the glove of Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. It was Hill’s 11th stolen base of the season and he has yet to be thrown out.
Seconds later, Hill trotted home on Travis Snider’s line drive single to centre.
However, all good things must come to an end, and in the fifth Hill was finally thrown out attempting to steal second.
In praise of Bautista
Now that Jose Bautista has moved from curiosity to all-star and has received the endorsement of the fans across the United States by ending with the most votes for the upcoming mid-summer classic in Phoenix, he is becoming almost hoarse due to interview requests.
So it was no surprise when the first day in Cleveland, the local columnists flocked around manager Farrell to pick his brain about Bautista’s exploits.
The Jays right fielder turned third baseman is once again in the midst of one of his hot runs at the plate. He hit a one-out bomb in the ninth against the Indians, his fifth homer in his last seven games and eighth in his last 15, to climb to 29 home runs and stretch his lead in that department.
Like all managers with gifted players, Farrell never gets tired of Bautista queries and likes to steer the writers away from his on-the-field exploits to what he means to the organization and team in the clubhouse and as an ambassador of the city and Canada.
“People will always point to the numbers, the home runs, the RBIs, the total fan voting that he received,” Farrell said. “We’re privy to and privileged to see the person and to me that is what makes him very special.
“What really sets him apart from many others is that he has the team first and plays for the name on the front of the jersey as opposed to the name on the back.”
As if on cue, Bautista came up with an eye-popping defensive play in the fourth. With one out, Matt LaPorta hit a ground ball up the third-base line that Bautista made a sliding backhand catch on in foul territory. He quickly jumped to his feet and threw a laser to first, a throw that would have made former Jays third baseman Scott Rolen proud, to nail the runner. It saved a run as Jack Hannahan followed with a triple to right.
No doubt it will be viewed later on ESPN as one of their Web Gems.