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Morneau’s walk-off homer sends Indians sliding toward last place

By Sheldon Ocker, Akron Beacon Journal –

MINNEAPOLIS — Besides holding tryouts to determine who comes and who goes over the winter and which players are the favorites to win roster spots in 2013, the Indians technically remain competitors in the American League until the schedule mercifully concludes 22 games hence.

It has been more than a month since they’ve been in a duel with the teams at the top of the Central Division standings, but they remain in a fracas with the Twins and maybe the Kansas City Royals for the honor of staying out of last place.

The Tribe hasn’t helped itself in its current series at Target Field, where the Twins earned an 8-7, last at-bat victory Sunday on Justin Morneau’s second home run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning.

With a game to play Monday night before leaving town, the Indians remain one game ahead of last-place Minnesota but four games behind third-place Kansas City. The Tribe will play the Twins three more times at Progressive Field and has three left with the Royals at home plus three at Kauffman Stadium.

Regardless of the outcome of the race to stay out of the cellar, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson will not have to worry about paying overtime to pay extra cops to control traffic at a downtown parade.

“It’s very disheartening to be in the position we’re in,” said Vinnie Pestano, who gave up the laser shot to Morneau on a first-pitch fastball. “Our focus is not to stay out of last place but to win every game we play.”

Indians manager Manny Acta has repeatedly said that finishing ahead of whoever is last in the division is important. His players seem to agree.

“We definitely don’t want to finish last in the Central,” said Jason Donald, whose triple in the eighth tied the score. “Some people say it’s not important where you finish if you don’t finish first, but there’s a pride factor.”

In the Indians’ case, pride goeth before and after a fall. Free fall, in fact is what the Tribe has specialized in the past six weeks, though September has seen the club stabilize to some degree.

On Sunday, the hitters came out of the woodwork, but the pitching was spotty, at best. Acta’s primary complaint and a big reason the club lost is that in a few critical situations, pitchers who had things going their way delivered big, fat meatball pitches down the middle for no reason.

“It happened three times,” Acta said. “They got a single, a double and a home run. You have to do a better job expanding the zone when you have a guy down 0-and-2.”

When the pitcher has that much of an advantage, his job is not to throw a pitch that makes a batter’s eyes light up with glee.

“We didn’t execute, especially on the mound,” Acta said. “The objective after a guy is down 0-and-2 is to make him chase pitches out of the zone.”

Mistake No. 1 in this regard occurred in the third inning, when Morneau was behind in the count 0-and-2 to starter Corey Kluber and walloped his first home run of the day with Joe Mauer on first.

In the seventh, Mauer doubled against Esmil Rogers on an 0-and-2 pitch with one out to put runners on second and third. Later in the inning, Tony Sipp threw an 0-and-2 pitch to Chris Parmalee, who delivered a two-run single to give the Twins a temporary lead.

Those three pitches cost the Tribe four runs, more than enough to lose the game.

There were two outs in the ninth, when Morneau went deep again on the first pitch he saw from Pestano.

“That’s his MO,” Pestano said. “Lefties try to jump on me early. I knew he was going to be aggressive. I tried to jam him, but I didn’t execute the pitch. Good hitters, when they get a mistake, they don’t miss those pitches.”

An instant after bat met ball, Pestano was walking off the mound.

“I’m not going to stand there and watch them celebrate,” he said. “What am I supposed to do, cry?”

It might be too little, too late, but Carlos Santana is beginning to heat up at the plate. Sunday, he led off the second inning with his 15th home run of the season, and in the fifth, he doubled home another run, which pushed his RBI total to 63 for the season.

“Carlos is making an effort to stay on the ball and go up the middle,” Acta said. “We battled all day, but if you don’t pitch well, you don’t win.”

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