Carmona slams door on Braves

Carmona slams door on Braves

CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Eric Wedge called it the "game-changing play."

The pitcher, Tribe reliever Rafael Betancourt, described it as "awesome."

And the dismayed hitter, Atlanta's Chipper Jones, lamented that the "sure single" was the "play of the game."

Perhaps no moment in the Indians' 5-2 win on Sunday afternoon at Jacobs Field better illustrated the kind of day it was for Cleveland than left fielder Jason Michaels' diving catch in the eighth inning.

For it was more than just a spectacular rally-stifling play. It took remarkable foresight as well.

As the Tribe held onto a 5-2 lead with two runners on and one out in the eighth, Betancourt had a 2-2 count on Jones. First-base coach Jeff Datz, who also coaches the outfielders, motioned from the dugout for Michaels to move about 10 feet closer to the line. He figured Jones, now in protection mode, might simply try to spray the ball down the left-field line.

Good call.

"Guess it ended up working out," Michaels said laughing. "I had to have it."

And if the Indians needed any further proof that it was their day, it came on a few other defensive gems, a slumping offense that used a key Atlanta error to break through with a four-run sixth and starter Fausto Carmona coming back from his first loss in nearly two months to pitch as dominant as ever.

In all, these slump-busting ingredients allowed the Indians to avoid being swept for the first time at home this year and kept them a game ahead of the Detroit Tigers atop the American League Central.

It also may have pushed Carmona a step closer toward a possible trip to next month's All-Star Game.

The 23-year-old right-hander, coming off a hard-luck loss in Florida on Tuesday, allowed just two runs on five hits while striking out five over seven innings.

"Fausto was in command throughout the day," Wedge said. "Another great performance."

But even the final numbers hardly tell the story of how dominant Carmona was.

Carmona faced just four hitters over the minimum through seven-plus innings. And his sinker was as effective as ever -- perhaps more so.

Carmona, consistently sitting in the mid-90s with his sinker, saw 11 of the 15 outs the Braves put in play come on ground balls, and he struck out at least five hitters for a fourth straight game.

This comes after Carmona struck out five just one time over his first nine starts. One explanation is Carmona's velocity having slightly increased in recent weeks.

"I wasn't trying to throw hard," Carmona said. "It was coming out of my hand harder, but I wasn't trying to throw any harder. I wasn't trying to strike anyone out."

But he has, and it begs the obvious question: Might Carmona be getting even better? Might the man whose eight wins are tied for third best in the AL be a serious candidate to pitch in next month's Midsummer Classic in San Francisco.

He's been asked about the All-Star Game so much that the words no longer need translation.

Carmona smiled and said he would indeed be thrilled to make it, but he ended the conversation there.

"I'm not even thinking about it," said Carmona, who improved to 6-0 in day games. "Someone else picks the pitchers. I just have to continue pitching well."

That does not look to be a problem. In fact, Carmona may be having more problems with the offense behind him than anything else. After the Tribe's shutout loss wasted his quality start last week, it looked to be more of the same on Sunday.

The Tribe's bats were familiarly quiet for much of the afternoon. Cleveland's struggling offense, which has been held to three runs or fewer in eight of its last 13 games, had just one hit through four innings off Braves starter Kyle Davies.

"He was pretty much shutting us down," Michaels said.

But the Tribe's bats finally emerged with a run in the fifth and four runs in the sixth.

Two of those runs in the sixth came on a Ryan Garko roller that skipped past Scott Thorman at first base. But while the Indians had just six hits -- one of which came off the bat of Casey Blake to extend his Majors-leading hitting streak to 26 games -- Wedge was encouraged.

It was just the day they needed.

"It takes days like today to work back in the right direction," Wedge said. "You put a big inning like that together, you catch a few breaks and that's what starts to push you in the right direction. These guys are going to come around. They work too hard not to, quite frankly."

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.