CLEVELAND -- If 90 percent of the game of baseball really is half-mental, as Yogi Berra once so eloquently stated, it's 100 percent fully mental in the late innings of a close ballgame. It is in that mental domain where the Indians haven't fared particularly well this season. And the mental side especially tripped them up in a 3-2 loss to the Giants on Tuesday night at Progressive Field.
Embroiled in a pitchers' duel that had these two teams tied at 1 apiece heading into the eighth, the Indians were undone late by an errant throw from catcher Kelly Shoppach and a perfectly executed squeeze bunt from former fan favorite Omar Vizquel, who made a triumphant return to his Cleveland roots. "You can't make mistakes late in the ballgame," manager Eric Wedge said, "and expect to win when it's tight like that." These tight games have not been a Tribe specialty. The Indians are now 3-11 in games tied after seven innings. This one was tied after seven, in part, because of yet another strong outing from Aaron Laffey that resulted in yet another no-decision for the young left-hander. Laffey went 6 2/3 innings in which he allowed nothing more than a run on four hits with three walks and a strikeout. When he found trouble, he used his trusty sinker to induce a pair of ground-ball double plays. His only mistake came when he surrendered a two-out RBI single to Jose Castillo in the second. The trouble in the second and the trouble in the seventh, when he let the Giants load the bases on a double and two walks, proved this wasn't a perfect outing for Laffey. But it was still an admirable one. "For a young pitcher, he reels himself in," Wedge said. "He finds his release point and does a better job with the way the baseball comes off his fingers." But Laffey has learned all too often this season that the way his offense backs him up is out of his hands. They didn't back him up much on this night. Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez held the Tribe to a run on five hits over 7 2/3, walking two and striking out eight. Ryan Garko's first-inning RBI single was it for the Indians. So when Laffey handed the ball over to reliever Rafael Betancourt with those bases loaded in the seventh, he did so knowing he wouldn't be notching a victory. Instead, he was saddled with his third no-decision in six starts. "I can't control it," said Laffey, who has allowed two runs or less in eight of his 10 starts. "I'm a big believer in not worrying about the uncontrollable. Once that ball leaves my hand, I'm not in control anymore." It was the way the ball left Shoppach's hand that really hurt the Tribe. In the eighth, Betancourt walked Ray Durham and gave up a single to Randy Winn to put runners on the corners with one out. He then struck out Bengie Molina and was on the cusp of escaping the jam. But when Winn broke for second on a pitch to Aaron Rowand, Shoppach took a quick glance to his left to ensure Durham wasn't going anywhere, then fired a dipping throw to second. The ball bounced in the dirt and past second baseman Jamey Carroll. As it scooted into the outfield, Durham scooted home with the go-ahead run. "I was a little hesitant," Shoppach said. "The ball came out funny. I had to make sure that they weren't trying to pull something, so I took a quick peek down to third. I've done it that way a million times. The ball just didn't come out of my hand right." It appeared as though Winn might have beaten even a perfect throw, but Wedge didn't think so. "If [Shoppach] makes a good throw there, [Winn] is out," Wedge said. "You can't just shut the game down because you're afraid to make a mistake in that situation. Shoppy's just got to play catch with [Carroll] out there, and the infielder's got to keep the ball in the infield." Vizquel, who received a hearty round of cheers each time he stepped to the plate, kept the ball in the infield on his squeeze attempt that put the Indians away in the ninth. With runners on second and third and one out, Vizquel bunted to the third-base side, allowing Rich Aurilia to streak home. Third baseman Casey Blake fumbled the ball enough to allow Vizquel to reach on the squeeze. It was flawless execution late -- something the Indians lacked in this loss. "There's not too many guys who can get that one down like that and give it some direction, too," Wedge said. "Omar's pretty good at that." By the time the Indians got their offense going again in the ninth, it was too late. They scored a run off Giants closer Brian Wilson, but Shoppach struck out swinging with two on and two out. Were the Indians guilty of playing tight in this tight game? "I hope not," Shoppach said. "There's no room for doubt in this game." And in a close game such as this one, there's no room for error, as the Indians again proved.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.