CLEVELAND -- More than ever, the Indians need Ubaldo Jimenez to become a leader for their rotation. All-Star starter Justin Masterson is injured, there are multiple arms facing pitch restrictions and the offense has labored of late.
On Tuesday night, Jimenez stepped up in a big way for Cleveland.
Facing an Orioles team that has a slight edge on the Tribe in the battle for the American League's second Wild Card spot, Jimenez led the way to a 4-3 victory that was nearly derailed in the ninth inning. For at least one night, the timely hitting Cleveland has lacked lately was on hand at Progressive Field to support a strong starting performance.
"We all need to do that," Jimenez said of coming up big for the Tribe. "Masterson is our star and he got hurt, so you have to find a way to step up. If you want to make it to the playoffs, all of us, we have to step up and be there for the team."
Climbing back into the AL Central race seems like a long shot for the Indians, but the club remains 3 1/2 games behind Tampa Bay for the second Wild Card spot. The win was only the second in the past eight games against postseason contenders in the Braves, Tigers and Orioles.
Baltimore nearly robbed Jimenez of his 10th win with its three-run outburst in the ninth inning. Closer Chris Perez allowed three straight hits to open the frame -- culminating in a three-run home run off the bat of Nate McLouth -- but the pitcher settled down and retired the next three Orioles batters in order to seal a much-needed win.
"I was worried," Jimenez said of the shaky ninth inning. "It was getting kind of close. But [Perez] got strong after they scored those three runs. He got back to who he is, getting outs."
Disappointing was the fact that the Tribe's win came in front of a crowd of 9,962, marking the smallest announced September crowd in the history of Progressive Field, which opened in 1994.
"Of course, we notice," Jimenez aaid. "What can we do? We're in the playoff chase. We just got 9,000 people. There's nothing we can do. We have to go out there and try to compete -- whoever is in there rooting for us."
Pitching has put the Tribe in its current position, and it will probably need to be pitching that keeps the team in contention down the stretch. In the opener of this three-game series against Baltimore on Monday, the Indians were dealt a major blow when Masterson -- the club's resident leader and workhorse -- exited with a strained left oblique.
Masterson will miss at least one start, and could have his season threatened by the injury. Right-hander Corey Kluber (right middle finger sprain) is due back on Saturday, but he is not currently stretched out for a full outing. Starters Scott Kazmir and Danny Salazar have fought innings limits throughout this season, and righty Zach McAllister is in the midst of his own comeback from a finger injury.
This is Jimenez's time to show that he can keep Cleveland's starting staff from sinking.
"He goes out there and he gives us six shutout innings," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Against that lineup, that's exciting."
Tuesday's performance was only the latest in a string of strong outings from Jimenez. Dating back to May 27, the right-hander has turned in a 2.81 ERA, lowering his season mark to 3.79 from 6.04 over that 18-start stretch. Heading into his start against the Orioles, Jimenez was coming off back-to-back games with at least 10 strikeouts.
Over his past eight turns, Jimenez has fashioned a 2.22 ERA, with 53 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings.
"Three or four years ago, he was about as good as anybody in baseball," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Jimenez. "We knew he was carrying the ball pretty well coming in. It seems like he's gotten some arm strength back, which really creates some problems with the changeup."
Jimenez did not blow Baltimore away -- the righty only collected four strikeouts in his six innings -- but he kept its potent offense in check. The Indians starter scattered four hits and issued two walks, but dodged trouble in a handful of spots. Jimenez's most important escape act came in the sixth inning.
Manny Machado got the Orioles started by sending a one-out offering from Jimenez off the wall in left field. The hit looked like a sure double at first, but Tribe left fielder Michael Brantley played the carom perfectly and swiftly rifled a relay to second base. Machado rounded first base before quickly scrambling back to the bag upon seeing Brantley's throw.
"That's Brantley all year," Francona said. "He was in position and he made a nice throw. We did a lot of good things tonight."
Clinging to a 1-0 lead, Jimenez then issued a pair of walks -- one to slugger Chris Davis and another to catcher Matt Wieters -- to load the bases with two outs. Jimenez then induced a grounder off the bat of Michael Morse that the pitcher gloved himself and tossed to first baseman Nick Swisher for an inning-ending out.
Cleveland's offense thanked Jimenez with a three-run outburst off Orioles starter Chris Tillman in the bottom of the sixth.
Carlos Santana led off with a walk and Brantley then came through with a double down the left-field line. Asdrubal Cabrera followed with his second sacrifice fly of the evening off Tillman to push the Indians ahead, 2-0. Two batters later, Yan Gomes crushed a pitch from the righty deep to left for a two-run double and pumped his fist after stopping at second base.
"We haven't been able to kind of get that big hit with guys on," Gomes said. "Hopefully it keeps going and starts some momentum that we need right now."
The Indians are also hoping Jimenez can keep his hot streak going.
"It's exciting when you see a guy this time of year seem to have another gear," Francona said.