Fans flooded the gates of Goodyear Park to watch the defending American League champions make their anticipated return to the diamond. Not only did the Game 1 contest feature the debut of Edwin Encarnacion in a Cleveland Indians uniform, but it also shed light on the future of the franchise.
Courtesy of Bradley Zimmer’s five RBIs and pivotal three-run homer in the seventh inning, the Tribe handily beat the Cincinnati Reds by a score of 8-2 on Saturday afternoon from Goodyear, AZ.
It only took one inning for Encarnacion to make an in-game impression on his new teammates and manager Terry Francona.
Moments after Jose Ramirez notched the club’s first hit (double) of the spring, Encarnacion’s patience paid dividends as he ripped a 3-1 fastball to left field for an RBI single. The crack of the 34-year-old’s bat triggered a roaring applause from the home crowd.
Ramirez (walk) and Encarnacion (single) continued to team together atop Francona’s batting order in the bottom of the third frame. Despite facing a 2-1 deficit, two runners would come around to score thanks to Zimmer’s RBI groundout and Daniel Robertson’s hustle on an infield single to shortstop.
"You love seeing guys take good swings," said Francona to reporters after the game. "Edwin took a couple good ones. Zimmer (took) a couple (of) really good ones. It's February, but you love seeing that."
Slotted fourth in the spring opener's lineup, Encarnacion culminated the afternoon with two singles, one RBI and two defensive putouts at first base.
Even though he is likely destined to start the year at Triple-A Columbus, Zimmer anchored the offensive workload in his first four plate appearances of 2017. Aside from his aforementioned RBI groundout, the former 21st overall pick out of the University of San Francisco walked, singled and belted an opposite field three-run homer.
"It was a lot of fun," Zimmer said. "It was a good atmosphere here. The fans were into it and they had the introductions at first so it was a good time and I had a lot of fun."
Prior to Saturday, Zimmer had a .429 (7-16) career batting average at spring training with one home run, four RBIs and a stolen base.
"He covers the ball out over the plate with those long limbs," said Francona of his top prospect. "It's nice to see when he gets something out over the plate he knows what to do with it."
All-around pitching effort
Untimely hitting played in favor of the Indians’ pitching staff.
The unit consisting of Ryan Merritt, Mike Clevinger, Andrew Miller, Shawn Armstrong, Joseph Colon, Steve Delabar, Perci Garner and James Russell fended off the opposition’s 14-hit performance by combining for 9 IP, 14 H, 2 R/ER, 3 BB, 11 K and leaving 20 opposing runners on base.
"We gave up a ton of hits," Francona said. "If we don't walk people, we'll end up giving up two runs. We had some guys wiggle out of a few things but they didn't walk anybody so the innings never got out of hand."
Merritt was the lone hurler to face adversity when he allowed four hits in the second frame, one of which was a solo home run off the bat of Eugenio Suarez. Miller surrendered three hits but evaded danger by inducing a routine two-out flyout against Billy Hamilton.
The Indians will make the 40-minute drive from Goodyear to Mesa, AZ on Sunday for a 3:05 PM ET contest vs. the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park.
Danny Salazar and Jake Buchanan will toe the rubber for their first taste of 2017 Cactus League action.
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.