ATLANTA -- Indians manager Terry Francona would prefer his players proceed as if wearing horse blinders. There is no game more important than the one at hand, and it is not wise to worry about what is waiting down the road.
Francona lives and breathes by the old baseball adage of taking one game at a time.
That is all well and good, but there is no denying that the Indians are in the midst of a critical stretch of games that extends beyond Tuesday night's 2-0 loss to the Braves at Turner Field. Cleveland could not solve Braves lefty Alex Wood in the opener of this three-game Interleague series, leading to a defeat at the onset of a grueling test for the Tribe.
"There's no sugarcoating it," Indians third baseman Mike Aviles said. "At the end of the day, we had people on base and we had a chance to do what we needed to do. We just didn't do it."
Including the Indians' latest loss, Cleveland plays nine straight games against postseason contenders in the Braves, Tigers and Orioles. It is a stretch that could go a long way in determining whether the Tribe has what it takes to make a push for a playoff spot, especially when considering what awaits on the other side of the gauntlet.
After the next eight games, which includes a three-game road series against the American League Central-leading Tigers and a three-game home set against the AL Wild Card-chasing Orioles, Cleveland has a softer schedule down the stretch. The remaining opponents (Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins) have a combined .431 winning percentage.
A lot can happen over the course of one month, but the current nine-game stretch could go a long way in vaulting the Indians into serious postseason position. First, Cleveland has to try to salvage this set against Atlanta, which has the top seed in the National League East locked down at the moment.
"We're playing some teams that are fighting for the playoffs. It's a test," Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said. "You have to face those teams, take them on and try to beat them. None of these teams are going to be easy -- Atlanta, Detroit or Baltimore. We'll just come out here and see what we're made of."
Things did not go the Tribe's way in their first trip back to Turner Field since 2004.
Working with a pitch limit, Indians starter Danny Salazar provided a decent enough performance, but was lifted after logging 77 pitches through four innings. That has been Cleveland's modus operandi with Salazar, who is three seasons removed from Tommy John elbow surgery and has already logged a career high for innings in one year.
"We're in a position with him right now where, when he has long innings," Francona said, "we owe it to him and to the organization to keep an eye on him. There's going to be a day when we can turn him loose and let that four [innings] turn into six or seven, but not right now."
Atlanta's only breakthrough against the 23-year-old Salazar came in the second inning, when Brian McCann drew a one-out walk and Joey Terdoslavich followed with a single. Two batters later, Salazar squared off against Elliot Johnson, who entered the night sporting a .186 average. With the pitcher standing in the on-deck circle, an intentional walk was one strategic option.
With runners on the corners and two outs, Francona elected to have Salazar pitch to Johnson.
"The idea," Francona said, "is you really have an advantage when you have an eight-hole hitter and you have the pitcher up behind him. Second and third, maybe [you walk Johnson]. But a guy that's hitting .180-something, that's a real good time to pitch. You set up the next inning also."
One problem, though, was that Salazar admitted to struggling to maintain a consistent release point.
After firing five straight fastballs to Johnson -- each within the 95-97 mph range -- Salazar saw catcher Carlos Santana call for an offspeed pitch in the 2-2 count. The pitcher did not feel comfortable going that route and shook off the catcher until agreeing to go with the heater once again.
"I was a little bit disappointed in myself," Salazar said. "Santana was calling for offspeed pitches. I just didn't trust myself to throw it and I just tried to throw the fastball away."
Johnson pulled the pitch from Salazar to deep right-center field, where Drew Stubbs was unable to make a running catch. The ball struck Stubbs' glove, but fell to the ground after the right fielder crashed into the wall. Johnson wound up with a two-run triple, giving Wood all the support he required.
"The guy almost caught the ball. He can really run," Johnson said. "That ball hit off the wall and he still almost caught the thing. I'm glad it went our way and we get that cushion for Woody, and he took it the rest of the way."
Cleveland's lineup went limp against Wood, who was selected in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and was making only his eighth big league start. The 22-year-old lefty scattered five hits and issued four walks in 5 2/3 innings, but managed to keep the Indians off the scoreboard.
The Indians finished 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and 0-for-10 with runners on base with Wood on the hill.
"We left 10 people on base," Aviles said. "I throw myself under the bus here. We have to do better with people on base, because our pitchers did their job. Danny gave up two runs. I'll take that from a starter all day. And the bullpen came in and threw up zeros. They did their job."
True to Francona's mindset, Aviles said the players will carry on treating each game as critical as the next.
"Every game from here on out is important," Aviles said. "If we don't think that, then maybe we're not built for what we want to do. And I'm sure everybody in here knows every game is important from here on out."