ST. PETERSBURG -- The Indians unveiled their new four-headed closing monster against the Rays on Sunday afternoon. It is a beast that will be summoned from its bullpen until John Axford is deemed ready to return to his regular ninth-inning duties.
In the finale of a three-game series against Tampa Bay, Cleveland's revamped late-inning crew endured a handful of hiccups, but ultimately slammed the door in a 6-5 victory at Tropicana Field. Josh Tomlin set the tone for the win with a solid effort, Nyjer Morgan sparked the Tribe's offense and the Indians survived a late scare to notch their seventh win in eight games.
The replacements -- relievers Cody Allen, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw -- banded together to cover the final three frames.
"We won, right?" Tomlin said with a smirk. "That's the main thing. We won the game."
Prior to Saturday's game, Indians manager Terry Francona had two meetings with members of his relief corps. One involved Axford, who was informed that he would be temporarily removed from the closing role to iron out some mechanical and command problems that have plagued his season to date. The second meeting was a group gathering.
Allen, Atchison, Rzepczynski and Shaw headed into the manager's office at Tropicana Field, where Francona explained the new plan for the ninth inning. No one pitcher would be given the closing job. While Axford is out, any one of the four might be handed the ball in the ninth. Their innings will depend on the situation and who is due to hit for the opposing team.
Considering the nature of Axford's situation -- Francona insists the closer's role will eventually return to the right-hander -- the other relievers liked the plan.
"We want Ax at the end of the 'pen," said Atchison, who has a 1.80 ERA this season. "He's the guy we brought here to close, and we want to make sure we get him righted. If he needs a week or so here to get himself righted, then I think we have plenty of people capable of getting us through it until he's ready to go again."
Atchison was the first of the four to be called upon on Sunday.
The 38-year-old righty took over for Tomlin, who spun six solid innings, limiting Tampa Bay to two runs on six hits with two strikeouts and no walks for his second straight victory. Both of the Rays' runs against Tomlin came courtesy of Matt Joyce, who launched a solo homer in the first inning and added an RBI single in the fourth.
Cleveland's offense provided sufficient support for Tomlin to earn the victory.
The Tribe put up three runs in the second inning against Rays righty Chris Archer, who watched a check swing from Morgan turn into a run-scoring dribbler that rolled to a stop down the third-base line with one out. Two batters later, Michael Bourn came through with a two-run double that pushed the Indians to a 3-1 lead.
Yan Gomes added a leadoff homer in the sixth off Archer, who promptly hit the showers. Morgan then followed with a bunt off Brad Boxberger that was grabbed by third baseman Evan Longoria, who fired the ball to first base. Morgan slipped and slid headfirst and -- after initially being called out -- a replay review gave him a single.
"I knew I was safe," Morgan said. "It's one of those things where as soon as I laid it down, I know they've got a good third baseman over there. So I was digging for that hit and I started getting over my skis and then I fell again. I lost my balance."
Boxberger balked Morgan to second, allowed the runner to reach third on a wild pitch and then watched him score on a sacrifice fly from Mike Aviles. In the eighth inning, Morgan added a leadoff homer against Brandon Gomes to put Cleveland ahead, 6-2.
Atchison retired the first two in the seventh before giving way to the left-handed Rzepczynski, who struck out Logan Forsythe to escape the inning. In the eighth, though, Rzepczynski issued a leadoff walk to Ben Zobrist that came back to bite him. Two batters later, with runners on the corners and one out, the lefty induced a chopper back to the mound from James Loney.
"That's as sure a double play as you're going to get," Francona said.
Rzepczynski gloved the ball clean, spun and threw wide of second base. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera knocked the baseball down with his bare hand to stop it from going to the outfield, but one run scored. Rzepczynski shouted in disgust on the mound and Francona strolled out of the dugout to bring Allen into the game.
"It all starts with that leadoff walk for me," Rzepczynski said. "Then you get the ground ball. I got excited and didn't take my time. I had plenty of time."
Allen was more wild than usual, surrendering an RBI single to Wil Myers, hitting Desmond Jennings with a pitch to load the bases and giving up a sacrifice fly to Yunel Escobar to allow Tampa Bay to cut Cleveland's lead to 6-5. Allen shook it off, however, and struck out Ryan Hanigan to end the inning.
"There was an error there, whatever, it happens," Allen said. "If [Rzepczynski] makes that play, we're out of that inning. Then either I can go out for the ninth or Shaw goes out for the ninth. You've got guys who back each other up there."
Francona gave the ball to Shaw in the final inning, and the right-hander responded with a one-two-three showing that sealed the win and gave him his second save of the season.
"I don't care," Shaw said. "It doesn't matter if I'm pitching the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 12th or first. You've still got to go out there, you've still got to make your pitch, you've still got to get outs regardless of whatever inning it is. It just obviously happens to be the last inning."
All four relievers said the most important thing now is getting Axford back soon.
"We're all 100 percent confident that he can do it," Allen said. "He has over 100 saves in his career for a reason. We're all confident that he's going to get there. Maybe just a little rest, a little side work and we'll get him back to where he needs to be. And we'll be back to being a better 'pen."