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Must C Clutch: Tribe walk off on Hafner's grand slam

CLEVELAND -- For eight innings, a subdued Progressive Field crowd watched the Indians struggle to piece anything together.

Even skipper Manny Acta couldn't have blamed the Tribe faithful for dozing off, dubbing them "eight of the most boring innings of baseball that we have played."

So how does a team rejuvenate a dormant crowd of 18,816? By saving its best for the grand finale.

The Indians mounted a five-run rally in the ninth inning on Thursday, capped by a walk-off grand slam from Travis Hafner that sent the Wahoo watchers into a frenzy following a 5-4 win.

For eight drawn-out innings, the Indians appeared sluggish in the field and at the plate, stranding nine runners and committing myriad defensive miscues. Hafner removed those dreary frames from memory with one swing of the bat that launched a Luis Perez fastball deep into the night.

"Throughout the game, we did struggle," Acta said. "We left a lot of guys on base, but we're still leading the league in batting average with runners in scoring position, so I'm not going to complain about it. We got the big one when it counted."

Hafner said he got a tip from teammate Michael Brantley, who struck out against Perez. Brantley told Hafner that Perez's fastball had some sink to it, so Hafner looked for something up in the zone that he could drive. As soon as his bat connected with the ball, he slapped his hands together in celebration and began his adrenaline-fueled trot around the bases.

"It's awesome. There's nothing like it," Hafner said of his walk-off slam. "It's the most fun you can have on the baseball field. It's great."

Since returning from the 15-day disabled list on June 17, the sturdy slugger nicknamed "Pronk" has batted .351 with three homers and 13 RBIs in just 37 at-bats. Acta didn't need to use any elaborate equation to determine that Hafner was the hitter he wanted at the dish with the bases juiced in the ninth.

"I probably wanted a bench guy or something," Acta said, joking. "No, [Hafner's] the right guy. We had the right guys up at the plate that inning."

It wasn't all cheers and fireworks throughout the night, however. One day after their defensive brilliance aided a scoreless outing from Justin Masterson, the Indians struggled with their glovework.

In the second inning, Aaron Hill stole second base and scampered to third when the ball ricocheted off Asdrubal Cabrera's mitt into center field. Four batters later, on a simple toss to first that would have ended the inning, starter Zach McAllister, making his Major League debut, airmailed the ball into the stands.

The Indians were only charged with two errors, but other defensive blunders cost them. In the fourth, Hill reached on a grounder after third baseman Jack Hannahan's throw pulled first baseman Matt LaPorta off the bag. Hannahan had replaced Lonnie Chisenhall, who exited the game in the second inning after suffering a facial contusion when a Carlos Villanueva fastball struck him in the cheek. Acta said Chisenhall will see a face specialist on Friday afternoon.

Catcher J.P. Arencibia scored Hill with a bloop single just in front of a diving Grady Sizemore in center field. Rajai Davis followed with a sharp single up the middle that caromed off the glove of second baseman Orlando Cabrera.

McAllister escaped the inning having yielded just two runs. It could've been worse, as Jose Bautista, with more homers this season than any other Major League hitter, grounded into a forceout with the bases loaded to end the frame.

McAllister, optioned back to Triple-A Columbus following the game, departed after four innings, having thrown 94 pitches.

"One of the things I'm most upset with today was not being able to execute with my command," McAllister said. "It's the one thing that I'm usually able to have, and I didn't have it today."

McAllister left with the Tribe trailing, 3-0, and watched as the offense repeatedly struggled to plate baserunners. The Indians, who stranded 13 runners in Wednesday's 5-3 win against the Yankees, left nine more on base on Thursday.

Villanueva had plenty to do with that. The right-hander tossed six scoreless innings, fanning seven. He mixed a low-90s fastball with a deceptive changeup and sharp breaking ball. At least one Indians batter reached base in every inning, save the sixth, but Villanueva continuously worked his magic to escape unharmed.

The same couldn't be said for Toronto's bullpen, though the Blue Jays are hardly the first team to fall victim to a late Tribe rally. The win was the Indians' 20th come-from-behind victory this season.

"These guys are not going to give up, especially since the game was close enough," Acta said. "They've done it so many times so far that it's like it's never out of reach."

Even after an uninspiring, yawn-inducing eight innings?

"We couldn't do anything right at the plate; we didn't play very good defense," Acta said. "It just seemed that it was going to be a waste of a night, but we came back alive."

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