CLEVELAND -- As is often the case, Joe Smith got his ground ball. The Indians reliever watched Omar Infante chop a pitch into the ground, and Smith saw it into his glove. Up to that point, the sidearmer had done his job to perfection.
It was what happened next that derailed the evening for the Tribe.
An errant throw from Smith in the eighth inning on Friday night cost Cleveland dearly in a 3-2 Interleague loss to the Marlins at Progressive Field. That the gaffe proved decisive in the end was an indication of the struggles the Indians' offense experienced while trying to solve a resurgent Carlos Zambrano.
"When you only score two runs," Indians manager Manny Acta said, "you have to play almost perfect baseball. We didn't."
That is how one mistake in the field can snap a four-game winning streak, and spoil a solid start for Justin Masterson. Zambrano limited the American League Central-leading Indians (22-17) to a pair of second-inning runs in a seven-inning effort. After that early outburst, the Tribe managed just one hit among the team's final 26 trips to the plate.
The lineup's woes created a situation where any hiccup -- no matter how slight -- could swing momentum in the Marlins' favor. Such a scenario presented itself in the eighth inning, when Indians lefty Tony Sipp issued a leadoff walk to Bryan Petersen, who promptly advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt from Jose Reyes.
At that point, Acta turned to Smith.
Infante stepped into the batter's box and sent an 0-1 sinker bouncing into the ground and back to Smith. The reliever scooped the ball up, spun and saw Petersen had run a healthy distance away from second base. Smith headed off the hill, expecting to catch Petersen in a rundown between second and third.
"When I looked at him, he was still running," Smith said. "There was no doubt in my mind that he wasn't going back to the bag. I guess that's what I get for thinking, because he went back to the bag and I got caught off guard."
Petersen broke back toward second base and Smith waited before getting rid of the ball.
"I didn't feel I was too far off where I was in no man's land," Petersen said. "I was like, 'All right, I'll try to make it back in.' I felt like I could have beaten the throw, even if it was a good throw."
Acta felt that hesitation was Smith's mistake.
"He probably took too long to get rid of the ball," Acta said. "When you get the guy caught in between, give it up and get him. But once you don't throw the ball right away, then you just get the out at first base and now you have two outs and a runner on second."
Smith did eventually throw the ball, but it ricocheted off Petersen's back and rolled into center field. That allowed Petersen to scramble to third base safely, setting the table for a game-deciding sacrifice fly from Hanley Ramirez. When Ramirez delivered a deep fly to center field, Petersen scored and put the Indians behind, 3-2.
On this night, that slim advantage was all the Marlins (21-18) needed.
After Zambrano bowed out of the ballgame with a 1.96 ERA on the season, lefty Randy Choate and closer Heath Bell finished the job against Cleveland's anemic offense. The heart of the Indians' order -- Nos. 3-6 hitters Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley -- combined to go 0-for-16 on the night.
The Tribe's only production came in the second inning, when Casey Kotchman delivered an RBI double and Shin-Soo Choo added a run-scoring single. The Indians had plenty of hard-hit balls throughout the game, but that was hardly a source of solace in the wake of a tough loss.
"Overall, I still like how we swung the bat," Acta said. "It's just nothing fell for us."
Masterson turned in his best performance of the month, but headed home with a no-decision for his effort. The big sinkerballer held the Marlins to two runs on six hits over seven innings, giving the Tribe a solid bounceback effort. In his last start, Masterson yielded six runs in six innings against the Red Sox on Sunday.
Santana helped Masterson's cause from behind the plate by throwing out three would-be basestealers for the Indians, too.
"There were some good in-game adjustments that we were able to make,"said Masterson, who lowered his season ERA to 5.04. "It should lead us in the right direction. It's not going to be perfect, but it's going to be on the right track and give our team a chance."
Unfortunately for the Indians, the lack of offense left little room for error.
"We paid the price for it," Acta said.