Cleveland Indians farmhand Paolo Espino has not had a defined role since returning to Triple-A Columbus last month.
When manager Mike Sarbaugh handed him the ball with a chance to clinch the International League West Division Tuesday, however, Espino was as calm as any seasoned veteran.
The right-hander scattered a pair of hits while striking out seven batters over seven innings, combining with two pitchers on a two-hitter in the Clippers' 5-0 shutout of the Buffalo Bisons. The win and Lehigh Valley's 7-4 victory in Indianapolis put Columbus on track to try and repeat as 2010 champions.
"For him to give us seven scoreless innings on three days' rest was outstanding," Sarbaugh said of Espino. "He got ahead of hitters and really used his curveball for strikes to get quick outs. He's done a great job last year and this year when he's been needed for a spot start. Tonight, I couldn't have asked for anything more.
"Along with Justin Germano's perfect game [on July 26], this was pretty special."
Espino (2-1) worked around Luis Figueroa's one-out single in the first inning and Jordany Valdespin's two-out double in the third, setting down the final 10 batters he faced. The only batter to get on base against Espino over the final four frames was Josh Satin, who reached on third baseman Jared Goedert's throwing error in the fourth.
Nick Hagadone tossed a perfect eighth and Josh Judy closed out the victory with a 1-2-3 ninth. With the win, Espino improved to a combined 8-1 across two levels and lowered his International League ERA to 3.95.
After surrendering six runs in his first two relief appearances with the Clippers in April, Espino went 6-0 with a 2.44 ERA over 22 games -- including five starts -- with the Double-A Akron Aeros. He rejoined Columbus in mid-July, pitching in middle relief and out of the rotation.
"I've been [relieving and starting] since I signed to play pro ball in 2007," Espino said. "I'm comfortable in both situations, so I just tried to do my best. I pitch as if I was a reliever, one inning at a time.
"Every single pitch was working as I expected, and the breaking ball was really good," he added. "I had confidence in it, because it looks like a fastball out of my hand and then breaks. I was getting ahead early with the curve and then throwing my slider and change-up behind in the count. When it's in a hitter's mind that my breaking ball is there, that is when I can spot my fastball inside and out."
And Espino is not the only one who has been instrumental in helping the Clippers return to the playoffs.
Right fielder Jerad Head leads the team in homers (24) and runs scored (67), while infielder Luis Valbuena has a team-best 71 RBIs and 16 longballs. On the mound, Zack McAllister has a 10-3 record and a 3.37 ERA in 23 starts, and Jeanmar Gomez recorded a 10-win season, going 10-7 with a 2.55 mark.
"Head has been solid all year and he's been a big part of our offense," Sarbaugh said. "He has had some big hits for us. The same for Luis. Coming out of Spring Training, he made some adjustments offensively to use the whole field and he's had a great year.
"In terms of pitching, Zack and Jeanmar and [David] Huff have been big parts of our starting rotation. Corey Kluber has thrown the ball well and Justin Germano pitched well before moving to Korea."
These performances have been made even more valuable considering the promotions of Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall to Cleveland.
"It's a credit to our scouting department that the players we have drafted are moving through the system. We have a lot of talent coming through and that is because of our talent development program," Sarbaugh explained.
"Tim Fedroff was having a good year in the Eastern League and came in and filled an outfield spot, and [infielder] Cord Phelps has been swinging that bat well all year. Scott Barnes was throwing the ball well before he hurt his knee, but Joe Martinez moved into our rotation after starting out in the bullpen."
Pacific Coast League
Sacramento River Cats 15, Tucson Padres 2
The River Cats rolled to their fifth consecutive Pacific Southern Division crown and their 10th in 12 years with a rout of the host Padres. Jai Miller hit his 30th home run of the year, joining Graham Koonce (34 in '03) and Chris Carter (31 in '10) as the only River Cats to accomplish the feat.
Carter went 2-for-5 with a homer, four RBIs and three runs scored, Adrian Cardenas plated three runs and Wes Timmons reached base safely five times for the Oakland A's Triple-A affiliate. Gameday box score
Round Rock Express 5, New Orleans Zephyrs 2
The Texas Rangers' Triple-A affiliate wrapped up the American Southern title with their PCL-best 79th win of the season, returning the Express to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Brett Tomko allowed one run on three hits and two walks while striking out five over six innings, and Kevin Cash drove in three runs as Round Rock defeated the Zephyrs in Tuesday's series finale.
The Express were confirmed as division winners when second-place Memphis fell to Albuquerque, 8-1. Gameday box score