The weekend brought a fresh series and a fresh start for the Indians. They hadn’t played since Tuesday’s 14-1
debacle against the New York Yankees and the back to back rainouts were a welcome sight. Let them wash away the the memories of that brutal two game stretch and get back to baseball. The bats slumbered in two of the three games against the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field, but they scratched and clawed their way to a series win, taking the first two of the three-game set.
There has been lots to talk about since we last got together, so let us get right to it.
Nick Swisher’s walkoff single was a thing of beauty on a night of hideous at-bats. Friday night’s series opener had a first pitch temperature of 42 degrees. However, for the brave 11,864 who paid to see this one, it felt more like four degrees. It was cold and rainy, a brisk night that felt more like football weather. For nine innings, the Sox and Tribe pitchers completely shut down the opposing offenses. Chicago lefty Jose Quintana baffled the Tribe over his seven innings of work. The only baserunners he allowed were Michael Brantley, who got on base via a second inning double and Swisher, who he hit with a pitch in the fourth. Other than that, he was perfect. Seven strikeouts, no walks.
Meanwhile on the other side was Justin Masterson who matched Quintana pitch for pitch. Manager Terry Francona smartly stuck with his horse the whole way. Sox Manager Robin Ventura lifted Quintana after seven innings and 98 pitches. In the ninth, the Tribe still had just one hit. With one out, Michael Bourn doubled. Asdrubal Cabrera moved him to third on a ground ball, bringing up the struggling Jason Kipnis. For some reason, it seemed as though reliever Jesse Crain pitched around Kipnis, getting behind 3-0 before intentionally walking him. This put Swisher in the spotlight, which we all know he loves.
The new face of the Tribe laced a walkoff RBI single to right that set off a wild celebration that was, well, Swisher-like. The players were halfway into right field, jumping all over Swisher who couldn’t have been more jacked.
“Huge win for us,” Swisher said. “Just awesome amazingness. Given what’s happened to us the past few days, this is a huge win. We needed it badly. Being able to scrap one out like that can snowball you in the right direction.”
Two weeks in, Swisher is not only one of the leaders in the clubhouse, but he is leading by example on the field.
Meanwhile, the real story Friday night was the pitching of Justin Masterson. It is actually the story of the young season. Imagine where they would be without Masterson’s brilliance thus far? The Tribe is 5-6. Three of the wins have come in The Big Nasty’s starts. In all three, the Tribe’s ace has found his 2011 form. In fact, he has been even better.
Friday night was the latest example. Justin pitched a complete game shutout, giving up just five hits and one walk, while striking out seven. Left-handed batters had been his bugaboo in 2012. They hit .292/.376/.825 against him. Through his first three starts, lefties are 6-41 (.146). Noted baseball writer and historian Peter Gammons tweeted over the weekend that Masterson’s “slider – backdoor and back foot – command has been impeccable.” In 22 innings, he has allowed just one earned run (0.41 ERA) with a WHIP of 0.82.
Said Francona after Friday night’s dominant performance: “He threw an obscene amount of strikes. The two-seamer had some depth to it — a lot of depth to it. The four-seamer had some ride and life. His breaking ball was very good, and he’s attacking the zone. He’s quick to the plate when a runner gets on. It was fun to watch.”
Friday night’s hero Swisher then chimed in: “I’m glad I’m on his side, bro.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation remains in flux. I think we all know where the biggest hole on this team resides. Because of the two-day rainout stretch, Francona and pitching coach Mickey Calloway were able to juggle the starting rotation around and reset the deck. The struggling Ubaldo Jimenez was pushed back to tomorrow to give him extra time to work out some of his mechanical issues. Zach McAllister, who has been the only other starter who has shown essentially who he is this early, was moved to Saturday, but stayed on regular rest. Brett Myers, who relieved Carlos Carrasco after he was ejected Tuesday night, assumed the third spot again and pitched Sunday. A fifth starter is not needed until Saturday. Scott Kazmir will pitch tonight for AAA Columbus in a rehab start. If all goes well, he will be activated off of the DL this weekend.
The much maligned group did get a major shot in the arm Saturday and Sunday. Following Masterson’s Friday gem thanks to a steady McAllister and a resurgent Myers. Z Mac fought through an ill-timed first inning error to pitch the Tribe to victory. After Swisher answered the White Sox with his first homer as an Indian in bottom of the first, McAllister settled in. His command was as good as we have ever seen it as he pitched into the seventh, allowing one unearned run and five hits. Most importantly, he didn’t walk anyone and struck out six. 66 of his 89 pitches were for strikes. Dating back to last season, McAllister has 54 K’s and 18 walks in his last 10 starts.
“That’s a huge amount of strikes,” said Francona. “It wasn’t just strikes, but it was the quality of strikes that was so impressive. . . . Both sides of the plate and nothing down the middle.”
In Francona’s reworked rotation, McAllister is now the number two man. Rightfully so with the way this current group has been pitching.
Myers was the guy who was most concerning to Tribe fans and probably to the front office as well. His first two appearances have been less than impressive. He hasn’t been fooling anyone and had given up a whopping 14 runs in 10.1 innings including seven home runs entering Sunday.”I knew what the problem was,” Myers said. “It wasn’t my stuff. It was the location of my stuff.”
But yesterday we saw a different guy. Through five innings, Myers and Chicago’s Jake Peavy were locked in a big time pitcher’s duel. Myers looked to be teetering in the fifth, but thanks to a Yan Gomes gun-down of a would be base stealer and a big out with the lead run on second with two out, he worked his way out of the jam. Francona sent Myers out for the sixth but had Bryan Shaw getting ready in the pen. With two out, he walked Adam Dunn, which brought Paul Konerko to the plate, the biggest Indian killer of them all. With one swing, Konerko finished off Myers with a two-run bomb and put the Sox on top 2-1. Konerko now has 47 homers and 174 RBIs against the Indians in his career.
While he would end up on the short end of this one, Myers’s start was extremely encouraging.
The line: six innings, two earned runs, six hits, four strikeouts, one walk. I would sign up for six innings and two runs from Myers every time.
“He threw the ball really well,” Francona said of his veteran starter. “That’s the guy that you’re looking for. Pitching to contact. Spotting the fastball, then pitching off of that. Keeping guys off-balance. Taking something off, adding some. Going in, up, down. That was good.”
Hopefully, Myers can build off of this over the weekend when he faces his former team, the Houston Astros on the road.
Injuries continue to crop up. Carlos Santana’s bruised thumb was well enough to allow him to pinch hit Sunday. With the day off today giving him another day to rest, it is expected that Carlos will be ready to get back behind the plate tomorrow night. Jason Kipnis has missed the past two games with his sore left elbow. “We’ll keep treating it aggressively until Tuesday, then re-evaluate,” Francona said yesterday. I maintain that this is a major reason for Jason’s slow start. In his place the Tribe has two solid options in Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles. Raburn got two starts at second over the weekend.
Lastly, Tribe center fielder Michael Bourn will most likely miss the entire Boston series because of a laceration he received on his right index finger in the eighth inning of yesterday’s 3-1 loss. Bourn slid head first into first base to beat out a single – his third hit on the day – and Sox lefty Matt Thornton stepped on his hand while covering first.
“He was trying to make a play on me, and I was trying to be safe. It happens.”
Expect to see Drew Stubbs take over in center field with Nick Swisher moving to right field and Mark Reynolds playing first base. The Tribe will face two lefties in the Red Sox series (Felix Doubrount and Jon Lester) so it should be interesting to see how he juggles his lineup.
Up next is a three-game set with Francona’s old team, the Boston Red Sox. Things get started Tuesday night with Jimenez (0-1, 6.97 ERA) taking on the aforementioned Doubrount (0-0, 5.40 ERA).
(photo via John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer)