While it was a long weekend for all of us, it was a looooong weekend for the suddenly embattled Cleveland Indians. I’ve said it so many times, but baseball is such a crazy game and the season is a marathon, not a sprint. I come back to that often because it is important as a fan to not get too high or too low, especially in May.
This month has seen the best and the worst of the Tribe. It wasn’t more than a week ago that the Wahoos were pulling rabbits out of their hats in a four-game sweep of the Mariners. Now here we sit in crisis mode, losers of six of seven.
The sudden fall off of the Tribe shouldn’t freak everyone out the way it is. This is water returning to its level. The Indians were not as good as that 18-4 run and they are not as bad is the current 1-6 mark would indicate.
The easiest way to have a bad season is to have a bad bullpen that you can’t count on. That right there is a fact. We saw it in 2006 after a 93-win season. We saw it again 2008 after a run to the ALCS the previous year. Despite a bad record, we have been spoiled over the last two and a half seasons since “The Bullpen Mafia” was born with Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith manning the back end. Now that group, which was thought to be among the best in baseball, has spent a week setting fire to everything in its wake.
Even during last Monday’s incredible 10-8 comeback win over Seattle, Pestano, Perez, and Smith all gave up home runs for the first time ever in the same game. It was a sign of things to come.
Saturday afternoon the Indians nursed a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning. Manager Terry Francona handed the ball to Pestano, his regular eighth inning set-up man. We all watched as Vinnie’s fastball was flat and 88-89 MPH. The usual command was missing and he was lit up for four runs on four hits and two walks. Yes, one of those hits was the Daniel Nava wind-aided popup single with two outs that scored two, but the damage had already been done. After the game, Vinnie claimed his elbow, which had him on the DL earlier in the month, wasn’t a problem.
“I’m trying to throw as hard as I can,” Pestano said Saturday. “The only thing I can equate to it is I took two weeks off without throwing and arms do tend to regress a little bit. It’s not spring training where you can build arm strength throwing bullpens every day – you can’t wear yourself out like that. I’m trying to pick and chose my moments through catch play and stuff to make it stronger.”
Regardless, he was clearly not himself. A day later, the man he pitches in front of, Perez, was once again unable to do his job. Like Pestano, it was obvious that CP was not right. He was brought into a three-run game, the easiest of save situations. He walked the leadoff man Dustin Pedroia and then saw David Ortiz hit a rocket shot double to center, bringing the tying run to the plate with nobody out. RBI groundouts by Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamachia inched the Red Sox to within one run and all Perez had to do was get that third out with nobody on base.
Instead, he walked Jonny Gomes, gave up a single to Stephen Drew, and walked Jose Iglesius to load the bases.
On three different occasions during the ninth, Perez hunched over, dragging his throwing shoulder, including a 1-1 pitch to Jacob Ellsbury. That was the last pitch he would throw as he was lifted due to injury. Ellsbury would end the game on the first pitch from Smith, driving in two.
“I felt a little something in the shoulder today out there. Obviously not the best timing there. So, it’s something I have to deal with,” he said. “On that last pitch to Ellsbury. It kind of pinched on me and sent a little pain down my arm. Then I tried to throw another pitch, and it just wasn’t happening.”
I am all for a guy trying to play through pain. It is part of sports. But this isn’t an outfielder trying to play through a sore hamstring. This is a closer trying to finish games without his best stuff. I credit Perez for never making an injury excuse, but he needed to think about the team first and stop trying to be the hero. He wasn’t right and it was clear.
So instead of taking three of four from Boston, they HANDED the Red Sox the series. Pure and simple. We have been so spoiled because the three-headed monster has been so automatic, that we have almost taken for granted how important a lock down back end can be.
There is no doubt in my mind that Terry Francona knows what he is doing. You don’t win two World Championships in Boston with dumb luck. But his handling of the bullpen over this past 10 days has caught my attention and not in a good way.
I thought on Saturday that it was clear Pestano was not on straight from the first batter he faced. His stuff was flat and his velocity was off. I will give him a pass because he wants Vinnie to work his way back into shape on the fly. But these are games that you cannot give away.
Perez has had a twinge in his shoulder before and has been shaky in his last three appearances. Yet Tito had nobody warming up behind him Sunday, even when it was clear that he wasn’t getting the job done. After the walk to Gomes – his second of the inning – and Drew’s single – the second Sox hit of the inning – Perez should have been pulled. Again, it is all hindsight and if CP gets Iglesius out, you could say Perez was iffy again and needs to be looked at. But I got back to what I said before, these are games you cannot afford to give away. The Indians could have and should have at a minimum left Boston with a split. Instead, they lost three of four.
The Tribe’s closer was placed on the Disabled List Monday morning, replaced on the roster by lefty Nick Hagadone. Francona had a decision on his hands. He needed to find a temporary closer.
Anyone who has watched the Indians this year knows that the most consistent relievers in the pen have been Smith, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen. Pestano is coming off of his worst outing of the year where he couldn’t hit 90 with his fastball. And yet here we are not knowing what Vinnie can give us right now, and Tito hands him the closer role before Sunday’s game.
“Vinnie is comfortable slotting into that inning,” said Francona before Monday’s game. “Part of the reason for doing that is it makes it so much easier for us if you have an end point to get to because we have plenty of depth. I still think having guys know (who the closer is) gives guys some semblence of order down there. Vinnie’s last couple of innings haven’t been his best down there, but that will improve.”
I’d understand his rationale if this were the beginning of the season. But Pestano has already been on the DL with an elbow problem and hasn’t been himself since his return. What is the harm in letting Vinnie find himself before putting him in the closer’s role? I would have given the job to Allen, the hard-throwing righty who has closer’s stuff, with Shaw taking the seventh and Smith the eighth. Let Vinnie work his way back into shape for a week or so.
That decision will play out one way or another so the jury is out. Monday’s in-game move, or should I say lack thereof by Francona was a head-scratcher to say the least.
With the Indians battling their way back to tie the game at 2-2 on a pinch hit solo homer from Jason Giambi (breaking an 0-24 slump), Francona started the bottom of the eighth with the newly recalled Nick Hagadone on to face former Indian Shin-Soo Choo in a left on left matchup. This was a big spot for Hagadone, trying to work his way back as the late inning lefty with the struggles of Rich Hill.
Choo singled and went to second on a Carlos Santana passed ball. Choo advanced to third on a sac bunt by Zac Cozart, bringing former NL MVP Joey Votto to the plate. Votto, a left-handed hitter, is one of the most feared sticks in the game. His patience is remarkable. Votto entered the game hitting .353/.475/.555. With one out and first base open, there seemed to be an obvious play; intentionally walk Votto to set up the double play and bring in Shaw to face Brandon Phillips.
Instead, Francona decided to let the kid with spotty command just recalled from AAA face the superstar. Hagadone fell behind in the count and served up a straight 94 MPH fastball right over the middle which Votto crushed for a two-run homer.
I couldn’t believe Tito would have put the game in Hagadone’s hands rather than take his chances with the proven Shaw. After the game, he explained his decision.
“Every manager’s different,” Francona said. “We elected to pitch to Votto, and if we walked him, it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. That’s not the outcome I was looking for. We wanted to try to pound Votto in and we didn’t. That’s the learning of a young pitcher.”
That explanation would work for me if the Indians were a rebuilding, under .500, bottom of the AL team. But these games matter. The Indians are in a dogfight with the Tigers at the top of the division and taking your chances with a shaky Hagadone in a tie game in the eighth when your team desperately needs a win just isn’t advisable in my opinion.
Maybe Francona is thinking long term, trying to get Hagadone some confidence and find himself a late-inning lefty he can count on. But I just don’t think this was the time to experiment. The Indians have lost three games in a row that they arguably should have won and the bullpen, the one-time most rock-solid part of the club, has been the main culprit in all three.
The real shame here is that the Tribe starting pitchers came to play this weekend. While Scott Kazmir’s five and fly, two-run outing Saturday wasn’t spectacular, he still put his team in position to win. Sunday Corey Kluber pitched the game of his young career, striking out 10 and pitching into the eighth inning. He left the game was a 4-1 lead. A day later, Ubaldo Jimenez shook off a Choo lead off homer to go seven strong, allowing just two runs. If the Tribe starters deal the way they did Sunday and Monday, they have to come away with wins if they are going to stay in the race for playoff contention.
Aroldis Chapman will get his
In the top of the ninth, the Reds fire-balling closer threw a pitch way over the head of Tribe first baseman Nick Swisher. Swish stared back at him as if to say “are you serious?” The next pitch Chapman chucked a 100 MPH fastball that buzzed right past the head of Swisher. A few inches closer and the pitch could have killed him.
“I know you guys are trying to stir some stuff up here,” Swisher said. “The first one I saw go by, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty quick.’ And then that second one was a little too close for comfort. Let’s be honest, 100 mph at somebody’s head? That’s not exactly the best thing.”
Swisher is a lover, not a fighter. Anyone else and the benches clear. The first pitch was bad, the second pitch was completely bush league. Yet the umpires never issued a warning and Francona never came out of the dugout to argue.
Imagine if this had happened last year and Manny Acta didn’t come out to complain to the umpires. He would have been KILLED by the fans and the media for being too passive. Tito knows that tomorrow brings a new day and that revenge will be had. Chapman will get his, but it won’t be him getting the punishment. One of the Reds stars will probably get plunked at some point.
“I’ve talked to Chapman plenty of times, and he’s a great kid,” Giambi said. “But we’re going to protect our guys, too, especially Nick, who’s a big leader on this ballclub, just to let him know, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back.’ But I don’t think there’s anything to it.”
The Indians will try to right the ship Tuesday against the Reds by sending Zach McAllister (4-2, 2.89 ERA) to the mound. He will be opposed by Mat Latos (4-0, 3.17 ERA)