Let’s get it out of the way right from the jump: Your Cleveland Indians, aka Team Streak, are in the midst of yet another June swoon. This was a team that not too long ago won 18 of 22 and led the AL Central by two and a half games. Since the miracle four-game sweep against Seattle, capped off by the Yan Gomes walkoff three-run homer on a Monday afternoon in Cleveland, the wheels have come completely off the wagon. The schedule became a lot tougher, and the Indians collectively have gone into a gigantic slump. The 4-15 stretch has been book-ended by two sweeps from the team they are fighting for the division lead, the Detroit Tigers.
It has been Murphy’s Law time for Terry Francona’s crew. Whatever could go wrong, has gone wrong.
“When it rains, it pours,” said slumping first baseman Nick Swisher. “We’ve got to just keep going out there and battling every day, man. This is a long season. Hopefully, we’ll look back at this stretch in August and September and kind of laugh at it all. That’s it, man. It just boils down to winning a ballgame. That’s it.”
However you look at it, the Indians have reached danger time. They’ve now lost 11 in a row on the road and have to go to Texas for a three-game set with the AL West leading Rangers, who have owned the Indians for a better part of a decade. The hope was that the Tribe could hope to salvage a 5-4 or even a 4-5 record on this “see what they are made of” nine game road trip. Instead, we are all wondering whether or not they will win even one of these games.
The three game sweep in Detroit came at an ill-advised time. The Tigers now lead the Tribe by five and a half games and the Wahoos are under .500 for the first time since May 1st. So what exactly happened this weekend and how did we get here? Let us take a look back at the weekend that was(n’t) in Wahooland.
What to do about the rotation
It is amazing how quickly things can turn. During the 18-4 run to the top of the AL Central, it seemed as though each and every night, the much maligned starting rotation showed out. Whether it was Ubaldo Jimenez making his resurgence, the ascent of Zach McAllister, the rebirth of Scott Kazmir, the solid surprise of Corey Kluber, or the domination of Justin Masterson, the group as a whole kept the Indians in almost every game. However, during this horrific 15 of 19 loss skid, the rotation worries have come right back to the forefront.
This weekend was a prime example.
Friday night, Ubaldo wasn’t terrible (two costly errors by Swisher killed him), but he was far from sharp as the Tigers took the first game of the series 7-5. Jimenez couldn’t get out of the fourth inning and just didn’t have the stuff we had seen over the last month. He gave up five runs (three earned) on seven hits in three innings, walking three and striking out three. Even he admitted this was just not his night.
“In the first inning, I felt really good,” Jimenez said. “In the second inning, everything was going the other way. I threw too many pitches in that inning and after that, I was kind of fatigued.”
He was due for an off game and I will give him a pass on this one because his defense really didn’t help his cause and you can’t give a team like the Tigers extra outs.
Saturday morning arrived with bad news. McAllister, who has been a solid number two for most of the young season, was placed on the DL with a finger issue that has been bothering him for his last two starts. In his stead, the Tribe called up the twice suspended Carlos Carrasco, who would be moved up to pitch that afternoon. The Tribe’s planning was sound – let Carrasco pitch under appeal of his suspension Saturday, either drop it or get an answer on Sunday, and with Thursday’s off-day scheduled, the other four members of the rotation could stay on regular rest while draining Carrasco’s eight-game suspension. As it turned out, MLB reduced his suspension to seven games, which started Sunday.
Carrasco had been lights out in Columbus until his last two starts, but he has done all he can do in AAA. Now is his time to either show he can be a stable member of the rotation or prove otherwise. During his first start back with the Tribe Saturday, his fastball was regularly hitting 96. However, he spent the majority of his day pitching away. It was almost as if he was scared to come inside on the Tigers, as if his suspensions were still fresh in his head. Carrasco begged to differ afterwards. “I wasn’t worried about it,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about that.”
The Tigers sat back and waited for their pitches and teed off on him, loading the bases in each of the first three innings. It was 6-1 at the end of three and it was all over but the shouting. Carrasco would go four innings, giving up those six runs on 10 hits and three walks. Not exactly what the Tribe brass had hoped for when they chose Carlos to take McAllister’s spot.
“His stuff is electric,” Francona said. “But there’s still some learning to do, because he didn’t pitch in. If he lets them get their arms extended, then it takes away some of the effectiveness of his breaking ball, because they’re not respecting in. When he learns to start throwing that fastball in, he’s going to be something special.”
I hope for the Indians sake Francona is right, but Carrasco is no kid anymore. He has spent parts of the past four seasons in AAA and at age 26 should be up and in a major league rotation by now. I know, it was only one start. The jury is definitely still out on Carrasco, but I would like to see more of him.
Meanwhile, with the Tribe desperate for a win Sunday to break a six-game losing streak, they turned the ball over to their ace, Masterson. This was a day where the needed Justin to come out and be dominant. Instead, he was just OK, which wasn’t good enough as the Tigers swept the Tribe out of Detroit 4-1. The kill shot against Masterson came in the sixth when the light-hitting Don Kelly took an inside fastball deep for a game-winning three-run homer. Kelly entered the game hitting .190 on the season.
Masterson has had two chances during this bad stretch of baseball to stop the bleeding. In those two road starts he has allowed 11 earned runs in 13.1 innings pitched and has been bitten by the home run ball.
Said Francona about his horse, “I didn’t think he had his best command, but he still navigated his way through that lineup.”
Outside of the obvious – Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera – there is one gigantic difference between the Tigers and the Indians. The top four starters in the rotation dwarf what the Indians bring to the table. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez are all arguably better than Masterson (we know Verlander is). Fourth starter Doug Fister would easily be the Indians number two. The Tribe’s rotation has to improve, but in the now and long term.
The offensive slumber isn’t helping the porous pitching
Nick Swisher is a great guy. He has that infectious personality that his teammates and fans love and he is a natural team leader. But his current stretch of baseball has really been hurting the Tribe. Swisher’s single Sunday ended an 0-24 slump, the second worst of his career. Defensively, his two errors completely changed Saturday’s two run loss. Yet through it all, he is staying positive.
“He’s been through slumps before,” said hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo. “There’s no panic in there. It just gets frustrating when you’re not getting hits and you want to contribute, and it’s not working out for you. But the swing is fine. He’s looked good. You just grind it out and weather the storm. It’s like a circle. It’ll come all the way back.”
Swisher is not the only one guilty here. Everyone in the lineup seems to be mired in a slump at the same time.
Carlos Santana is hitting just .206 with a homer and nine RBIs over the last 30 days. Mark Reynolds is hitting .188 with two homers and 12 RBIs during the same stretch. Even Michael Brantley, the most consistent Tribe performer of the past two seasons, is in an 8-44 skid (.188). Drew Stubbs is eight for his last 40 (.200). I could go on and on. This is also all going on with Asdrubal Cabrera on the disabled list with a quad injury.
As I have said many times, the offense is extremely hot and cold. This is just another one of the cold spells and they will eventually come out of it. Hopefully by the time they do, it won’t be too late. For all we know by the weekend, the home run brigade will re-appear.
Sunday’s loss was particularly frustrating because the Tigers scratched Sanchez thanks to a sore shoulder and called up 24-year old Jose Alvarez to make his major league debut. Naturally, the obscure lefty factor kicked in and the Tribe offense was completely baffled by the kid. They could only muster three hits in six innings, striking out seven times.
Whatever happens going forward, if the offense can’t get things rolling again, the Indians are in big trouble. During the 18-4 run, their run differential was +54. Since then, they have lost 15 of 19 and have a run differential of -33.
Third base – what to do?
The main problem with Cabrera being on the DL is obvious. The secondary issue is that the Indians are forced to carry an extra infielder who can play shortstop. That spot is currently being held by Juan Diaz, a light-hitting shortstop who Francona is just not using (and probably shouldn’t). Mike Aviles is now the regular shortstop.
Reynolds was brought in originally to play first base. When Michael Bourn signed on, Swisher moved to first base, shifting Reynolds to DH. However, with Lonnie Chisenhall demoted to AAA, Reynolds was moved across the diamon to third base, and his bat has suffered since. Defensively, we are all seeing why the Orioles turned him to a primary first baseman last year. Big Mark hits big flies. But his defense leaves a lot to be desired. He insists one thing has nothing to do with the other, but I can’t help but think Reynolds’s defensive issues have carried over to his bat.
There is an easy solution to all of this: demote Diaz and recall Chisenhall, who is hitting .393/.475/.715 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 21 games for Columbus. It’s clear he is ahead of AAA pitching. Bring him back and move Reynolds back to his rightful DH spot and mix him in at third against lefties. The only way Aviles is coming out of a game is if he gets hurt and if that were to happen, they could use Chisenhall or Raburn for those few innings and make a call-up for the next game.
I think it is time for the return of Lonnie Baseball.
The Indians taken their seven game losing streak to Texas to meet the Rangers. Scott Kazmir (3-3, 5.24 ERA) will get things started for the Tribe and will face off against Josh Lindblom (0-1, 7.71 ERA) tonight at 8:05.