It was not an overstatement to say that the weekend meeting with the first place Detroit Tigers was the biggest series played in Cleveland since 2007 – the last time the Indians made the playoffs and finished the season over .500. They entered the weekend a game and a half behind but with little momentum. After playing some of their best baseball of the season – winning 11 of 14 – the Wahoos lost the last two games in Kansas City in painful fashion. Any sort of mojo they had was killed when Ubaldo Jimenez and the bullpen blew leads of 5-0 and 7-5 on July 4th. The Tribe had to get themselves together for this monster series. Big crowds were expected and this was a gigantic opportunity to grab that casual fan back and really make this an Indians summer.
So what exactly happened this weekend at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario? As we always do on Monday morning, let us take a look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
The fans showed up Friday and Saturday, but the team didn’t
You only get a few chances to get that casual fan hooked and back for more, particularly in Cleveland where patrons have stayed away in droves these past five plus seasons. Opening Day is obviously one of them. 41,567 people showed up to watch as the New York Yankees lead 11-3 after seven innings. Friday night’s series opener with the Tigers was another one of these opportunities to make a great impression. For the first time since a Yankees trip in 2012, the Tribe sold out a non-Opening Day game.
You had a battle for first place, $1 hot dogs, fireworks, and a holiday weekend. It was the perfect storm. Even ace Justin Masterson was on the mound. Everything lined up perfectly. The rain held off and it was a beautiful night for baseball in Cleveland. Someone forgot to tell the Tribe what was at stake.
Masterson was so good his last time out, but the Tigers seem to be his kryptonite. The weak bottom of the order and two-out hits killed him all night as Detroit knocked Masterson out of the game after just four and two-thirds. It was 6-0 in a blink and the offense was completely shut down by the Tigers fifth starter Rick Porcello, who would rank #2 if he were in the Indians rotation. I had cashed in my Tribe Rewards points for a suite that night and came with 14 strong. The loudest the crowd got all night was for the Hot Dog race. The game was about as boring as I could ever remember. It was such a shame because the 40,167 were begging to be excited about something.
The next night/late afternoon, 28,054 came out and wanted to see some fight in their club. Carlos Carrasco took the wind right out of their sails in the third giving up back to back two-out homers to Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, followed by a Victor Martinez double and a Jhonny Peralta single. The offense looked like they would battle back, with three straight singles to open the bottom of the third. After a Drew Stubbs steal of third, the Wahoos had a golden opportunity to pounce on Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez. Instead, the runners never moved and the rally was thwarted. Five batters into the top of the fourth, it was 7-1 Tigers and Carrasco was headed back to Columbus.
So in the biggest two games of their season in front of two big crowds, the Tribe trailed 14-1 after 13 innings of play.
Said newly minted All-Star Jason Kipnis after Saturday’s 9-4 loss: “We’ve just come out flat the last couple days and we’re looking to change that. The pressures not really on us, it’s got to be on them and that’s the way we’ve got to approach it.”
I love Kipnis and his honesty, but how can this team possibly come out flat in this particular spot? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
At least they came back Sunday and won 9-6, but even that wasn’t easy. Only 20,503 were in attendance. Even if they win tonight and split the series, I just hope that Friday and Saturday’s debacles didn’t do irreparable damage to the casual Indians fan. It sounds ridiculous to me as a die-hard, but as we know, this city has a much longer leash for the Browns and even the Cavaliers lately.
The Bullpen From Hell?
Show me a bad baseball team and I will show a bullpen in disarray. The July 4th implosion was not the first time the pen has failed to come through and it certainly won’t be the last. I was hoping that we could at least make it through the weekend without another tight rope walk, but alas, I was wrong.
Friday and Saturday night’s blowouts didn’t involve the key back end guys, but when Sunday’s game rolled around, the Tribe sat ahead 6-1 into the seventh inning. Starting pitcher Corey Kluber was lights out at the best possible time. After giving up a one-out double to Ramon Santiago, Manager Terry Francona decided to pull Kluber after 109 pitches to set up his three-headed monster, Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez to close things down. It was a dicey move to say the least, considering Kluber had allowed just one run on five hits with 10 strikeouts to that point.
Smith entered the game first, looking to get back on track after throwing gas on the fire in Thursday’s loss. The top of the Detroit lineup was due up. The first three batters Smith faced all singled to bring the Tigers to within 6-3. He would walk Victor Martinez to load the bases with two out before getting Jhonny Peralta to fly out to right. Smitty wasn’t great again, but the Tribe still had a three-run lead.
Pestano was next.
To say that Vinnie hasn’t been himself this season is an understatement. His velocity has been down, has battled elbow issues, and has been walking more hitters than normal. I don’t care what anyone says, but the World Baseball Classic was the worst thing that could have happened to him and his preparation for the 2013 campaign. Look around baseball at some of the other key pitchers who participated in the WBC. Reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey has spent the majority of the season getting beaten like a pinata. He is 8-9 with an ERA of 4.77. Only recently has he started to look better. Fernando Rodney, coming of a 48 save, 0.60 ERA season, has five blown saves and ERA of 4.17 this season. Mitchell Boggs entered the season taking over the closers role in St. Louis. He was so bad that the Cardinals sent him down and he is currently trying to transition into a starter in AAA.
I could go on, but the only one who matters to any of us is Pestano.
Even during his stint as the interim closer, Pestano got the job done but it was far from impressive. On Sunday he was back hitting 91-92 on the gun and again the stuff was flat and in the center of the plate. He was handed a three-run lead and the bottom third of the Tigers order coming to the plate. His first three pitches to Andy Dirks missed the zone. He eventually walked. Alex Avila’s dribbler got past Pestano and turned into an infield single. Santiago’s fielder’s choice put runners on the corners with one out. We all thought maybe Vinnie would pull another David Blaine act after striking out Austin Jackson for a big second out, but he hung a breaking pitch right down main street and Torii Hunter deposited it into the bleachers in left to tie things up. The Tigers weren’t done with Pestano as Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hit back to back singles off of him, which eventually caused the inevitable move to be made. After Cody Allen cleaned up Pestano’s mess, Vinnie’s ERA jumped almost a full run after giving up three runs on four hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning.
“Hopefully, this is the last wakeup call I need to turn my season around,” said Pestano after his latest meltdown. “The guys are picking me up a lot more than I like. Obviously, it’s great to see them do that. I just wish I hadn’t put them in a position to have to…. I hope their confidence in me didn’t sway today.”
At least Chris Perez has looked much better since his return from the DL. The Tribe’s closer hasn’t allowed an earned run in his five appearances and is three-for-three in save chances. According to our friend Jordan Bastian of Indians.com, the Tribe’s bullpen in the last five games – four of which were losses – posted an ERA of 6.85 and a WHIP of 1.66. Ouch.
I’m not so sure Pestano deserves a shot to pitch the eighth the next time the situation arises. With the way these guys have all pitched of late, Francona may have to take a long hard look at the roles. There is still no lefty to count on, and it looks as though Tito wants to stick with Rich Hill. He really has little choice. Nick Hagadone is back in AAA and was given many chances to be that guy this season and has failed to take the job and run with it. The other options – Scott Barnes, T.J. House, Clay Rapada, J.C. Romero – aren’t realistic. I never thought I would miss Tony Sipp this much.
Yes, Cody Allen has allowed two homers this past week, but with Pestano clearly not right, I just don’t think you can pitch him in the eighth right now. Smith should take that role with Allen taking the seventh. Bryan Shaw has been the relief equivalent of Mark Reynolds of late and needs to right himself before pitching in big spots with a lead. Matt Albers is what he is and does a nice job in his middle/long relief role. I’m sure we won’t see the recently recalled Preston Guilmet taking action in late innings unless the pen is completely spent, but he was solid as the Columbus closer, posting a spectacular 0.51 ERA in his last 13 outings with 22 Ks.
Whatever route Francona takes, if the bullpen cannot get their collective acts together, the Indians won’t be playing meaningful games in September. You can take that to the bank.
The rotation needs to start saving a tired pen from themselves
While the bullpen struggles are well documented, the fact that the starters can’t seem to pitch deep into games with any sort of regularity certainly isn’t helping. It seems like almost weekly a new arm has been shuttled up here from Columbus to protect the rotation. We’ve seen Matt Langwell, Joe Martinez, House, Barnes, David Huff, Hagadone, and now Guilmet rotate in and out. Francona has also carried an eight-man pen most of the season for the same reason. The starters just can’t be trusted.
Ubaldo’s five and fly routine has become tiresome. He hasn’t pitches six innings or more in his last six starts and has only done so five times this season. That will kill your pen, but when he’s supposed to be one of your lead guys it makes it much worse. While Masterson has been named to his first All-Star team, he has gone over seven innings just once in his last ten times out. On Friday, with his pen completely gassed and in need of a monster start in front of a sell out crowd, Justin was nasty and not in a good way. His four and two-thirds innings was the shortest outing of his season. Zach McAllister was consistently pitching into the seventh, but he has spent a month on the DL. Scott Kazmir is supposed to be your fifth starter and has pitched six innings or more in just half of his 14 starts. However, five have come in his last seven times out. Kluber has been an aberration.
Then there is Carlos Carrasco. The Tribe’s last remaining Major League piece from the crap show that was the Cliff Lee trade has been given chance after chance to prove he belongs in the rotation. He has a power arm that the coaching staff loves, but what’s going on between the ears has been his problem. Whether it is a confidence issue or simply the fact that he cannot harness his abilities, Carrasco has been disappointing.
Saturday was yet another opportunity in a big game and once he put runners on, Carrasco seemed to fall apart. He is as frustrating to watch pitch as any Indian I can remember other than Fausto Carmona post-2007. Sometimes he strikes out a hitter and you sit back and say “wow.” Then there are times like the third inning Saturday where you scratch your head at how he can leave a two strike, two-out breaking pitch pitch up to Miguel Freaking Cabrera of all people with first base open. Again, the Tribe desperately needed length from Carrasco and he was lifted three and a third, giving up seven runs on 10 hits. After the game, he was sent back down to Columbus and the Indians are left searching for yet another option to start Thursday’s game with Toronto.
“When things started happening, Carlos started going to his breaking ball a lot instead of using the fastball in,” Francona said. “On the good days, he stays consistent with that and doesn’t go away from it.”
Trevor Bauer’s last cameo did not go so well and the next man up looks like Danny Salazar, who’s lined up to start Thursday on regular rest. He opened the season in Akron, making seven starts and going 2-3 with an ERA of 2.67. He has made 10 starts in Columbus, posting a 3-2 record with a 3.42 ERA. In 76 innings between AA and AAA, Salazar has 100 K’s.
Dr. Smooth – the anniversary party
Five years to the date that he came over to the Indians organization from Milwaukee as a part of the CC Sabathia trade, Tribe left fielder Michael Brantley saved his team. His bullpen lit the fuse on a five run lead and left the Indians offense to pick up the pieces and salvage the weekend. Facing Detroit righty Al Alburquerque with the score tied at six in the bottom of the eighth, Nick Swisher worked a leadoff walk, bringing Brantley to the plate.
The man they call Dr. Smooth had already homered, doubled, and driven in three runs, but the best was yet to come. In perhaps his biggest hit in an Indians uniform, Brantley smoked a no-doubt, game-winning, two-run homer to the right field seats to give the Tribe back the lead they had so quickly handed away. They added one more insurance run for good measure in the 9-6 win.
Brantley is an unassuming guy. He plays hard and shows little emotion. He glides in the outfield and makes things look easy. He swing is like Freddy Couples at a major. That’s why the Dr. Smooth moniker fits him so well. As always after the game, he didn’t want to make things all about him.
“It was a big win for the team,” Brantley said. “I was just glad to be a part of it.”
Five years later, all the Brewers had to show for the deal was three months of Sabathia, who led them to the playoffs going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts including a whopping seven complete games. The Brewers knew he would walk after the season, so burning CC out was not a concern of theirs. The Indians knew CC was a goner as well, so they tried to get the largest haul for him that they could. You all know what happened with the key to the deal, Matt LaPorta. He was a gigantic bust and never turned into the right-handed power bat he was supposed to be. Two other pitchers, Rob Bryson and Zach Jackson never amounted to much. The player to be named later was going to be a key decision.
At the time of the trade, it was reported that the Brewers and Indians made a contingency plan. There was a list of names the Indians were interested in. If the Brewers did not make the playoffs, they had the right to chose who they wanted off of the list to send to Cleveland. If they did end up playing in October, the Tribe would make the choice. So when CC did what he did to push Milwaukee into the playoffs, the Indians chose Brantley. The name they allegedly passed up was A ball third baseman named Taylor Green, who like LaPorta, never lived up to the hype.
So here we are five years ahead and Brantley (.280/.330/.724/7 HR/45 RBIs) is having his best year as a member of the Tribe. Consistency has been his forte. He has never gotten into any crazy prolonged slumps in 2013, unlike many of his teammates. The power will most likely never be huge, but it has come to life. Sunday was Brantley’s second two-homer game in the last three weeks. His defense in left has been stellar and he plays every day.
He does admit to thinking about the deal in the past, but not anymore.
“I thought about the trade a lot during my first year here,” Brantley said. “After that, it’s over and done with. I’m glad to be over here playing for the Cleveland Indians.”
Go ahead and complain that the Wahoos didn’t get enough for Sabathia if you want. I won’t. LaPorta was at the time by all accounts a can’t miss bat and the exact kind of player the organization coveted. Like so many prospects before and after him, he just didn’t pan out. Brantley however, has become a regular contributor. Things could be worse. Look at the Lee trade.
The Indians have one more tonight against the Tigers in hopes to salvage a series split before welcoming in the Toronto Blue Jays for a three-game set. They have the unenviable task of trying to give Detroit All-Star Max Scherzer (13-0, 3.09 ERA) his first loss of the season. Francona will counter with lefty Scott Kazmir (4-4, 4.86 ERA).
(photo via Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)