This was a weekend that should have been so much more satisfying. The All-Star break was over and your Cleveland Indians had a soft opponent out of the gate in the fourth place Minnesota Twins. It was a fresh start for guys like Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, and Asdrubal Cabrera, who all needed to wake up from their poor first halves. The Indians have a huge opportunity in front of them and it all started this weekend. If I told you that the three Tribe starting pitchers would only allow three runs (one earned) in three games, you’d have to say a sweep was all but a lock. Yet somehow, they lost two of three in the Twin Cities, thanks to some shoddy defense, untimely poor relief pitching, and strange decisions from the manager.
On a positive note, Jason Kipnis is continuing to assert himself as one of the best young rising stars in the game. After tearing up the first half, Kipnis carried the Indians offense this weekend, hitting two opposite field home runs and driving in five. He now is the team leader batting average (.303), home runs (15), RBI (62), OBP (.368), hits (100), runs (56), and steals (21). Michael Brantley broke Sunday’s game wide open with a two-out, bases loaded Triple in the fifth, raising his average with runners in scoring position and two out to .395. The three starters were all on their game and terrific. But I can’t help but wonder if we look back at this lost weekend at the end of September and think about what could have been.
So as we do every Monday morning, let us look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
What do to about Lonnie
I spent a good portion of an hour on Twitter Friday afternoon defending Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. His name had popped up in a trade rumor involving a rental of Cubs right-hander Matt Garza. Chicago GM Theo Epstein is said to have been a long time fan of Chisenhall’s. I maintained that this is an absolute pipe-dream for the Cubs. The Indians have nothing in terms of a legitimate option long term at third base behind Lonnie in their system. They are heavily invested in him succeeding. He’s been groomed to take over and they have handled him properly. Even after essentially being handed the job in Spring Training, Lonnie was shipped back to the minors after a slow start. He raked for the month he was in Columbus and hit .286 since his return heading into this past weekend.
Chisenhall has always had two questions surrounding him- whether he could hit against left-handed pitching well enough and his defense. This season, he is 3-34 (.088) facing lefties and has been neutralized. Defensively, he’s been adequate, but this weekend he made two key errors in a pair of one run losses.
On Friday night, with the Tribe ahead 2-0 with two outs and a man on first in the sixth, Chisenhall booted a grounder which would have been the third out. Asdrubal Cabrera compounded the error by making an ill-advised throw to third, which allowed Brian Dozier to advance to second. Naturally the next batter, Trevor Plouffe singled to right, scoring both runners and tying the game.
A night later in the same spot – the sixth inning with the Tribe ahead 2-0, Chiz’s defensive issues struck again. With runners at the corners and nobody out, Ryan Doumit hit a chopper to Lonnie at third. Joe Mauer was running on contact at third and looked dead to rights. Except Chisenhall’s throw was way wide and off the mark and past catcher Carlos Santana. The Twins would score two more in the sixth on their way to their second straight 3-2 win.
I want Lonnie to succeed. His development is of the utmost importance for the future of the infield. As I said before, there are no third base options in the organization anywhere close to being ready. If Chiz continues down the path he is currently on, then he will be nothing more than a platoon guy with a below average glove. He has already shown that he has graduated from AAA with the bat. The big concern is that like Andy Marte, the last great third base prospect in the organization, Chisenhall could turn out to be a 4A guy. You have to also keep in mind that while it feels like Lonnie has been around for a while, he is still only 24 years old.
I think it is a long shot, but if the Indians somehow end up dealing Chisenhall to the Cubs in part of a deal to rent Garza for the last two and a half months, it will be a signal that the organization doesn’t think he can be the guy at third.
Who needs Garza when you have Kazmir, Kluber, and Masterson?
A statement was made this weekend by the three Indians starters – we are not the team’s biggest weakness. The trio dominated the Twins and only came away with one win to show for it. Scott Kazmir may have been the best of them all, facing the minimum through five innings, allowing just an infield single and a walk. He should have gotten out of the sixth unscathed after a walk, but Chisenhall’s bad error did him in. He left after six, having to throw an additional 11 pitches taking him to 106 on the night.
“I was able to get quick outs and got into the sixth inning,” said Kazmir. “A couple little hiccups cost me a couple runs. It cost us throughout the whole game. It was tough.”
In his past six starts – all with Yan Gomes as his catcher – Kazmir’s ERA is a sterling 1.95 with an 0.86 WHIP.
“He’s a great catcher,” Kazmir said of the Yanimal. “I just feel like we’ve clicked and everything. Not to say anything about one or the other — we just ended up going on a consecutive streak. It’s just one of those things. He’s knowledgeable about the game. He really is. He calls a great game and receives the ball really well.”
Saturday’s starter Corey Kluber was once again cruising before a pain in his hip caused him to leave after five innings. All he did was hold the Twins scoreless on three hits and two walks, striking out seven. Once again, Kluber used his sinker along with his fastball to keep his opponent off-balance. Unfortunately, the hip issue popped up as he was mowing down the Twins.
“I was a little off to start the game, whether it was that or something else, I’m not sure,” he said. “Obviously, I would have liked to have gone more than five innings, but they wanted me to get out of there before it got to a point where I hurt myself.”
The good news is that Kluber should be fine to make his next start.
“Today will be kind of just a day to work with [head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff],” Terry Francona said on Sunday. “Then he can start his five-day progression, which would set him up for Friday. If we need to change it, we could have Masty come back on his normal day (Friday).
Speaking of Justin Masterson, he was completely dominant Sunday as the Tribe took the series finale 7-1. Through six innings, Masty was close to perfect. The only Twin who reached base was Aaron Hicks, who was hit by a pitch in the third and then erased trying to steal. The frisbee slider was moving in the Minnesota heat. It was about as good as Masterson has looked all season, even counting his three complete game shutouts.
“I’m not surprised,” Francona said. “I said it, I think from the day I got hired [in Cleveland], that I was betting on the person. I will never change my feelings. I always trust him, that he’ll figure out a way to win, even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. He’s been so good at maintaining his stuff all year. He’s just matured into a really top, elite pitcher in our league.”
It was Dozier’s leadoff double in the seventh that broke up the no-hitter. Center fielder Drew Stubbs made a valiant effort, but his dive came up just a few inches short. It would be the only hit Masterson would allow as he departed after seven innings with just the one hit, eight strikeouts and zero walks.
“He was filthy,” Dozier said. “The whole game, he kept powering sinkers and just fell off the table. … I was going to take one to try and work the count and I thought, ‘You know what? I might fall behind.’ So I went up there hacking.”
So do the Indians really need Garza? In their last 11 games, Tribe starters have a 1.89 ERA with 66 Ks in 66.2 innings. Opponents are hitting just .176 against them. Now you get Zach McAllister back in the fold, who will most likely start Tuesday in Seattle. To me, the biggest concern on the pitching staff is clear, which brings us to…….
Tito and the lack of a reliable left-handed reliever
I said this in this same space a week ago. Tito Francona is making some real head-scratching decisions with his bullpen. Perhaps the most egregious of them all came Friday night. With the score tied at two in the bottom of the eighth, the Twins had a runner on third with two out and the dangerous Joe Mauer due up. First base was open. There is no way you pitch to Mauer, hitting .320 on the season and .323 for his career, right? And if you are crazy enough to do so, you certainly don’t want to do it with a right-handed set-up man if you don’t have to.
To me, it was a complete no-brainer. Walk Mauer and take your chances with Justin Morneau, setting up the force at second. Instead, Francona chose to let Joe Smith face Mauer and instructed him to pitch around him. The decision proved costly as Mauer took a two strike pitch back up the middle for the game-winning RBI single. Said Smith: ”Once I got ahead of him, 1-2, my approach changed. I was going for the punchout. I wanted to get out of the inning. He got me.”
Francona was asked why he didn’t put Mauer on and gave a rationale which still doesn’t make real sense to me.
“You’d have first and third, and the guy at third can fly. So how do you defend that? They can do a lot of things. If you want to hold Mauer at first, you have the hole open.”
First off, what does the guy at third having speed have anything to do with the decision? He’s going to score on any hit regardless. Also, Mauer isn’t going to attempt a steal on Gomes, who is now 11 for 20 gunning would be base-stealers down. Plus you set up the force at second. And how many times in the course of a game is there a hole on the right side? That’s baseball! You don’t let Joe Mauer beat you with first base open. It is that simple.
This also begs the question of how the Indians can possibly go any longer without a reliable late inning left-handed reliever. I’m no huge fan of Rich Hill, but if he isn’t being used in that particular spot, whether it was facing Mauer or walking Mauer to face Morneau, then why is he even on the roster? Prior to the All-Star break, Hill had actually been better, allowing just three earned runs in his last 16 appearances. If he is your one lefty reliever, than that is the spot he HAS to pitch in. Instead, he let Smith stay in to face Mauer and he got beat.
If Francona doesn’t have the faith in Hill to matchup in the eighth inning against back to back left-handed hitters, then the Tribe needs to go get one ASAP. I covered the top trade targets on Friday. I just don’t think the Indians can afford to wait any longer.
Hill proved why Francona most likely didn’t go to him a night before on Saturday, when he appeared to start the sixth in relief of Kluber. Hill walked Mauer and gave up a single to Morneau. The last batter he faced, Doumit, hit the chopper to third which Chisenhall threw away for the first of the Twins three sixth inning runs.
In the meantime, the defensive blunders coupled with Francona’s iffy handling of the pen had a direct hand in two losses that should have been wins.
With the Tigers losing two of three in Kansas City, the Indians head to Seattle still a game and a half back in the AL Central. During the three-game set, they are lucky enough to miss ace Felix Hernandez. Ubaldo Jimenez (7-4, 4.56 ERA) gets things started tonight at 10:10 EST. He will face veteran right-hander Aaron Harang (4-8, 5.38 ERA).