First games are filled with optimism. Fans are overjoyed, memes are shared and, overall, there’s an eternal hope that no matter what, everyone at least starts off at .500.
That’s obviously not the case in MLB’s de facto post-All-Star break second half, whereas the Cleveland Indians actually were steadily above .500 with a 51-44 record and in playoff contention.
Yet, the Tribe didn’t play like a playoff team on Friday night in Minnesota, as multiple errors and an ineffective bullpen led to a hurtful 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Twins. It was perhaps one of the team’s worst losses of the season. And despite the Detroit Tigers also losing on Friday, the game had the feeling as one of those contests the team will regret come September.
To know half of what is needed to know about Friday’s game, one can enjoy this incredible statistic: Last night was Minnesota’s first Friday victory in 2013. They entered the game with an 0-13 such record.
On the mound for the Twins on Friday was big right-hander Mike Pelfrey. The 29-year-old’s two best seasons in the majors came back in 2008 and 2010 with the Mets, then he missed the bulk of 2012. Despite his intimidating size, he’s actually not a strikeout pitcher, only averaging 5.1 K/9 for his near 1,000 career innings.
Such poor miss-the-bat rates actually are a common malaise for the Twins starters this year. Overall as a team, they haven’t been that awful. They’re actually not in last place in the division — thanks to the ridiculously bad offense of the Chicago White Sox. But Minnesota’s starting rotation is making history regardless.
Entering Friday, the Twins starting rotation had the lowest K/9 of any in MLB in the last decade, per FanGraphs. By far. And that’s despite the growing strikeout rates in baseball during this time. Minnesota’s 4.73 K-rate is so embarrassing, it actually equals out to an 11.9% K/TBF rate — which is near to what contact-prone Michael Brantley is posting this season.
So enough about Minnesota and why they’re a fairly awful team that any playoff-wannabe team should beat consistently if they actually want to make said playoffs. In the end, this was a winnable game that the Indians just didn’t win. Errors aren’t friendly. An inability to face left-handed bats late in games is not good. And bad bullpen decisions mount up over time into disappointing losses.
But wait. The Cleveland offense only had four hits and four walks in this contest. Did I mention how the Twins starters don’t strike out players, thus putting balls in play, leaving to chance the opportunity for hits and lots of them? So yes, the vaunted Tribe offense — which ranked fourth in the AL in runs per game before the break — had just eight combined hits and walks. Here they are, chronologically:
Top 3rd, no out — Lonnie Chisenhall double to deep center
Top 3rd, one out — Michael Bourn two-run double to deep center
Top 4th, two out — Michael Brantley walks
Top 5th, two out — Drew Stubbs walks
Top 5th, two out — Michael Bourn singles to center
Top 6th, two out — Michael Brantley singles to center
Top 6th, two out — Carlos Santana walks
Top 8th, one out — Jason Kipnis walks
So that’s it for the Indians offense. The only baserunner not included above, obviously, was the Drew Stubbs hit-by-pitch which also allowed him to score on Bourn’s double. The Twins bullpen — far better than their discombobulated rotation — only permitted one walk in 3.1 innings. But that offensive performance is going to get it done on an average night in the major leagues.
Now, the mistakes. They were crucial ones throughout the game and epitomize the constant frustration fans have had at points this season. Sometimes, it’s hard remembering that this is a ballclub with an above-average record. Then, they pull of winning streaks of four-plus all of a sudden. But the in-betweens are torturous.
Lefty Scott Kazmir was cruising through five innings. In that span, he only allowed one “actual” walk — which was erased on an ensuing double play — and a “not-so-actual” infield single. He should have had a no-hitter through five yet again. But alas, the baseball gods caught up to him and the Tribe.
Aaron Hicks popped out quickly to start the sixth. Clete Thomas then struck out in a relatively long at-bat. Then, for the umpteenth time this season, trainer Lonnie Soloff and manager Terry Francona went out to check on Kazmir’s status. This is when it began to unravel, with two outs. Pedro Florimon walked.
Brian Dozier then was able to make it second-and-third after a mix-up on the infield between Lonnie Chisenhall and Asdrubal Cabrera. Neither have great range or are viewed that highly statistically, per FanGraphs, but this just was unfortunate timing. Trevor Plouffe’s two-run single then tied the game at 2-2, before eventually Kazmir erased another walk by finally getting out of the inning.
Both sixth inning runs were unearned because of the error. The Indians would have one measly baserunner the rest of the night.
In the bottom of the eighth, Joe Smith came on to face the Twins. Smith, for all his success the past three seasons with the Tribe, actually only has a 3.79 FIP and 1.91 K/BB. For a reliever getting as many high-leverage opportunities as he is now, those are some pedestrian figures.
Florimon singled to begin the frame. Then, another error brought Dozier on base, as Nick Swisher was unable to make a little league-capable catch at first base. A double play off the bat of Plouffe threatened to end the Minnesota rally, but with two outs, Smith was pitching to multi-time All-Star Joe Mauer. The catcher delivered with the game-winning RBI single.
Oddly enough, the Indians later intentionally walked Ryan Doumit to load the bases in the inning after Justin Mourneau had a double. Overall, it seemed like a strange move considering how Doumit’s .238/.298/.393 line compares to the leverage of the situation with Mauer’s .320/.403/.472 line. It’s a baffling move, one that has characterized Francona’s confusing handling of the bullpen.
But the damage was already done. The two errors — despite coming with two outs in the sixth and being followed by a double play in the eight — were the main difference. The inability to even pretend that the Indians have an effective bullpen LOOGY to trek out against Mauer was an issue. And the fact that Smith was even the guy expected to be in the eighth also was going to hurt at some point.
In the top of the ninth, All-Star Twins closer Glen Perkins — despite having his fly open — retired the Indians in order. A diving catch by Florimon (see picture above) to start the inning off the bat of Brantley seemed to take all the wind out of the Cleveland sails.
This one stings. It’s only one game out of 162. The Indians still have the opportunity to win the series if they can pull off the next two contests. But almost as much as the hyped home loss to the Tigers on July 5 — which at least was against a good team — the Tribe left their fans disappointed. These next few contests will be crucial to see how they respond and keep the pace.
In game two at 7:10 tonight, the Twins send Kevin Correia (6-6, 4.23 ERA) to the mound against far-improved Corey Kluber (7-5, 3.88 ERA). It should hopefully be a more fun contest.
(Photo: David Joles/StarTribune)