While a way too large percentage of Cleveland sports fans were up in arms over another pathetic, same old, same old performance from the Browns, the team with a real chance to play in the postseason was taking care of business on the South Side of Chicago. I am going to lay it down for you folks. If you haven’t gotten behind this team, I have no idea what you are waiting for. This group is different. The direction of the organization is different. The manager inspires confidence. You have yourselves a team that almost completely turned itself around from a league also-ran to a club with a real chance to play October baseball in Cleveland for the first time since 2007.
The Indians knew what was at stake and they headed to Chicago on a two-game losing streak to meet up with the last place White Sox. The Wahoos are clearly the superior team. Robin Ventura’s Pale Hose are playing out the string. They are a shell of what they were supposed to be. The pitching staff is in shambles. Their everyday lineup at this point is a veritable plethora of prospects and 4A players surrounding the faded Indian killer Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Alexei Ramirez, and Dayan Viciedo. All of this is welcomed by Terry Francona and his team, but there are still games to be played.
Four games were played. Each of them became more important than the one before it. They started Thursday with a 14-3 laugher. Friday afternoon, Danny Salazar and seven relievers combined on a 3-1 win. A night later Ubaldo Jimenez put on a virtuoso performance, pitching into the ninth in a 8-1 takedown of the Sox. That left the series finale. Going for a four-game sweep against lefty ace Chris Sale was not going to be an easy feat. Yet with a lineup chocked full of right-handed sticks, the Wahoos knocked around Sale for six runs on nine hits in five and two-thirds on their way to a 7-1 victory.
The final three games of this sweep, your Cleveland Indians outscored the White Sox 18-3. That is what you call getting it done.
There are 13 games remaining in the season. This team can do this if they just win the games they are supposed to win. It is easier said than done, but after this four game sweep of the Chicago, the Indians have put themselves in prime position. So as we do every Monday, let us take a look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
What should we be watching for?
Let me set the scene: The two teams the Indians are currently trailing are the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers. Both teams are really scuffling. The Rangers once looked like a mortal lock to not only make the playoffs, but to win the AL West as well. A week and a half later, they are in a free fall, losing six in a row and nine of ten, including being swept over the weekend by the team they are fighting with in the division, the Oakland Athletics. Tampa Bay had lost five of seven entering a trip to Minnesota. They took the first two games, but blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth as the Twins roared back to take the series finale 6-4.
Both Texas and Tampa Bay are 81-67. The Indians, thanks to their four-game sweep and seven wins in their last ten games, have gained major ground and sit a half game behind both at 81-68. The Yankees (three out) and Orioles (two and a half out) have both been treading water, while the Royals (three and a half out) need a big week to stay close. Now for the fun part.
The Rangers and the Rays start a four-game series in Tampa Monday night. It is a scheduling delight for the Indians as one of these teams will fall back and/or both won’t be able to gain ground on each other. Should the Indians take the series opener with Kansas City tonight, they will immediately vault into one of the two open Wild Card spots. Even more amazing is the fact that the Indians are on the cusp of possibly being the host team for the one-game, winner-take-all Wild Card game, something that seemed unfathomable just a week ago. The Texas collapse has opened up all kinds of possibilities for not just the Indians, but for the Orioles, Yankees, and Royals as well.
Meanwhile, as we said before, the Indians have to just take care of themselves and the rest should just fall into place. Take a look at what each of the teams have left on their schedules:
Texas - at Tampa Bay (4), at Kansas City (3), Houston (3), Los Angeles Angels (4)
Tampa Bay - Texas (4), Baltimore (4), at NY Yankees (3), at Toronto (3)
Cleveland - at Kansas City (3), Houston (4), Chicago White Sox (2), at Minnesota (4)
Baltimore - at Boston (3), at Tampa Bay (4), Toronto (3), Boston (3)
New York – at Toronto (3), San Francisco (3), Tampa Bay (3), Houston (3)
Kansas City - Cleveland (3), Texas (3). at Seattle (3), at White Sox (4)
The obvious scheduling advantage is with the Tribe. 10 of their final 13 games are against the three worst teams in the American League, including two more with the White Sox, whom they have beaten 12 straight times and 15 of 17 this season. Tampa and Baltimore share the top spot with the most brutal schedules.
This upcoming series with the Royals is gigantic on many levels. I said before Sunday’s 7-1 win, the Tribe should hope to split the next two games, knowing the would be facing two aces in Sale and KC’s James Shields. They took care of Sale, now they must get after Shields who dominated them last Wednesday in Cleveland . After Big Game James, the Wahoos with see a pair of lefties in Danny Duffy and Bruce Chen. If this were any other year than 2013, I would be majorly concerned. But this group has had great success against Southpaws. They are now 29-19 against them. Only Oakland (30-19) and Boston (32-19) are better.
Remind me again never to doubt Terry Francona
With a potential sweep in front of his team Sunday, the Tribe’s veteran manager set his lineup and loaded it with right-handed bats. Lefties came in with just 19 hits in 140 at-bats against Sale (.136). He would have to face nine right-handed hitters. The order had the struggling Drew Stubbs leading off in center, Ryan Raburn hitting third, Matt Carson in right field hitting eighth, and the rookie Jose Ramirez at second batting ninth. On the bench were regulars Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis, and Michael Brantley.
I for one thought it was a huge gamble. In a game of this importance, how could Francona actually think sitting Kipnis and his over .430 lifetime average at U.S. Cellular Field was a good idea? How could he really trot out the 20-year old Ramirez in this spot? Worst of all…Matt Carson? 4A to the core Matt Carson? What was Tito thinking?
And that is why he is paid big money to manage the team and I sit here and write about them for the love of the game.
It took a whole two innings for Francona’s decisions to pay off. With two on and two out, Carson came to the plate and delivered an RBI single to left putting the Tribe on top 1-0. In the fifth, Carson took a Sale pitch the other way, over the wall for his first home run as an Indian. I went crazy. I was stunned. Shocked even. I mean how about Matt Freaking Carson in this spot in this game? Incredible. He would end up with three hits on the night and is now 6-8 (.750) since his callup at the end of August.
“I knew Saturday that I was going to start today so I didn’t sleep real well,” said Carson. “But the long delay, helped relax me. We were in here watching football on TV and it was just like another football Sunday.”
Ramirez would also single and walk twice. Think Francona knows what he is doing?
I am done questioning him for any sort of lineup movements. Sunday was an all-timer.
Man…this rotation is unbelievable
I still cannot believe that the strongest group on this club is the starting rotation. It was the team’s biggest and most glaring question mark coming into the season. As we sit here today, it is the group that has carried the Indians to the brink of a playoff spot. During the four game sweep of the Sox, Tribe starters allowed five runs in 23 and two-thirds innings of work. The White Sox never could get anything going.
Danny Salazar still remains on a tight pitch count and was lifted after three and two-thirds Friday afternoon, but he was extremely impressive. His nine K’s were just more proof of the dominant stuff he has. The Indians brass insist that as long as they are in the race, Salazar will get a regular turn. I would imagine things would be different if Justin Masterson were healthy, but best case he will be able to make one start in the final series of the season. Right now, the Indians really don’t have a choice but to go with Salazar, despite being essentially a five inning at best guy. However, it is still a better option to me than risking Carlos Carrasco or Josh Tomlin at this stage of the season.
I mentioned earlier about Jimenez’s ace performance Saturday night, but words can’t do it justice. There is only so many times I can say how wrong I was about him back in April, but I just can’t get over the turnaround. I am absolutely astounded by Ubaldo’s sensational second half. Saturday night he entered the ninth inning, under 100 pitches with a complete game shutout on the line. He departed with one out and a sac fly would bring in his only earned run, but it didn’t matter. Jimenez once again proved a point. He is back. The mechanical issues have been worked through. His mental approach has been great. The velocity on his fastball is back to 95. With Masterson out, Jimenez has pitched like, dare I say it, the ace the Indians acquired him to be. His 1.83 second half ERA ranks tops in the American League.
“I think the main thing is that I’m feeling 100 percent healthy,” said Jimenez. “I got my mechanics back together and I’ve been able to establish my fastball down in the strike zone and I throw all my breaking balls off the fastball.”
There is zero question about it. If the Indians were able to pick one guy to pitch the one-game, winner-take-all Wild Card, it would be Ubaldo Jimenez. That is a sentence I NEVER thought I would write. But you know something, it is the truth.
Meanwhile, the Zach Attack came strong Sunday night after sitting around for four plus hours to take his turn. Zach McAllister has had an up and down second half since his return from the DL, but he eas strong with six and two-thirds of one run ball in the 7-1 win.
“In my last three starts I was hurt by one big inning,” said McAllister. “Tonight I was able to minimize that. In the sixth, I had runners on second and third and I was able to minimize the damage. That was a big turning point for me.”
It will be Scott Kazmir’s turn to make good after his last poor outing in Wednesday afternoon’s loss. That day he faced Kansas City’s ace Shields. He gets a shot at payback tonight.
Can Asdrubal and Swisher keep this up?
Arguably the two biggest disappointments in the every day lineup this season have been Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher. Both have failed to play up to their capabilities, with Asdrubal looking like a player in a steady decline with the bat and the glove. However, both have started to shows signs that they are coming around.
I have killed Cabrera most of the season for his lackluster play and effort, but over the weekend he may have found his power stroke. Starting with Thursday’s solo blast, Asdrubal homered three times in four games, driving in six runs. His partner in crime Swisher collected six hits in the series, walked three times, and homered from both sides of the plate Sunday night. He is now tied for the major league record with former teammate Mark Teixiera, accomplishing that feat 13 times. The ninth inning solo shot was his 20th jack on the season, something he has now done nine consecutive seasons.
“To be able to share this record with Mark Teixeira, who I love dearly, is great,” said Swisher. “All that individual stuff is cool, but right now I think the way we’re playing in the highlight of everything. We got a chance to make it in the playoffs.”
That chance will be even greater if Cabrera and Swisher can keep this going over the final two weeks.
The under the radar trade which has paid off nicely
Nobody got jazzed up over the Indians acquisition of left-handed reliever Marc Rzepcynski when he was brought over from St. Louis on July 30th. After all, he was a matchup guy who had struggled in the bigs and was demoted to AAA. As it turned out, the 28-year old may have just needed a change of scenery.
Rzepcynski has pitched in the postseason in big spots for the Cardinals in both 2011 and 2012. He knows what it takes and is not scared by the big moments. He has earned the trust of Francona who has used him as the late-inning lefty over the up and down Rich Hill. The man they call “Scrabble” has really been a stabilizer. He has made 18 appearances in Cleveland and has posted an ERA of 1.18, striking out 14 and walking four in 15.2 innings of work. Lefties are hitting just .170 off of him (8-47). Of the 15 inherited runners, only three have scored (20%). The Average MLB rate (per my main man Jakey Stats) is (30%). Two of those three came in one game on August 7th.
He came into Friday’s two-run game in the seventh with two on and one out and struck out Adam Dunn for a key second out. One batter faced. One strikeout. Job well done. Credit in that same spot should also go to Matt Albers who relieved Rzepcysnki to get Konerko to end the inning.
Francona is currently working with a 15-man pen and it seems as though he is getting contributions from seemingly everyone. But Rzepcynski has come in with little fanfare and with some skepticism and has become an integral part of the group.
The Tribe travels to Kansas City for another monster series with the Royals. Both teams have a ton at stake here and this won’t be a walk in the park. Ned Yost’s bunch took two of three in Progressive Field last week and have one of the best bullpens in baseball. Plus, they start the series with their ace Shields (11-9, 3.38 ERA) on the mound. The Tribe MUST keep there momentum going. They are so close to the finish line. This three-game set in Kansas City will be their most challenging the rest of the way.
Not that they all won’t be.