You can only play who is on the schedule. Playing those games is one thing. Knowing that you MUST win said games and then actually going out and doing so isn’t easy. Its late September and every single game means so much to your Cleveland Indians, especially when you consider the cluster of teams that are fighting for the two AL Wild Card spots. Everyone knows about the schedule advantage the Indians had with 10 games remaining. But playing them and winning them are two different things. That is what makes this weekend’s four-game sweep of the Houston Astros so impressive.
I was at Thursday night’s 2-1 11-inning win. Every time Houston manager Bo Porter went to his bullpen or his bench or heck, every time I looked up at the lineup, I could not believe what I was seeing. This has to be the worst roster I have ever seen in my 37 years of watching baseball. Anyone who is an Astros die hard or season ticket holder should be appalled by this garbage product ownership and the front office is putting on the field. Trevor Crowe hit third on Thursday night and fifth on Friday night. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know? Nobody in their lineup scares you. Nobody. Sure, they have Chris Carter and his 29 homers, but he also makes Mark Reynolds look like an on-base percentage machine. He has struck out 204 times this season. The rotation is devoid of an ace and while it has some quality young arms, you also have guys like Eric Bedard toiling in it. After seeing them Thursday night, the Indians had little excuse not to finish off the four game sweep.
Again, you can’t blame the Indians, they can only play who is in front of them, and thank goodness this particular version of the Astros came up at the best possible time. Four wins and a couple of losses by the Texas Rangers have the Indians a game and a half ahead in the chase for the second Wild Card spot. They are still a half game behind Tampa Bay for the top spot. So how did the sweep all go down? As we do every Monday, let us look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
I sound like a broken record every single Monday, but this starting rotation just continues to roll on and impress everyone. They have carried this team all year long. Ubaldo got things started Thursday with another outstanding performance. Friday night was Zach McAllister’s turn. While he wasn’t at his sharpest, Z Mac allowed just one run on four hits in five plus innings as the Tribe took game two 2-1 in seven innings thanks to the rain. He struck out three and walked two. I would still like to see more out of McAllister because we know it is there, but he is doing enough to keep his team in the games he pitches.
Saturday was Scott Kazmir’s turn. In his last two times out, the Kansas City Royals hit Kazmir around and beat him twice. The talk again was that the Tribe’s lefty was tiring. He has been a mixed bag over the past month plus. But when Kazmir is on, he has looked like a top of the rotation guy. Two nights ago, he was back. Yes, I know he was facing a AAA lineup that the Astros field, but in a time where the Indians needed him to be good, Kazmir was great.
Pitching with a first inning three-run lead, Kazmir wouldn’t give the Astros an inch, holding them scoreless on four hits and a walk. He struck out 10 in his seven innings of work in a tidy 97 pitches.
“The fastball command was great,” Kazmir said. “Getting first-pitch strikes was always the key. Once I got those, I was able to expand the strike zone and work my changeup a lot late in the count for strikeouts.”
With a sweep on the line Sunday, Corey Kluber took his turn. Like McAllister on Friday, Kluber was a little off. He struggled through five and a third, giving up two runs on six hits and a walk, but when he needed the big pitch, he would come up with it. The Astros loaded the bases in the fourth with nobody out, but Corey buckled down to give up just one run. Crowe hit into a double play and L.J. Hoes would K.
“Corey is strong, but command-wise he’s not back to mid-season form yet,” said manager Terry Francona.
The mid-season finger injury was a tough blow to Kluber. He was on a serious roll before his DL stint. He has now made four starts and yesterday’s five and a third was Kluber’s longest since his return. Corey has been able to keep his opponents from jumping all over him – in three of his four starts he has allowed two earned runs, the other start, three – but the dominating performances still haven’t come back. Kluber has one start left, Saturday in Minnesota. Hopefully he will find his “A” game in that one.
Things will line up this way for the final six games: Jimenez and Danny Salazar Tuesday and Wednesday against the White Sox at Progressive Field. McAllister, Kazmir, Kluber, and Jimenez in Minnesota Thursday through Sunday. Which brings us to….
The possible return of Justin Masterson
Sunday was a big day for the Indians ace. Justin Masterson has been Francona’s horse all season long, but an oblique injury three weeks ago has sidelined him. On Friday, Masterson pitched a two-inning simulated game with GM Chris Antonetti, Francona, and bullpen coach Kevin Cash all watching. He reportedly felt no pain after throwing 33 pitches off a mound.
“Masty came in and felt good, so we met,” Francona said Saturday. “He has a ton of urgency to try to come back and help us win. We wanted him to have a voice in this. We rely on him so much.”
In yesterday’s simulated game, Justin threw 26 pitches and worked in the field. After today’s scheduled day off, the Indians hope to have Masterson return to pitch out of the bullpen, even as early as tomorrow. Remember, he was a reliever, a successful one at that, in Boston before being dealt to Cleveland and put into the rotation in 2009.
If somehow the Indians do wind out in the playoffs, we may see a extremely loaded back end of the Tribe bullpen with Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and Justin Masterson setting up for Chris Perez.
The problem isn’t health for Masterson at this point. He just won’t be able to build his arm back up to being a starting pitcher who can go deep into games. It should be very interesting to see how things go with Justin this week.
And what about Salazar?
In something of a shocker, the Tribe’s prized rookie starting pitcher was told that his pitch count restriction had temporarily been lifted. The Indians know they need him to be more than a four to five inning guy if they were going to get to the playoffs. Having Salazar followed up by the likes of Nick Hagadone and Carlos Carrasco instead of pitching straight to the “good portion” of the Tribe’s pen for one more start was the right call. This isn’t Stephen Strasburg material, but it is in the same ballpark. I believe the Indians are doing the right thing here. Every single game counts the rest of the way. There are only six of them left. I think the organization knows that getting to the playoffs is of the utmost importance and these chances don’t come around every year. Giving Salazar the ball one more time instead of Carrasco or Josh Tomlin is clearly the best option.
Should the Indians get to October, I believe they would use Salazar out of the bullpen.
Brantley and Swisher lead the way
I am not going to sit here and say this was a great offensive weekend for the Tribe, but it was enough for the sweep. Michael Brantley will never be a perennial All-Star player. But you know what he is – consistent and most importantly, clutch. As we have seen so many times this season, Dr. Smooth delivered when his team needed it most. In yesterday’s 9-2 win, Brantley twice came through with RBI hits. The first of the two tied the game with two outs in the fourth. The sixth inning hit chased the starter Bedard and extended the Tribe’s one run lead. In case you are scoring at home, Brantley is now hitting .351 with runners in scoring position. Even more important, he is in the midst of a 20 game stretch in which he has 24 hits in 71 at-bats (.338).
Of course, Dr. Smooth stays under the radar with his low profile, team-first attitude.
“The offense is kind of rolling a little bit. We’re having some contagious hitting, which is fun. And our starting pitchers are keeping us in every game. As long as we do that, we’ll continue to win baseball games,” said Brantley, who went 3-4 Sunday and had six hits in the series.
Another Indian who is tearing it up is Nick Swisher. We’ve been talking about Swish’s hot bat for a few weeks now which is a good thing. He had four hits in Thursday’s 2-1 win and in September, where his team is relying on him, the Tribe’s biggest ticket free agent is 21-70 (.300) with five home runs and 12 RBIs. Nobody seems to be having more fun that Swisher during this drive to the playoffs.
“We’ve battled so hard, and we’ve got ourselves into an amazing spot,” Swisher said. “Guys are going to be ready to go every single day, and we’ll try to finish this thing out right.”
A quick word about the attendance
After a disappointing first two games in this series where crowds of just over 12,000 and 15, 000 showed up, Saturday night and Sunday were a welcome sight. Thanks to a Swisher-provided Fireworks show and a hot baseball team, 26,611 came out to watch the Tribe beat Houston 4-1. Then yesterday, with the Browns in Minnesota playing at the same time, 26,168 fans lined the seats and cheered wildly for their Wahoos. Everyone was treated to a 9-2 win. The players took notice as well.
“It was so great to be in that atmosphere,” said Swisher. “This is such an amazing place to play. When you have fan support like that, it’s so easy to get up for games.”
Center fielder Michael Bourn, who had a big two-run triple in a four run sixth on Sunday, agreed.
“We had a good crowd behind us,” he said. “We enjoyed it. Of course it’s going to bring extra energy to the players in the dugout. When you see that kind of energy coming from the crowd, it’s only a plus. It gets us going, gets our blood moving.”
There are two more home games – Tuesday and Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox. Lets see if there is any carry over from the weekend.
The rain shortened game and the decision
Saturday night’s 2-1 win was called after seven innings due to rain. The umpires waited just an hour and four minutes before calling the game for the Indians. There was outrage in the Twitterverse, some of it coming from some national media as well. SI’s Joe Sheehan was leading the pack, saying how ridiculous that a game of this magnitude was called so quickly.
Obviously, Joe can’t read the radar.
A band of storms was moving North east from Texas all the way North to Michigan. It wasn’t going to stop any time soon, so the game was called. Why keep the teams and fans at the park for hours on end, knowing the rains would be in the area throughout the night? The warning track looked like a moat. The next morning in Cleveland, the rains hadn’t let up, yet fans and media in Kansas City, Baltimore, and New York were complaining that the Indians were handed a victory.
My question to all of those people is this – if this had happened in May, would you have cared? Of course not. End of story.
Where we are and what is next
The Tampa Bay Rays (86-69) currently lead the Indians (86-70) by a half game. With Kansas City taking down the Texas Rangers again Sunday, the Tribe’s lead over the Rangers stretched to a game and a half. The Rays and Baltimore (4.5 games back) play one more tomorrow in Tampa, while Texas starts a series with the pathetic Astros. The Indians have a day off before welcoming in the Chicago White Sox for two games. Kansas City, now three and a half back, head to Seattle to meet with the Mariners.
With the Rangers now getting what the Indians just polished off, it is of the utmost importance that the Tribe keep up their winning ways. The Tribe has excelled against left-handed starters this season, going 32-20, the best in baseball. More good news – not only do they get to face the last place White Sox, but they get two lefties in Hector Santiago and John Danks. Then when they travel to Minnesota Thursday for a four-game set, they face Andrew Albers and Pedro Hernandez in the first two games. Both are left-handed.
The finish line is in sight. The Indians are in the drivers seat. All they have to do is worry about themselves, take care of their own business, and they will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
“We’re in a fun spot,” Francona said. “We have to keep winning. It’s a fun way to come to the ballpark. We’re playing pretty good baseball, and we need to.”
(photo via Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)