April 23, 2014

Tribe Weekend Recap: Sweep of Astros has Tribe on cusp of playoffs

Michael BrantleyYou 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.

Pitching….Pitching….Pitching

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)

 

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Love it, gotta take care of business at home against bad teams like the Astros, but a 4-game sweep is fantastic. #RollTribe

  • mgbode

    A sweep even against bad teams is hard to do. Keep on rolling.

  • Harv 21

    Love the Salazar decision. Especially when looked at this way: you’re potentially sacrificing you’re best-looking prospect to get to the playoffs. Hell, they threw their two best prospects on the altar 3 years ago when they traded for Ubaldo. In this instance they might mess up Salazar, but he might end up just fine.

    Foolish to assume they’ll be in this position again any time soon. No brainer – go for it. You never know what might happen once you’re in. Remember ’97?

  • TSR3000

    First team to have 6 four game sweeps since ’61 Yankees.

  • TSR3000

    Agreed. Reminds me of Jaret Wright. We might blow his arm out but you only get so many chances to win it all. If Danny gets hot enough we can ride he, Ubaldo, Z Mac and Masterson.

  • boomhauertjs

    That Twins series scares the crap out of me, especially since that Albers absolutely shut the Tribe down last time they faced him. It’s going to be a wild ride to the end. #RollTribe

  • REEPJP

    Bought my tickets to the Wild Card game this morning! I’ve only been able to make it up to one game from Columbus this year, but I’m not missing this one (assuming it happens)!

  • vespo09

    Yeah, we never play well in Minnesota. These two games against the White Sox are must-wins. If we pull that off, splitting with the Twins should be enough. (Magic number is 6, that would require the Rangers to lose twice.)

  • http://www.cinpleweb.com/ stin4u

    Continue taking care of business and you can keep my money for both the WC and ALDS games. Get it done guys, I like being broke.

  • nj0

    Astros are my second team and I have no issue with the guys they’ve put out there this year. The truth of the matter is, there isn’t any difference between a 60 win team and an 80. For a team that was saddled with bad contracts, old “stars”, and an empty farm system, I think they did exactly what they need to do to initiate a rebuild.

  • woofersus

    It feels similar, but Wright pitched 189 innings in 1997, (and 192 decidedly mediocre ones the next year – he didn’t hurt his shoulder until 1999) and Salazar has only pitched 139 so far this year. He only pitched 87 last year coming back from Tommy John surgery, so it’s a jump, but I think he’s pretty much on target. He’s only got one start left before he goes to the pen for the remainder, so it makes sense to let him stretch it out once.

  • Harv 21

    Right, Wright wasn’t hurt at the time. But re innings pitched, wonder whether you are mixing apples and oranges comparing Wright and Salazar. I think they are tracking Salazar’s IPs all-season, whatever level. Wright pitched something like 217 innings in ’07, if you count both Akron where he started the season and Cleveland. That’s a ton of innings.

  • Steve

    For all the talk about the schedule, over the course of 162 games, its going to be tougher than Texas’. They’ve played 77 games against teams under .500 (with seven more to go) compared to the Tribe’s 68 (and obviously six more to go). I’d gladly swap divisions with them, as bad as Chicago is, they’re better than Houston, and KC is much better than LA (who is finally playing decent ball).

    And the team has pushed back Salazar to Wednesday, and all but said that Masterson will come in relief that night. I’m a fan of a Salazar-Masterson piggy back. Don’t waste too many of Salazar’s bullets against a crappy White Sox team.

    I’m glad the attendance ticked up, but 26k is still not something for people to get excited about. But the talk around town seems to be excited about the WC game, so people are finally getting on the bandwagon. Better late than never.

    And, as I said in the other thread, Screw Joe Sheehan.

  • Steve

    For all the talk about the schedule, over the course of 162 games, its going to be tougher than Texas’. They’ve played 77 games against teams under .500 (with seven more to go) compared to the Tribe’s 68 (and obviously six more to go). I’d gladly swap divisions with them, as bad as Chicago is, they’re better than Houston, and KC is much better than LA (who is finally playing decent ball).

    And the team has pushed back Salazar to Wednesday, and all but said that Masterson will come in relief that night. I’m a fan of a Salazar-Masterson piggy back. Don’t waste too many of Salazar’s bullets against a crappy White Sox team.

    I’m glad the attendance ticked up, but 26k is still not something for people to get excited about. But the talk around town seems to be excited about the WC game, so people are finally getting on the bandwagon. Better late than never.

    And, as I said in the other thread, Screw Joe Sheehan.

  • mgbode

    3-3 @MIN this season (overall 9-6). Would love for that number to move to 6-4 (12-7). I think we need 4 wins to make sure we get a spot. 5 wins to get in without a tiebreaker game.

    Texas is 14-2 vs. Houston (3 games).
    Texas is 11-4 vs. LAA (4 games)

    Tampa is 12-6 vs. Bal (1 game)
    Tampa is 9-7 vs. NYY (3 games)
    Tampa is 10-6 vs. Tor (3 games)

  • mgbode

    3-3 @MIN this season (overall 9-6). Would love for that number to move to 6-4 (12-7). I think we need 4 wins to make sure we get a spot. 5 wins to get in without a tiebreaker game.

    Texas is 14-2 vs. Houston (3 games).
    Texas is 11-4 vs. LAA (4 games)

    Tampa is 12-6 vs. Bal (1 game)
    Tampa is 9-7 vs. NYY (3 games)
    Tampa is 10-6 vs. Tor (3 games)

  • mgbode

    they are going Nats-style knowing they have the money to keep the farm system stars if they ever manage to draft/develop some and then go and get the free agents to supplement.

    it’s all going to be on them to actually develop the internal system though or it’s a waste of time. we’ll see (I think they’ll be fine though it’ll take longer than Washington due to the lack of a Strasburg/Harper in the last couple drafts).

  • mgbode

    they are going Nats-style knowing they have the money to keep the farm system stars if they ever manage to draft/develop some and then go and get the free agents to supplement.

    it’s all going to be on them to actually develop the internal system though or it’s a waste of time. we’ll see (I think they’ll be fine though it’ll take longer than Washington due to the lack of a Strasburg/Harper in the last couple drafts).

  • woofersus

    I was counting innings from both the minors and majors for all of those numbers. I wasn’t totally clear on that. I don’t know exactly where Wright was BEFORE the playoffs started, but regardless I know they were in different situations. My point was just that pitching Salazar another 6-7 innings (we hope) next week isn’t on the same level of what was asked of Wright in 1997, physically. I don’t think it’s that much of a risk.

  • nj0

    All true. I just don’t get the oft-heard opinion that the Astros should lose at a more acceptable level during the rebuild and/or spend an acceptable amount while being terrible.

    I don’t think people realize how down this organization was when Crane and Luhnow took over. They had a long way to go.

  • nj0

    All true. I just don’t get the oft-heard opinion that the Astros should lose at a more acceptable level during the rebuild and/or spend an acceptable amount while being terrible.

    I don’t think people realize how down this organization was when Crane and Luhnow took over. They had a long way to go.

  • Rick Manning

    Chris Carter actually has a higher OBP than our leadoff hitter, but other than that, yes I agree their lineup is terrible. However, that is to be expected from a team that blew everything up and started from scratch. Its not like the Astros were trying to win a pennant this year and ended up with this.

  • mgbode

    they can thank Wade’s close personal relationship with the Phillies for some of it.

  • http://www.twitter.com/dconeil Hamsterdam

    I love the national media’s freakout anytime something doesn’t go the way of the AL East. OMG LOOK AT THE SCHEDULES. It is kinda BS but no one is mentioning that Cleveland’s extended interleague series was against the 90-win Rays and the Yankees got to play the Mets and the Rays the Marlins. Don’t let that get into the way of your narrative, folks.

    Texas likely will finish the season series 17-2 against the Astros. That’s frustrating. The White Sox may be below average but they are simply not the Astros. At all. Who would you rather have 37/38 games against? Seattle and Houston or Chicago and Minnesota? I’d take the west’s path.

    Minnesota scares the hell out of me. Got to keep winning.

  • mgbode

    they are losing big $$$ if the Indians & Rays make the playoffs instead of the Rangers and Yankees.

    imagine the outrage at ESPN if either of us makes the WS and ends up playing Pitt or Cinci?

  • nj0

    12-7 against what’ll be a 90+ loss Seattle squad. We also had to play Atlanta too.

  • Steve

    ESPN is not showing any of the playoff games. I’m sure they’re actually rooting for a Cleveland v Tampa, Pittsburgh v Cincinnati WC round, as that will give them more time on those Tuesday and Wednesday nights to preview the next weeks Monday Night Football.