The weekend at Progressive Field did not go as planned for the home team. The visiting Toronto Blue Jays, with hordes of their fans on hand after making the four-plus-hour trek down from Ontario, took of three from your Cleveland Indians and may have come away with the sweep if not for a managerial blunder and one big hit from one of the few Wahoos who is actually hitting in the clutch. It was more of the the same from the team who has sputtered out of the gate. But as the Tribe’s most outspoken player, Nick Swisher, reminded us “We started last season 5-10. Lets not all jump off the bridge just yet.”
Manager Terry Francona held a team meeting before Sunday’s come from behind 6-4 win to refocus his group. “Nobody likes coming to the ballpark and having to look at your record when it’s not what you want it to be,” he told his team. “That’s just plain and simple. Saying that, I don’t want them dragging in here. It’s a new day. We need to make it be a better day. And then also, not look too far in the future. Just take care of today. If you do that enough, man, it always seems to work out.”
Whether or not it will light a fire under his team is up for debate, but Francona is as good as it gets inside that clubhouse. It was the right move at the right time. The Tribe’s fundamentals have been subpar for three weeks and it has clearly affected them. The good news is that we are 18 games into a 162-game season. Yes, they lost a home series, but the season is a marathon, not a sprint.
So how did it all go down? Let us look back at the good and the bad in the weekend that was in Wahooland.
The lack fundamentals are killing this team
Terry Francona often talked last season about “playing a clean game.” Physical mistakes are one thing. But the mental mistakes along with missing out on the little things have really played a big role in the Tribe’s slow start. We have seen this to many times over the first three weeks. This weekend was no different.
The Indians handed Toronto Friday night’s 3-2 loss on a silver platter. With the score tied at two in the seventh, Catcher Yan Gomes, a rock defensively behind the plate a season ago, made his fifth error on the season while attempting a snap pickoff throw. This allowed two runners to advance to scoring position, one of whom would score the winning run on an Edwin Encarnacion RBI single. Twice this weekend I watched Michael Bourn missed the cutoff man badly, which negatively affected how those innings played out directly. Jason Kipnis was picked off trying to steal second in a two run game with one out in the sixth inning yesterday. There was no reason for him to be going in that spot. In addition, runners aren’t being moved over when they need to be.
Easily the worst case of this came in Friday night’s ninth inning. Lonnie Chisenhall, who has been tearing the cover off the ball thus far, doubled to lead off the frame against Jays interim closer Sergio Santos. Francona called for Bourn, his leadoff hitter, to lay down a sacrifice bunt. He couldn’t. Not only were his first two bunt attempts weak, but he struck out on the third pitch he saw; just an awful at-bat from one of your supposed better hitters. Nick Swisher was next and he struck out looking. The game would end with the bases loaded on a Michael Brantley line shot that happened to be right at Encarnacion at first.
The defense has been poor. The situation hitting has been worse. The guys who are supposed to be producing runs not nicknamed Dr. Smooth aren’t delivering. Other than that, things are going great!
Now, about that Bourn bunt attempt…
In the past few years, I have warmed up to the “kill the bunt” crowd. I do think in certain situations with certain guys, bunting is a useful tool. But to me, for the most part it is nothing more than handing the other team an out, especially when you consider the fact that nobody seems to be comfortable bunting these days.
During the doubleheader against the San Diego Padres two weeks ago, Francona elected to send up utility man Elliot Johnson to attempt a bunt trailing by a run with nobody out in the eighth inning. Joaquin Benoit, the right-handed set up man, was on the mound. Tito had left-handed hitting Lonnie Chisenhall and Nyjer Morgan on the bench, but stuck with Johnson. He tried three time to put a bunt down and failed. The Tribe lost that game 2-1.
Fast forward to Friday in a similar situation and once again the bunt attempt was a loser. To me, you have three chances with Chisenhall on second to tie the game with a hit with the top three hitters in your lineup. At worst Bourn should be able to hit a ground ball to the right side, right? Instead, Santos was bailed out.
Of all managers to not have the faith in his players to deliver a hit in that situation, Francona shouldn’t be that guy. Let your guys swing the bat, Tito. Don’t give your opponent an easy out they didn’t earn.
The lack of hitting in runners in scoring position was, well, disturbing
Now maybe Francona chose to bunt Friday night in the ninth because he sees his team scuffling so badly at the plate, especially with runners in scoring position. As I said earlier, Friday’s loss was handed to the Jays. The Tribe scored their two runs on 10 hits and four walks. They were 0-9 with runners in scoring position and left a whopping 12 men on base. The certainly had their chances, they just could not come up with the big hit all night long. It seems as though we’ve been saying that a lot over the past three weeks.
On Saturday, lefty Mark Buehrle dominated the Indians as he and former Wahoo Esmil Rogers combined on a four hit shutout. Yesterday had the look of another one of those days where the offense – save for Brantley – wasn’t going to come through. It was 4-2 Jays in the sixth with the bases loaded and two out, when David Murphy came to the plate. Those of us who thought Murphy would come in here and be David Dellucci 2.0 have been proven wrong tome and time again thus far. I know it’s early, but Murph came through with a turning point kind of clutch hit when he laced a bases clearing double down the line to left that gave the Indians a 5-4 lead. Strangely enough, it was the only hit with runners in scoring position the Tribe had all weekend. They are hitting just .149 (7-48) in those spots in the last six games.
“We’re not really clicking on all cylinders,” Murphy said. “We know we’re going to at some point. We have that sense of urgency to get to the point where we’re clicking on all cylinders. A day like today is one of those days that can get you rolling.”
Francona held that team meeting before Sunday’s 6-4 win to try and get his team back in a more relaxed and positive frame of mind.
“I just felt like I want to help. I care about them a lot, and I really like this team a lot, and I just felt like maybe half reassuring and kind of explaining. (It was about), ‘Remember who we are and how we go about things.’ You get tested a little bit — that’s part of it — and we’ve been tested before. The message was just to continue to fight through things together. It’s easy for me to believe in this group,” he said.
Imagine where this offense would be right now if not for Brantley and Murphy. These two have really carried the group.
And now onto the weekly Carlos Carrasco watch…
The Tribe were staring a sweep in the face as they came to Progressive Field on Easter Sunday. Making things more difficult on them was the fact that Carlos Carrasco was making his first start in over a week. The last time was saw him was in Chicago where he started off well and then couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Francona and his team needed something positive from their mercurial fifth starter who seems to be pitching on borrowed time even this early in the season.
For the first three innings, Carrasco looked sharp, retiring the first nine Blue Jays he faced. But the second time through the order, Toronto began to tee off. Four hits and an RBI groundout later, the Jays led 3-1. Now Carrasco was not helped when Bourn missed his cutoff man on Juan Francisco’s RBI single, but you could see him start to lose it a bit. The stuff is there, but something continues to be missing. After the Tribe chipped away at Toronto’s lead thanks to a Michael Brantley RBI double, Carrasco really needed to step up with a shutdown inning. Instead, he gave up a leadoff single to backup catcher Josh Thole and watched him score an a single by Reyes.
Carrasco’s day was done after five and two-thirds and 88 pitches. He wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t good. Carlos probably earned himself at least another start by getting the Indians into the sixth, but still, four runs on six hits and three walks in less than six innings is nothing to write home about.
“I think they knew the second time through the lineup what pitch was coming,” Carrasco said, “because that’s what I did from the first inning through the third. I think I missed my spot twice. … I think that’s the big difference in what I did.”
With Trevor Bauer dominating AAA in his first two starts (0.75 ERA/0.83 WHIP/18 K/3 BB) plus his lasting impression in the spot start against the Padres, Carrasco’s leash has to be very short. I’ve been saying this now for two years, I think he could be a real asset in the pen for an inning or two with his power stuff. It is only a matter of time before we see it.
Side Note – I know how Aaron Harang has started in Atlanta (four starts, 0.70 ERA/0.81 WHIP). The Indians were not going to keep him. You can tell me all you want that they may have missed out on another Scott Kazmir, but the situations are not the same. Kazmir was a former All-Star who was still just 29 years old at the time, trying to regain his career. Harang will be 36 May 9th and is now on his seventh team since 2010. He is a NL back end of the rotation guy. The only time Harang pitched for an AL team in the past nine years was last season in Seattle when he was a disaster (22 starts, 5.76 ERA) and eventually released.
Thanks so much, John Gibbons
I was in attendance Sunday. Like everyone else in the stadium or watching at home, I saw how the Indians could get nothing going against the power armed-righty Brandon Morrow. Take away Brantley, and the Wahoos had no hits heading into the sixth. The ice cold Swisher led off with a single to open the inning. Out of the dugout came Toronto manager John Gibbons and he called for a lefty. I was stunned. I can only imagine how Morrow must have felt. The Tribe had just three hits at this point and hadn’t been able to get a read on Morrow. But Gibbons called on lefty Aaron Loup. After getting Kipnis to ground into a fielder’s choice, he then picked Kipnis off for out number two. Then something happened. Loup stopped throwing strikes.
The southpaw walked Carlos Santana, Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera to load the bases for Murphy, who then greeted him with that back-breaking, bases-clearing double. How Gibbons could yank a pitcher who was so in control for a lefty specialist in the sixth inning was beyond comprehension to me.
“Walks hurt you,” Gibbons said. “These guys laid off it pretty good. And of course Murphy ends up getting the big hit there.”
You were the one who put the Tribe in that position, skip. I’m sure Francona would like to send you flowers for making that move.
A word about John Axford
I want to like him. I really do. Thus far, the new Tribe close has only blown the one save in Chicago last Sunday. However, the way he is going about his business is not exactly confidence inspiring. All that should matter is that he gets the final three outs and takes a Tribe lead into the winners circle. But this putting runners on base every single time out is getting tiresome, and it’s only April 21.
On Sunday with a 6-4 lead, he gave up two hits and a walk and had to face the dangerous Encarnacion with the bases loaded and two down. He threw three straight balls to the Jays first baseman before eventually working a full count. The Tribe coaching staff had positioned Kipnis almost directly up the middle, which turned out to be brilliant as Encarnacion’s sharp grounder went right to him for the final out.
“I was glad (third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh) spends as much time as he does looking at the defense,” Francona said, “because we had them swung around with a pretty drastic shift. Kip was sitting right there.”
Now we have seen this from seemingly every Tribe closer of the past 15 years. Whether it be Bob Wickman, Joe Borowski, Kerry Wood, or Chris Perez, nothing seems to come easy in the ninth. But credit to Axford, he got the outs he needed for the save. He’s made nine appearances and only three of them have been clean. One of those three was a one-out, one- batter save against the Padres. I’m still not sold on Axford (which I wasn’t when the Indians signed him) and hope that things get better (and cleaner) in he coming days.
Stat of the week via Jakey Stats (@WFNYJacob)
Tribe starters are 3-7 with a 5.11 ERA in 98.2 innings pitched. Opposing batters are hitting .291 against them.
Tribe relievers are 5-3 with a 2.76 ERA in 58.2 innings pitched. Opposing batters are hitting .216 against them.
The Indians welcome Central division foe Kansas City for a four game set starting tonight. Jeremy Guthrie (2-0, 4.34) takes on Zach McAllister (2-0, 2.04 ERA) who has been great in his last two starts, allowing just one earned run in 13.2 innings of work.