A weekend that should have been spectacular turned out to be just good with a bitter aftertaste. Home from a brutal west coast swing, the Tribe was back on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Following back-to-back wins to open a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox, the Indians led 3-1 heading into the ninth inning Sunday afternoon as closer John Axford came on to face the White Sox 2-3-4 hitters.
They say walks will kill you and in this instance, the old adage came to fruition. With a two-run lead, Axford should have fed the ball to the slumping Gordon Beckham. Instead, he walked him on four pitches. Hard-hitting first baseman Jose Abreu had already homered twice in the series, but the Tribe’s closer came back with a big strikeout. Unfortunately, Axford did what he just cannot do: He walked the tying run, strikeout machine Adam Dunn. This brought Dayan Viciedo to the plate, one of the hottest hitters in the American League. You know what happened next.
“You want to challenge guys and have them put the ball in play,” Axford said. “Those walks and putting guys on, giving them free passes, is something that I definitely need to cut out.”
The three-run homer was Axford’s second blown save of the season, both coming on Sunday’s against the White Sox. The Indians were three outs away from a sweep, and still came away with a series win. So how did this all happen? As we always do each Monday, lets take a look at the good and the bad of the weekend that was in Wahooland.
Friday night’s offensive explosion, any anomaly or the start of something big?
On a chilly Friday night at Progressive Field, the Indians desperately needed a win. They came home losers of six straight and had scored just 13 runs in those six losses. Something had to give. All if ended up taking was some home cooking.
Old Tribe punching bag John Danks was on the mound and the Wahoos saw red right from the jump. With one out int he first, Mike Aviles singled, Nick Swisher walked, and the struggling Carlos Santana laced a doubled to the left field corner, scoring a pair. Santana came home when another ice cold Indian, Ryan Raburn (zero for his last 22), doubled the other way. After a Michael Brantley single and a walk to Asdrubal Cabrera, Danks was on the ropes with the bases loaded and just one out. Yan Gomes punched one out to right for a two-run double. In the blink of an eye, it was 5-0 Tribe. They would put up single runs in the second, third, and fifth, before knocking the White Sox out with a four spot in the sixth, with a the big hit coming from Brantley (two-run single).
The 12 runs over the first six innings was one run shy of the 13 they scored in 54 previous innings on the West Coast. “We had a good approach, and we used the whole field,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We kind of stayed after them, which is good.” So would the Indians use that as an offensive springboard to awaken the bats or would this be just one of those games where they happened to click? Judging by the rest of the weekend, Friday was the exception rather than the rule.
Despite coming three outs short of finishing off the sweep, the Tribe offense scored just five runs Saturday and Sunday combined. Saturday’s two came on a dropped two out popup and a sacrifice fly.
Injuries are about to test the Tribe mettle
I was on the West Coast most of last week and made my way to Anaheim for the second of the Tribe’s three losses to the Angels. In the fourth inning, Jason Kipnis grounded into a double play. The All-Star second baseman is not one to dog it down the line, but this time you could tell he just wasn’t running full speed. I was right past the bag at first and I saw him clutch his side. I told my friend who I was with “that’s a pulled oblique, we won’t be seeing him for a month.” Unfortunately I was right.
Kipnis now sits on the disabled list. Fast forward to Saturday night, Michael Bourn was removed from the game after legging out an infield single and pulling up semi-lame. The Indians say he came out for “precautionary measures,” but it the injury was to the same hamstring that bothered him last season and had him on the DL to start the 2014 campaign. Despite the fact that the Indians are calling this injury day-to-day, hamstring’s aren’t something that get better quickly. He could be back in a week, but this also could require a second DL stint.
Their big ticket free agent from a year ago, Nick Swisher, isn’t hitting. Their cleanup hitter, Carlos Santana, is off to the worst start of his career. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a former two-time, All-Star continues to flounder. Now comes the injuries. The Indians are looking at a lineup without their leadoff man and gold glove center fielder and their No. 3 hitter and All-Star second baseman. That’s five of your top six hitters that are either injured or performing far below their capabilities.
So how do the Indians go about replacing Bourn and Kipnis? The first step was bringing back Nyjer Morgan to leadoff and play center field against right-handed starters. Tony Plush made a great first impression with his two-week cameo to open the season. In his return to the lineup Sunday, Morgan went 2-5. Defensively he is a downgrade from Bourn, but he is a solid fill-in. Michael Brantley will play center when a left-handed starter is on the mound. As good as Michael is in left, his play up in the middle leaves a lot to be desired. Their really isn’t any other option.
As for Kipnis’s replacement, 21-year old Jose Ramirez returns to take his shot as a regular. The kid is quite the story, rapidly rising through the Tribe ranks thanks to his speed and defense.you recall Ramirez mad a great impression with his September call up, so much so that he was on the playoff roster. He started the year in Columbus red-hot, hitting .319 with four homers and 17 RBIs. With the offense needing a boost, Ramirez was the perfect guy to bring in for a spark. In his first start Saturday, Jose’s bunt single turned into a run in the Tribe’s 2-0 win. Ramirez’s energy sure beats seeing Elliot Johnson strikeout and kick the ball around the field.
“The enthusiasm that comes from younger guys can be really good. I know last year in September, everybody got a kick out of him because of the way he strutted around. I think he’s endeared himself to a lot of people quickly because of the way he’s play,” said manager Terry Francona. “That little [expletive] is all over the place. He can help us win.”
Without Kipnis for at least a month, the Wahoos are going to need others to step into the run producers role. I say why can’t one of those guys be Lonnie Chisenhall? Yes, I was the guy who thought that the Carlos Santana move to third would spell the end of Lonnie as a regular and early in the season, he certainly wasn’t getting the at-bats. But when Francona did finally call his number, Lonnie responded…big time.
A month into the season, Chisenhall has become one of three Indians who has either met or exceeded expectations. After another three for four afternoon, Lonnie is 21-54 (.389/.441/.959) and yet he is still being used only one way – against right-handed pitching. He has been given just one AB against a lefty (a hit). Francona has quite the quandry on his hands right now. He’s getting nothing from Swisher, Santana, and Cabrera, and Kipnis is on the DL. Lonnie hit fifth both Saturday and Sunday, which clearly shows Tito’s faith in him. But will he give him a shot against Southpaws at some point?
I can see Francona working here. Last year he worked his magic with Ryan Raburn, putting him in positions where he knew he could best succeed without over-exposing him. He may be doing the same with Chisenhall. The difference here is that Raburn was a guy on his last legs as a major leaguer who caught fire, while Lonnie is a former first round pick who is still just 25. The great thing here is that Lonnie is finally thriving. I would hate to see him lose at-bats, especially in favor of 43-year old Jason Giambi.
It was nice knowing you, Elliot Johnson and its great to know you, George Kottaras.
Francona has always appreciated versatility more than most managers and with the way Elliot Johnson hit during the spring, he literally forced his way onto the team. He could play second, short, third, and all three outfield spots if need be. But as we have seen so many times before, what happens in March doesn’t always translate when the bright lights of the regular season come on.
Johnson wasn’t hitting in his limited chances and twice failed to put down bunts in key situations that called for one. The final straw (though Francona denies as much) was the Friday night when Johnson not once, but twice dropped throws that would have started double plays. After the second one, I turned to the people I was with at the game and said “he needs to be cut tomorrow. Enough is enough.” And sure enough, Johnson was DFA’d Saturday to make room for an extra arm which turned out to be Nick Hagadone for a day. Hagadone was shipped back for Morgan after Bourn went down.
And then there is the newest member of the Tribe, catcher George Kottaras. The veteran backstop was added to the 40-man roster and brought up from Columbus to take the roster spot of Yan Gomes, who left to be with his wife who gave birth to their first child over the weekend. Kottaras is out of options and he was reportedly told by the club that his stay in Cleveland would be short. But then, Sunday afternoon happened. Making his first start of the season, the 30-year old Canadian crushed two homers in his first two at-bats, becoming the first Indian in history to do so. He also drew a walk and called a great game in support of Corey Kluber.
I know his time here could be coming to an end as quickly as tomorrow, but I am ready to declare this “The Summer of George.” Two roster spots are going to need to be changed out with Gomes and Josh Tomlin returning to Cleveland. Bourn hitting the DL could solve one of those two issues and the easy move would be to DFA Kottaras. But just maybe, the best move for this team is to completely strip Santana of his catching duties and letting him fully embrace his role as a third baseman/backup first baseman/DH. The only issue is that I just don’t know who would go for Kottaras too stay. There’s always Jason Giambi’s sore calf that kept him out the last two days. Could that flare up?
A starting pitching renaissance?
I’ve been talking about this for weeks now, but the Indians starting pitching has to get better as a group if they are going to be able to put together winning streaks. It is easy to point the finger towards the bottom of the rotation, but the truth is it is Justin Masterson’s poor start that has really gone under reported. He entered Saturday night’s start with a 4.84 ERA and hasn’t resembled anything like a top of the rotation starter. It was time for him to step up his game. That is exactly what he did.
For just the second time this season, Masterson pitched into the eighth, but unlike the last time where he gave up five earned runs, the opponent couldn’t touch him. Justin departed with one out in the eighth and didn’t allow a run on four hits and just one walk. He struck out six on his way to his first win of the season. It was the exact kind of start Francona has been looking for from their number one starter. “I was able to control it today, effectively wild at times,” Masterson said. “I was able to make some quality pitches when we needed them.”
A night earlier, Danny Salazar sought to build on the best start of his season where he pitched seven innings of one run ball in San Francisco. He went just five innings, allowing three earned runs, but Salazar deserved a much better fate. To say his defense let him down would be putting it mildly. He would have gotten out of the second inning unscathed, but the first of Johnson’s two errors led to a three-run Sox inning. His pitch count was rung way up and Salazar was relegated to a five and fly. Danny’s velocity was up and there was a lot to be encouraged about in those five innings. Despite the two botched double plays, he induced three others that were actually turned.
“I thought he did an outstanding job of damage control,” Francona said of Salazar. “A couple leadoff walks, a couple balls we didn’t turn to second, once he had his hands full, I thought he really threw the ball well.”
The sweep looked like a done deal Sunday thanks to the absolute stud work of Corey Kluber. It is amazing to think that a guy who was thought to be nothing more than rotation filler could become the most reliable pitcher in the rotation, but that is what Kluber is. After a rough start in Anaheim Tuesday night, Corey came back with a vengeance, striking out a career high 13, including a team record seven straight at one point. Eight innings of one run ball on three hits with 13 K’s? I’ll sign up for that every day and twice on Sundays.
“It’s just one of those things that happens when you make good pitches,” Kluber said. “I got in a groove there in the middle of the game.” Poor Kluber really earned this win, but had it snatched away on Viciedo’s three-run bomb in the ninth off of Axford.
“He just pitched his heart out,” Francona said. “That’s about as good as you can pitch.” Scott will have more of Kluber later today. If the Indians can take anything away from this weekend, its that their starting pitching gave them three great chances to win and had a sweep three outs away from occurring.
A word about Nick Swisher and the media
By now you have heard about the comments that the bro gave to the media after Friday night’s win. Swisher said “There have been a lot of bad things written about us in the papers. We pay attention to all of that. So for us, we have to do it together. We have to band together and figure this thing out.”
Now I was not in the clubhouse to hear the context, but even so I am a little surprised that someone who spent four years in New York would take any criticism and fire back on it. The truth is this team underperformed in April. That is not a fact that anyone can dispute. Should the media relay the message that everything is rosy when it isn’t? If Swisher wants to use that for motivation or to show his teammates that he is sticking up for them, then fine, I buy it. But to be that thin-skinned after a poor month of baseball (one which he hit .211/.330/.617) to me is weak.
The Indians look to build on the series with and keep things going against the Minnesota Twins, who come to Cleveland for four games. Zach McAllister will get things started for the Tribe as he faces off with Kyle Gibson.
(photo via Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)