If the last three weeks taught you anything, it is that a baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. In this space a short three weeks ago, I wrote that as Yogi Berra once said “its getting late, early” and that the Indians season was spiraling downward in an out of control manner. The starting pitching wasn’t cutting it, the offense couldn’t score in a whorehouse with a fist-full of $20’s, and defensively, the Tribe resembled the Bad News Bears. They sat 10.5 games out of first place in the AL Central behind the smokin’ hot Tigers who could do no wrong.
So now, here we are 21 days later and the Indians have crept over .500 for the first time since April 9 when they were 5-4.
“We have a lot of baseball left,” Manager Terry Francona said. “We’ve been up, we’ve been down, we’ve been kind of in the middle. That’s why you just try to win tomorrow and then [the standings] take care of themselves.”
Getting this group back to above .500, in second place, and within three games of first place, is a testament to Francona’s steady hand. When everyone was ready to jump, he stayed patient. The tweaks happened subtly. Moving guys down in the order, giving certain guys more at-bats (i.e. Lonnie Chisenhall, Mike Aviles, David Murphy), and finding the right mix in the rotation and bullpen. All of it has added up to a recipe for success. As bad as this team has been defensively and as ice cold as the offense has been at times, the Indians are right there. It certainly helps when you have the best home record in the American League.
This weekend, our Wahoos took a six-game winning streak on the road to Arlington to take on the banged up Texas Rangers. The four-game wrap around series will finish tonight, but the Indians were going to face an uphill battle in their personal house of horrors over the past decade plus. Cleveland teams have notoriously not played well in Arlington, but that meant little this weekend as the Tribe took two of three and really could have and probably should have swept the Rangers.
So how did they do it? As we do every Monday morning, let us look back at the big stories of the weekend that was in Wahooland.
Carlos is back…was the time off exactly what he needed?
While the Indians were sweeping two consecutive series from Colorado and Boston, many whispered quietly if this team was “better off without Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher.” The thought is preposterous on a couple of different levels.
First and foremost, we all know Santana is having an awful year by his standards. He hasn’t been the middle of the order run producer Francona needed him to be. But it is much worse than that. The move to third base, something he worked so hard on in both the winter and the spring, has clearly affected his stick. Carlos has always been pull happy and teams have taken to the hardcore shift against him. It is almost as if it has gotten into his head. The swing has gotten longer and the at-bats have gotten weaker. Just over a week ago while catching, Santana suffered a concussion and was placed on the seven-day concussion DL. While Santana won’t admit it – his manager will – it was a perfect time for Carlos to take a mental break from the game.
“I actually think the break might have been good for him,” said Francona. “He had a chance to take a deep breath and think about some things. I had a chance to talk to him Friday and it seems like he’s in a really good place. He just wants to play.”
Santana was activated before Friday night’s game and was in the lineup as the DH. Francona wants to take the pressure off of him and ease him back into the flow, so he spent two of the three games in Texas hitting eighth.
“The lineup sort of makes itself out,” said Francona. “I don’t want Carlos to be our seventh or eighth hitter all year. That’s not our goal. But for the moment hitting him down there seems to make sense because we have guys who are hitting better. He’ll work his way back up.”
The Tribe’s catcher turned third baseman responded with four hits in eight at-bats with a home run, two RBIs, and two walks. That’s the thing about Carlos and why anyone who thinks this team is better off without him needs their head examined; even when he wasn’t hitting, he was still managing to get on base. Despite his .174 batting average, his on-base percentage is .345. By contrast, the .283 hitting Michael Bourn has a .328 OBP. David Murphy is hitting .291. His on-base percentage is essentially even with Carlos at .348. Santana is also second in the AL in walks with 47, just three behind Toronto’s Jose Bautista, who has played in 11 more games than Carlos.
I still maintain that Santana will be fine and eventually come around. This weekend may have been the start of it. Luckily while he was out with the concussion, the offense stepped things up.
Now as for Swisher’s return……
Everyone’s favorite bro spent the weekend with the Indians in Texas but will return to Northeast Ohio to make what is said to be a two-game rehab stint with the AA Akron RubberDucks Tuesday and Wednesday. If all goes without a hitch, the plan is for the Tribe’s first baseman to re-join the team this weekend in Boston. Swisher is recovering from knee soreness that has plagued him over the past few weeks. Like Santana, Swish was off to a brutal start both with the bat and with the glove.
There are two real issues at play here with Swisher’s return: playing time and roster spot. Nick is a veteran, a popular one at that. We all know how Francona stands by his vets, almost to a fault at times. He loves Swish and makes no secret of it. But before the injury, he looked like a shell of the guy who hit a least 20 homers in each of the past nine seasons. .211/.312/.319/.205 with RISP coupled with some horrific defense at first at age 33 cannot be overlooked.
This is where the dilemma for Francona lies. Lonnie Chisenhall has gone from an on his last legs bench player, to indispensable member of the everyday lineup, hitting in the middle of the order. It was another banner weekend for Chiz with five hits in 12 at-bats, including a three-run, game-tying jack against Texas ace Yu Darvish in Friday night’s 6-4 loss. He’s hit safely in eight of his last nine games and is now hitting .365 with a whopping .951 OPS. Plain and simple, you cannot sit Lonnie or take away his at-bats. He has been as consistent as anyone on the team this side of Michael Brantley. With Swisher out, Chisenhall has played a lot of first base with Aviles getting the majority of the reps at third. Now that Santana is back, Lonnie moved back to third Saturday and Sunday with Carlos manning first base.
The easy thing to do once Swisher comes back is DH Santana or Chisenhall with the other guy playing third and slide Swish back to his home at first. That leaves Aviles, who has played regularly over the past six weeks with injuries to Jason Kipnis, Santana, and Swisher, missing out on at-bats. The super utility man has been superb, hitting .301 with 16 RBIs in 93 May at-bats. Should Swish immediately deserve every day playing time with the way Aviles is going? If anyone knows how to juggle regulars and bench players to keep everyone happy, its Francona.
Mr. Personality’s return also signals a demotion for someone on the roster. Right now, the easy choice would be to send down two-time cow milking champion, catcher “The Summer of” George Kotarras. He is with the team as the backup catcher but with Santana back, keeping Kotarras around is insurance. However, we aren’t sure how Santana is going to react to being behind the dish again after suffering that concussion. But if Francona and GM Chris Antonetti want to put the best 25-man roster together for on the field purposes, then the guy who should go is Jason Giambi.
Obviously I love what Big G brings to the club as a pseudo extra-coach, but the Indians are loaded with left-handed bats. Carrying the 43-year old who can only DH or pinch hit and then is usually pinch run for is a luxury. Then there is the bullpen. Francona has said over the past week that he has to find other guys he can trust outside of Marc Rzepcyznski, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Scott Atchison. John Axford, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman, and Nick Hagadone round out the eight-man pen. With the way Francona has used his pen in 2014, would the Indians go with a seven-man pen to keep Kotarras or Giambi? If so, Hagadone would be the likely odd man out, though he has shined since his recall last week, making three scoreless appearances.
Best case scenario for the Tribe is another phantom injury to Giambi to pop up and land him on the DL. I just don’t see where the at-bats are going to come with Chisenhall, Santana, Swisher, and Ryan Raburn taking them all up.
Bauer and Tomlin – the game changers
For years we have been told by the Indians brass how important it is to have at least eight options for the rotation. Injuries happen every year. Performance issues seem to pop up at the back end as well. When the 2014 season opened, big things were expected from Danny Salazar. The fifth spot was all but handed to the aforementioned Carrasco despite being out-pitched in Goodyear. But by the middle of May, both guys were not just out of the rotation, but they looked awful in doing so. Carrasco has settled in the pen as the long man while Salazar has had three consecutive bad starts, allowing 10 runs in 12.1 innings pitched in AAA. He is now on the DL with what’s being described as a shoulder issue.
Just like they say in the NFL, it was “next man up.” In this case it was next “men” up. First it was Josh Tomlin who was summoned from Columbus to take the place of Carrasco. Now fully recovered from 2012 Tommy John surgery, “The Little Cowboy” is back to doing what he does best; throwing strikes and eating innings.
He did just that on Saturday. Tomlin pitched a season-high eight innings in the Tribe’s 8-3 win. The Texas native was right at home in the Arlington heat. “Tomlin was so good,” said Francona. “We haven’t played in weather like this, but he didn’t bat an eye. He just wanted to keep pitching.”
The 29-year old has completely steadied the back end of the rotation, posting a 3.12 ERA in his seven appearances (six starts) with a 0.94 WHIP. As always, Josh’s control has been impeccable with 35 K’s to just five walks in 40.1 innings. Tomlin’s start came a day after the other guy Carrasco beat out for the fifth spot, Trevor Bauer, continued his fantastic work.
Bauer has replaced Salazar and has given the Indians what they thought they’d be getting from him. The kid came with a pedigree of his own and after a rocky 2013 where he rebuilt his entire delivery, Bauer is pitching with a purpose. Even when things aren’t going his way, Trevor has found a way to shine.
Take Friday night’s game for example. The Rangers jumped all over Bauer for four runs in the second inning, highlighted by a two-out, two-run homer by Rougned Odor. From that point on, Bauer blanked the Rangers. Mixing his high-90’s fastball with his knee-buckling breaking pitches and change-up, the 23 year old didn’t allow a hit until Francona inexplicably lifter him with one out in the seventh. Bauer had thrown 97 pitches and was cruising at that point. Two batters later, Rzepcyznski gave up the game-winning home run to Michael Choice.
“After the second inning, he came right back and had a real good inning in the third,” said Francona. “That was encouraging. I thought for the most part tonight he pitched behind to a lot of dangerous hitters. But he still competed and kept them off the board except for that one inning.”
As for why he lifted him for Rzepcyznski, Tito said “it just didn’t work out how we planned.”
The point is that Bauer and Tomlin, two guys who didn’t make the club out of Spring Training, have become not just cogs in the Indians express, but key stabilizing figures at the back end of the rotation, which all of a sudden looks like a real strength of this ballclub.
Has anyone noticed how dominant Cody Allen has been in the closer’s role? Over the past 10 days, the newly minted ninth inning guy for the Tribe has made five appearances. He has saved five games where he pitched a combined five and a third without allowing a single base runner while striking out six. That, my friends, is not exactly Chris Perez and John Axford-esque.
Right now if the Indians have a lead heading to the eighth with Shaw and Allen going the way they are going, you can all but book a Tribe W.
The Tribe has one more game in Arlington tonight with the Rangers before heading to Kansas City for a two-game series. Lefty T.J. House (0-1, 3.79 ERA) will get another start for the Wahoos. He will be opposed by right-hander Nick Martinez (1-2, 3.22 ERA)