Last year, the Indians were “Team Streak.” This year, the PD’s Paul Hoynes has dubbed them “Team Clank” thanks to their tendency to commit errors at the worst times. I think they are a combination of both. We have seen the full arsenal of good and bad over the past two weeks. An on fire offensive juggernaut for a few days follows up with a group that can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag. We’ve seen great starting pitching and then eight consecutive games without the starter going six innings. The one constant has been the steady back end of the bullpen.
The 10 game, three city road trip started out great, looked like a mess mid-stream, and then finished strong. Coming out of Texas, Kansas City, and Boston 5-5 is good enough for me. That is about as tough of a trip as you could ask for. When you consider the final eight games of the trip where the starting pitcher failed to go six innings, it looks even more impressive.
Lots went down over the weekend in Boston, which saw the Indians take the final two games of the series in tight games and really doing so with little offense. So how did they do it? As we do every Monday morning, let us look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
The little offense that couldn’t
Yes, the Indians won two of three in Boston this weekend, but they did not exactly set the world on fire offensively. In all three games, the Tribe scored three runs. Going back over the past five games, the offense has mustered just 12 runs, three being the most in any single game. The situational hitting was borderline painful to watch.
Saturday’s 3-2 win really took the cake. Any time the Indians got a runner on base, it was as if they developed an allergic reaction to delivering a follow up. Imagine going 0-11 with runners in scoring position, striking out 10 times, and still somehow pulling out a win. That’s exactly what the Tribe did. Somehow, they scratched across three runs via an RBI double from Asdrubal Cabrera, an RBI fielder’s choice from Jason Kipnis, and a bases loaded walk by Carlos Santana.
Sunday’s 3-2, 11 inning win was similar. They only had seven hits, two of them coming in the 11th against Junichi Tazawa. Boston starter Brandon Workman completely stymied the Wahoo express. Other than Michael Brantley’s first inning solo homer, there was nothing going. For the second consecutive game, the Tribe failed to get a hit with runners in scoring position. They were given a big chance to bust the game open in the seventh. Trailing 2-1, David Murphy walked and went to third on a Santana single, which chased Workman. The slumping Yan Gomes drove Murphy home with a sacrifice fly, but the rally ended right there.
They got nothing from that point forward until Nick Swisher’s 11th inning solo homer off of Tazawa. They won two of three, but the bats went 1-22 with runners in scoring position and scored just nine runs. They had no business winning two games with that kind of offensive production. The Indians don’t win those games if not for……
…..Stellar pen work which saved the day
It is not exactly a secret topic around these parts. Terry Francona loves to use his bullpen. Sometimes he pulls the plug on his starter too early while other times he brings in a guy to face one batter and then goes to someone else, and I am not talking just about matchup lefties.
I love the work that Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and for the most part Marc Rzepcyznski have given the team. But between the three of them and 38-year old Scott Atchison, overuse has become a gigantic concern. Earlier in the week when the Tribe was losing two in Kansas City, I said the silver lining was that Allen and Shaw were getting some much needed rest. Little did I know that they would be leaned on even more heavily than usual over the weekend in Boston.
Friday night’s 10-3 loss was a ballgame until the wheels fell of the wagon in the seventh. Starter Justin Masterson’s brutal command caused him to register the shortest outing of his career (as a starter), causing Francona to pull the plug in the third inning. Rookie Kyle Crockett, Atchison, and Rzepcyznski were all used in an effort just to get the Tribe to the seventh. A fresh Shaw came on but wasn’t his usual sharp self. Josh Outman and Allen were also called upon just to get the Tribe home for the night.
The next afternoon, T.J. House departed after five and a third innings of two-run, seven hit ball. It took John Axford, Crockett, Shaw, and Allen just to get to the finish line. Yesterday, the hope was that their best starter, Corey Kluber, could get Francona deep in the game. That wasn’t meant to be when Kluber walked a season-high four batters while giving up five hits and two runs. At 99 pitches with one out in the sixth, Tito called on Rzepcyznski to face the left-handed hitting A.J. Pierzynski. The Tribe’s top lefty would give his team a quality inning and two-thirds of scoreless work. He turned it over to Shaw who kept the scored tied at two with a scoreless inning of his own. It was Shaw’s third consecutive appearance. He threw just eight pitches to get his three outs, but Francona had to know Shaw was good for just the one innings.
He has no choice but to go to someone other than his big three. He gave the ball to Axford in a tie game in the ninth. The Ax Man has not exactly been awe inspiring this season, but since being taken out of his closer role, the Canadian has settled down a tad. It looked like the closer version of Axford had returned when the command issues resurfaced.
Ax walked two of the first four he faced and wasn’t close on many of his pitches. With two out, Axford had Jackie Bradley Jr. frozen on a breaking pitch that was a clear strike three, except Chris Guccione must have been watching another game because he called it a ball to make the count full. Axford’s next pitch sailed high for ball four and Francona had to go to someone else.
“I went with Atchison because he throws strikes and won’t beat himself,” said Francona.
The rubber armed-Atchison came on to record the game’s biggest out. Brock Holt sent a slow grounder to second which Kipnis charged and fired to first. Santana made a great stretch to just narrowly get the sliding Holt to force extra innings.
Interestingly, Tito pulled Atchison after recording the single out and went to his closer Allen. He figured he had to get his best reliever out there as soon as he could and hope the offense could somehow find a way to score. No sense in leaving him in the pen with the meat of the Sox order – Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli – due up. Make no mistake – Francona treats the games against Boston differently than any other games his team plays. He always wants to win, but against his ex-employer, he really wants to win. Allen responded on his third consecutive day of work with a 1-2-3 10th.
Swisher’s homer gave the Tribe a lead, Allen’s quick work in the 10th, and Francona’s deep desire to beat the Red Sox made it an easy decision; Cody was coming back out for the 11th to close things out.
“He had a quick 10th inning,” said Francona. “If we didn’t take the lead, I was going to go with Carlos Carrasco. But when we took the lead, I would have had to tackle Cody to get him out of there.”
Allen made Tito look smart with another perfect inning clinching a Wahoo winner. Just take a look at Allen’s recent body of work and you can understand why Francona left him out there, despite pitching in three straight.
— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) June 15, 2014
Now onto the overuse. Rzepcynzski leads the AL in appearances with 36. Shaw is second with 35. Allen is third with 34! Axford is not that far behind with 32 and Atchison has 30. That is FIVE relievers with 30 or more appearances and the Indians have played 70 games. We all know how Francona loves to use his pen, but at a certain point he is going to have to trust his starters more.
Kluber has certainly given his team lots of depth so far this season. Masterson has been so inconsistent. Trevor Bauer is still learning how to pitch at the Major League level and the Indians seem to be attempting to limit his innings. Josh Tomlin is a pro’s pro at the back end of the rotation, but he has always been more of a six inning guy more than anything. The House/Zach McAllister duo has been up and down.
Either the starters are going to have to pitch better and deeper into the games or Francona is going to have to give guys like Crockett, Axford, and even Carlos Carrasco more spots in big situations. Axford has given up just one earned run in his last 10 appearances. He had walked just one batter in the previous nine outings before issuing three free passes yesterday. At this rate, Shaw, Allen, and Rzepcynznski’s arm’s are going to fall off.
Santana comes alive, can Swisher do the same?
The best possible thing that could have happened to the Indians catcher turned third baseman was the seven day stint on the concussion DL. It gave Carlos the chance to get away from the game for a week and refocus. Since his activation, we have seen a rejuvenated Santana who is starting to resemble the guy we expected to see this season.
After a three hit Sunday, Santana is hitting .300 (9-30) since June 6th with two homers and eight RBIs. He has also drawn six walks, a stat in which he is still second in the AL, despite playing 11 games less than leader Jose Bautista. The eighth spot in the lineup has actually done him some good as well.
With Santana seemingly on the mend, could Swisher possibly join him? It sure would be nice to get him going. The Indians went on their nine of 10 run without him in the lineup and he obviously came back and didn’t want to disrupt anything. He made his return Thursday night in Boston and went 0-4. After an off day Friday, Swish returned Saturday with a double in four at-bats. Sunday he was facing another o-fer before his heroics in the 11th won the game for the Tribe. They came on Father’s Day with his daughter in attendance.
“We all have confidence in Swish,” Kluber said. “I think we all have the feeling that it’s going to come around. I mean, when you have that kind of track record, it’s not an accident. I don’t think you suddenly forget what got you to that point. So, hopefully this is kind of that building block.”
It has been a season to forget thus far with Swisher battling injuries and hitting just .207/.303/.328, but the Indians brought him here to be a run producer. The time has come for him to start playing up to his capabilities. He knows it too.
“These guys have really stepped up their game. Coming back in here I just want to get myself back to the player I am and we’ll go from there,” he said Thursday.
The real interesting situation is going to be how Francona juggles this lineup with the emergence of Lonnie Chisenhall and the activation of Swisher. Earlier in the week, Tito did make one interesting revelation – Santana will mostly played first base or DH. The third base experiment will be limited for now. Since coming off the seven-day concussion DL, Carlos hasn’t played the hot corner.
“I just thought playing Carlos at first was an easier way for him to come back (after being on the DL). I think we’re better defensive team that way. I think Carlos is probably a better first baseman than he is a third baseman,” said Francona.
So for now, first base will most likely be handled by Swisher with days off as DH to rest his knees. Santana will DH while filling it at first. Chisenhall will be manning third with Mike Aviles getting starts against certain left-handed pitchers. George Kottaras remains as the backup catcher.
One final word about bunting
If you follow me on Twitter, you know how I feeling about bunting. #Buntingisforlosers is my hashtag. Once again Francona bunted early, often, and with anyone in his lineup. On Saturday, Swisher bunted with two on and nobody out in fifth. In his previous at-bat, he had doubled. Then in the seventh, the Tribe skipper had the hottest hitter in baseball, Lonnie Chisenhall, squaring to bunt with two on and nobody out in the seventh. I was beside myself.
Francona’s love for the bunt is absolutely maddening. I understand that the offense wasn’t driving in runs all weekend, but giving up outs – especially with your hottest hitter – just doesn’t make sense one bit to me. You want to bunt in the eighth in a tie game with Aviles or Bourn, fine, I am down with that. But sending a guy up to bunt in the fifth inning of any game or calling for your best hitter to drop down a bunt in any situation is just bad baseball to me.
Then again, this is why Francona is the manager and I just write about the team.
The Indians return to Cleveland with the best home record in baseball for a four-game series with the Angels before welcoming in the first place Detroit Tigers over the weekend. It will be a big week for the Tribe.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)