If your Cleveland Indians were going to get back in the thick of the AL Central and Wild Card races, coming out of the blocks strongly is of the utmost importance. An 11-game, three-city road trip against three divisional foes was on the schedule. Things got started in Detroit with four games in three days. I wouldn’t say this was a make-or-break weekend for the Tribe, but how they played would go a long way into deciding whether the front office would be buyers/holders, or sellers with the trade deadline looking at the end of the month.
Getting swept by the first-place Tigers would be a killer, but a series win could put the Tribe back on the map. We all know their faults, but we also know that when they do put it all together, they are tough to beat. Friday and Saturday, the Tribe looked like a team that has to be taken seriously. The Wahoo Express steamrolled through Detroit, taking three of four to move to within five and a half of the Tigers and two of the second Wild Card spot. They looked primed for a strong second half push.
The train is coming, people. This weekend in Detroit was a great start. So what did we see?
Welcome to 2014, Jason Kipnis. Easily the biggest Indians disappointment this side of Justin Masterson is Kipnis. The Tribe’s All-Star second baseman had a horrific first half which saw him miss a month with an oblique strain, a two-month homerless stretch, and a serious regression in the field. It has been said by everyone who follows this team closely, but getting Kipnis going is of the utmost importance if this team wants to make a run to a second straight October with playoff baseball.
Friday night, with his team locked in a seventh inning 3-3 tie, Kipnis stepped to the plate with two men on. Right hander Al Albuquerque had come in and struck out both Yan Gomes and Chris Dickerson. Things did not look good, especially with the way Jason has struggled in this season in big spots. He fell behind in the count, then Albuquerque hung a slider in Kipnis’s wheelhouse. JK deposited it deep over the wall in right for a game changing, three-run shot. It was is first home run since late April, and just his fourth of the season. It couldn’t have come at a better time, during the Tribe’s seven run seventh. Two innings later he finished off the Tigers with his second blast of the game.
“It was nice,” said Kipnis. “I haven’t even done it in BP in what feels like three months. People were telling me, “You were sprinting around the bases.’ I said I forgot what it feels like.”
It was the start of a big weekend at the plate for Jason, who had five hits and four walks while driving in six runs. A huge beginning to a second half that has to be better for him.
“He’s such a good player that, even when he’s not swinging great,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “he still has a presence at the plate and he’s going to battle. He’ll get real hot. Maybe today is the day when you start seeing not just hits, but a lot of production with it.”
Dr. Dickerson, he’s the man. The beauty of last year’s 92-win Tribe team was that seemingly every night, a new hero was emerging. This season, it has been mostly the same group of bats. But with Michael Bourn’s hamstring issues popping back up and the struggles of Ryan Raburn, the Tribe brass went dumpster diving and found a gem who was dominating AAA pitching.
Think of Chris Dickerson as this year’s Matt Carson. A career journeyman, already in his 30’s, still looking to hang on with yet another club willing to give him a shot. Dickerson was toiling in Indianapolis for the Pirates AAA affiliate and had an opt out on July 1 if he didn’t receive a call up. He didn’t and the Tribe worked out a deal to bring him to Cleveland.
Since his arrival, all Dickerson has done is hit. He’s made seven starts and has hit safely in six of them, but none was bigger than his Saturday night in Motown. Facing Cy Young winner Max Scherzer is no easy task. In fact, Chris was 0-9 in his career against him heading in. So what did he do? How does two homers and a walk sound to you? His second homer came in the sixth and broke a 1-1 tie.
“Just coming out here and getting the chance to play every day, it’s a confidence booster,” the 32-year old Dickerson said.
If you saw his postgame interview with Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal, you can tell Dickerson is a good dude. It is nice to see him getting some run here in Cleveland. Bourn is due back at some point in July, but Dickerson should stick around. He has earned the right.
Most importantly, Chris knows how important the little things are. In the ninth inning Saturday night with the score tied, he failed to lay down a bunt to move Roberto Perez to third base and wound up striking out looking. In the end, the play didn’t matter because Carlos Santana cleared the bases with a three-run double, but Dickerson got it.
“Who cares if I hit two homers tonight. We had a chance to win it right there and I couldn’t get a bunt down. Los (Santana) saved my life tonight.”
Tigers get Klubered. Those who were lucky enough to witness the show Corey Kluber put on Saturday afternoon just sat there and shook their heads in amazement. For eight and two-thirds, the Tribe’s ace completely shut down one of the better lineups in baseball. If not for a two-out fluky infield RBI single from Austin Jackson in the fifth, Kluber enters the ninth looking for a complete game shutout.
He scattered seven hits — two came in the ninth — and walked just one while striking out 10 in the Tribe’s 6-2 win. It was the fourth time this season Kluber has struck out at least 10 while walking just one. That is some seriously impressive stuff from a guy who the Indians were given for sending Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals for three months a few years back.
Don’t take my word for just how good Corey was, listen to Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus.
“He throws hard. He’s got a sinker, cutter, slider, curveball,” Ausmus said. “He used the outside corner to righties very well today, using his cutter and his sinker out there. He’s tough. He’s one of the better pitchers in the league.”
The Tribe has a real ace on their hands, which is gigantic when you consider the current shaky state of the rotation, including the complete implosion of Opening Day starter Justin Masterson. That calm demeanor on the mound is soothing to you as an Indians fan.
“He’s been huge,” third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall said. “Every time he goes out, it seems like he’s giving us seven-plus innings and keeping us in a really good spot to win the game. He did that today, and I’m sure the bullpen is pretty happy about it.”
Speaking of the bullpen… What a job they did this weekend. Heading into Sunday afternoon, the pen gave seven innings of one run, seven hit, nine strikeout ball. The lone earned run should not have even crossed, but Kipnis’s failure to turn a tailor made double-play ball in the seventh Saturday night allowed the Tigers’s Jackson to tie the game with a two-out RBI double.
Francona had a 10-man pen this weekend and used everyone, but other than the usuals, he received great work from two maligned relievers. Deposed closer John Axford entered Saturday night’s game with the tying run on second with one out in the sixth. He reared back and struck out both J.D. Martinez and Torii Hunter to end the threat. These are the correct spots to use him—middle innings, facing right-handed batters.
The score was tied when Carlos Carrasco came on in the eighth to face the heart of the Tigers ordered. Throwing 97-MPH fastballs and a nasty slide piece, Carrasco nailed Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez in order. It was about as impressive of a half inning as we have seen from him all year.
Carrasco, as I have been saying since last year, was born for this role. Francona needs to lean on him a bit more. He certainly has the stuff to dominate, and now the demeanor and makeup seemed to have followed. The tweet below tells the story.
Carlos Carrasco career as a reliever: (UPDATED) 4-0 record 1.52 ERA 47.1 innings 8 earned runs 29 hits (11 BB / 43 SO) #Indians
— Jim Berdysz (@JBirdman27) July 20, 2014
The rotation and the coinciding roster moves. The Tribe 25-man roster has been a revolving door of starters and relievers, especially over the last month. With the Masterson mess and the Saturday doubleheader, changes need to be made. So follow along if you can.
Zach McAllister, who pitched well in Saturday night’s 5-2 win, was returned to AAA Columbus as he was up as the 26th man. T. J. House will be recalled tomorrow to start the series opener with the Twins in Minnesota. On Tuesday, another starter is needed and it will be Danny Salazar who makes his long awaited return. We haven’t seen the 24-year old since May 15th.
That means that at least two pitchers will have to go. Francona’s 10-man pen will be down to eight by Tuesday. I would expect that Austin Adams and C.C. Lee would be the odd men out. Adams has failed to impress in his two outings since being recalled before the All-Star break. Lee has been on that I-71 shuttle a ton this season and could be headed back south. Both worked in Sunday’s 5-1 loss. Francona also favors carrying a third lefty to Marc Rzepcynzski and Kyle Crockett and has Nick Hagadone still in his pocket.
Friday’s decision will be even bigger. The Indians will need a starter in Kansas City and could line up either McAllister or Masterson. Z Mac has minor league options and could stay in Columbus if need be, but he is clearly pitching better right now that Masterson. He allowed just one run on three hits in five and a third Saturday night, striking out six and walking three. Masterson just made his first rehab start for the Clippers on Sunday. He pitched five innings and gave up two runs on five hits. He walked two and K’d six.
The trust I have in Justin right now just isn’t there. If I were Francona, I would skip him one more time, give Z Mac the start, and see how Masterson responds to a second rehab start. I know he has built up equity with Francona over the years, but he seems to be fragile mentally. I would be taking my time with him.
Up next. The 11-game trip rolls on into Minneapolis for a three-game set with the Twins. Monday and Tuesday’s games are 8:10 eastern starts, while Wednesday is a 1:10 matinee tilt. House squares off with lefty Kris Johnson who is making just his third start of the season. Tuesday night Salazar will face former Indian farmhand Yohan Pino, while Wednesday will be a Trevor Bauer/Kyle Gibson matchup.
(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)