Do I say the same thing every three weeks or so? Just when you think you are out, this team sucks you right back in. Terry Francona’s Cleveland Indians are not the sexiest group, nor are they the most talented. Their starting pitching is essentially Corey Kluber, hoping for the best with two youngsters, then trying to limp past five innings with whomever is currently slotted fourth and fifth. The offense is extremely streaky and lacks power. The defense is the worst in the American League. They just traded their Opening Day starter and their starting shortstop of the past five years, a two-time All-Star. Sounds like a last place doom and gloom scenario doesn’t it?
I for one have been very critical of Francona’s in-game managing. He is far too in love with the bunt, his lineup decisions at times are head-scratching at times, and he overuses his main bullpen arms. All of this goes on without anyone uttering a negative word about him. Why you ask? Well the fact of the matter is that Tito is an absolute freaking wizard inside of that clubhouse. These 25 guys plus would run through a wall for Francona if he asked them to. He preaches playing the game with class and dignity and gives his players the leeway they need. At the end of his time in Boston, the veteran clubhouse began to tune him out and take advantage of his players-first mentality. It was time for him to move on. After a year off, he came to Cleveland as the perfect elixir to the combustible situation with the fan base and its distrust of the front office.
Where exactly am I going with this? Here is the reality: The Indians don’t have the talent that a lot of other teams do. There are a ton of holes. Guys who are supposed to be carrying this offense – Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Michael Bourn to name a few – are either hurt or having miserable seasons both at the plate and in the field. Yet here they are, a game over.500 at 56-55 and just three games back of the second Wild Card spot in the American League after a weekend sweep of the lowly Texas Rangers. Many have buried this team more than once in this up and down season, but they keep coming back. They have a never give up mentality. Even after trading Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera, Francona declared “anyone who knows me and has stood next to me in that dugout knows I never wave the White Flag.”
Yes, the Rangers are a bad team, but as we all said last September when the Indians went 21-5, you can only play who is on your schedule in front of you. There is a reality that is going unsaid about the trade of the two veterans last week; the Indians aren’t going to be a worse team without them. Lets be honest here: Masterson was a complete and utter mess who could not be trusted anymore. His command was atrocious and his velocity was done. Whatever the Indians could receive for him – in this case AAA outfielder and former St. Louis first round pick James Ramsey – was going to be worth it. Asdrubal leaving could be viewed as addition by subtraction. Whether it be Jose Ramirez or Mike Aviles, whomever plays shortstop the rest of the way is going to be a massive defensive improvement on a team that desperately needs an upgrade. At the plate, sure, they will lose something, but it is not as if Cabrera is the guy he was in the first halves of 2011 and 2012. You could see it this weekend right away. Ramirez was getting to balls and firing a rifle from short in ways Cabrera hadn’t since about 2009. He also does the little things – i.e. offering speed and the ability to move runners – that Asdrubal lacks. Neither veteran will be missed on the field.
(Speaking of veterans not missed, what exactly has happened to our old friend Shin-Soo Choo? I watched him flail away at pitches all weekend and have paid close attention to him all season long. His seven-year, $130 million deal starting at age 32 already looks like a gigantic mistake for Texas. Choo has never been able to hit lefties and he still can’t. He is easily having the worst season of his career since becoming a regular and he is doing so at one of the best hitters parks in the game in Arlington. .237/.347/.356 with nine homers, 34 RBIs, and just three steals? That looks like money horrifically spent by Texas GM Jon Daniels.)
Arguably the biggest reason they have been able to hang around has been a bullpen that has been as good or better than any in all of baseball. We saw it on display all weekend. In the three game sweep, the pen pitched 11.2 innings and allowed just one earned run, which came with a 12-1 lead in the ninth of Friday night’s blowout win. The mix that Francona now has seems to be deeper and he seems to be trusting more guys than just his “core four” of Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, and Marc Rzepcyznski. Lefties Kyle Crockett and Nick Hagadone have both been good of late, Hagadone has allowed just one earned run in his last 10 appearances, but the baby-faced Crockett has one-upped him, giving 12 straight scoreless appearances. Carlos Carrasco has allowed just three earned runs in his last 15 outings. Heck, even deposed closer John Axford has improved (two earned runs in last 14 appearances).
Adding those four to the four guys Francona already trusts helps immensely when you consider a starting rotation that has been one of the AL’s worst. This weekend though, they came to play. Danny Salazar was staked to a big lead thanks to 12 runs and 16 hits and rode it through six innings. Danny’s fastball and change up were on full display and fooled the Rangers hitters to the tune of just one unearned runs on four hits. The improvement in Salazar’s command has grown since he has returned from his two and a half month stint in AAA. He’s made three starts and has won all three, posting a 2.00 ERA
“I’m using the slider now, getting more comfortable with it,” Salazar said. “I needed that third pitch to go with the fastball and changeup.”
A night later, it was T.J. House’s turn. The left-hander gave another quality outing to where he staked his claim to the fourth spot behind Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Salazar. On Jim Thome statue night (more on that later today), the real star was House, who held the Rangers scoreless into the sixth inning as the Wahoos won 2-0. Texas batter worked him deep into counts regularly, so his pitch count was at 97 when he departed. But no runs on three hits and two walks with seven strikeouts in five plus innings is something Francona will take all day from a guy who was essentially an organizational afterthought this time last year.
“I would’ve liked to go a little longer,” House said, “but definitely felt prepared and confident out there. I knew the guys I’d seen before so I knew how to attack them, and Roberto (Perez) called a good game for me.”
Salazar and House set the stage for Bauer who looked like he might not get out of the second inning Sunday afternoon. Part of it was a lack of command, part of it was Bauer getting squeezed by home plate umpire Doug Eddings, who was off all afternoon. But as we have seen so often with the 23-year old righty, Bauer righted himself and pitched deeper into the game than you could have imagined had you seen those first two innings.
“It’s just a matter of me getting comfortable,” Bauer said. “Once I get comfortable and settle in, I can really up the intent. I’ve tried to throw as hard as I can from pitch one and I spray balls everywhere still. It’s something I’ve been trying to address for six, seven, eight years. It’s one of the ones I haven’t been able to figure out yet.”
The offense couldn’t solve Texas ace Yu Darvish but Bauer kept them in the game by keeping the Rangers off the board for the next five and a third innings he worked. Anyone who watched those first two innings had zero idea he’d still be going in the eighth. But Trevor’s excellent work set the stage for the Wahoo offense to provide the ammunition for the sweep.
David Murphy came over this winter from the Rangers. We all know that. But what we didn’t know was that when he sees his old teammates, he turns into Ted Williams. “You get pumped up to play your friends,” Murphy said. “It probably helped a little bit that I faced some guys that I know how to approach. I know how they pitch. I’ve seen them pitch a decent amount over the years. You could say that’s an advantage. In the end, both times we’ve played them this year, I’ve been feeling good at the plate.”
Murphy made two terrific diving catches went 6-10 in the series with five RBIs. No hit was bigger than when he came to the plate as the tying run in the ninth Sunday afternoon and took closer Neftali Feliz deep to push the game into extra innings. He did so on his daughter’s birthday. While “Good Guy” played the hero to give us free baseball, it was Dr. Smooth who sent everyone home happy.
Michael Brantley continued his incredible season to remember with his second walk-off home run of the year, a 12th inning solo blast against Ohio native Phil Klein. Of course, Brantley was quick to give others the credit. “Without Murph hitting his home run, I don’t get a chance to hit mine,” he said.
Francona was giddy after Brantley’s jack gave his team a three-game sweep and took them over .500 for the first time in over a month. “There’s something to be said for keeping on playing,” Francona said. “There wasn’t a lot to yell about in the game, but our pitching kept us close, and then Murph hit one out of the park.”
The Indians badly needed a strong weekend against the last place Rangers and they got it, taking all three games at Progressive Field. It won’t be this easy as they now play a home and home four-gamer with the Cincinnati Reds before heading to New York next weekend to meet up with the Yankees in the Bronx. The Reds boast four top quality starters that the Indians will see all in a row – All Stars Alfredo Simon and Johnny Cueto, plus Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, he of the six-year $110 million contract. The best part for the Tribe? Kluber’s turn in the rotation is back around Monday night.