September is just about here. Time is running short for our Wahoos, but they refuse to give into the fight. (Eric Wedge would be so proud.) With their schedule in Soft Mode, the Tribe had to take advantage of what was in front of them. They started their nine-game stretch with three of the AL’s worst teams by taking two of three from the Minnesota Twins. Up next was a trip home to square off with the Houston Astros. Missing their best pitcher Dallas Keuchel was a bonus. The Indians offense, however, was still missing some key cogs and under performing. Things got worse when starting catcher (and one of the few bats that has actually been steady) Yan Gomes was placed on the seven-day concussion list after getting hit in the side of the head with a foul tip Thursday afternoon in Minneapolis.
Anything less than a series win is a major disappointment at this point, especially when a team like the Astros comes into your home ballpark. Things got off to a horrific start. What went down Friday night in the eighth and ninth innings with the score tied 1-1 was a classic case of 2014 Cleveland Indians baseball.
Old friend Tony Sipp made his first appearance in Cleveland since leaving the bullpen mafia in the Shin-Soo Choo-Trevor Bauer deal and was rudely greeted by pinch hitter Mike Aviles who singled. Rookie Tyler Holt, a second pinch hitter, was sent up to put down Terry Francona’s favorite play, a sacrifice bunt. Sipp came in to field the bunt and made a bad call by throwing to second to get Aviles, who slid in safely. So now the lead run was in scoring position with nobody out. Up next in the sac bunt parade was Roberto Perez. The Tribe catcher pulled back on the first pitch out of the zone and for some reason, Aviles was caught way off of second and was erased in a rundown. Holt would advance to second.
Said the Tribe skipper: “Mike got too aggressive and got in no-man’s land.”
But as bad as Handsome Mike’s blunder was, Holt trying to steal third and getting thrown out was worse. Perez struck out to end an inning that began with the Indians had first and second nobody out (an expectancy of roughly 1.56 runs) and ended essentially in order.
“You’ve got to be pretty sure you’re going to make it,” Francona said of Holt’s bothced steal attempt. “With youth comes some youthful mistakes. I don’t want them to be afraid to make a mistake, but I do think we need to talk to them sometimes.”
To his credit, Holt acknowledged he went on his own. The thing is, it was about to get a lot worse for the Tribe.
Enter closer Cody Allen in a tie game in the ninth. After retiring Jose Altuve, he walked the power hitting Chris Carter. This is where the wheels were about to come off the wagon. Dexter Fowler sent a potential double play ball to Carlos Santana at first. His throw sailed way high of shortstop Jose Ramirez and into left field. The first time he could, Fowler took off for second. Perez for some reason attempted a throw to second that bounced at Ramirez’s shins and pinch runner Gregor Petit walked home to give the Astros the lead. A Jason Castro walk and an out later, Jon Singleton went the other way with a back-breaking three-run homer which was all she wrote for the Tribe as they lost the series opener.
“We obviously need to be better,” Francona said. “That’s not the way we certainly want to play the game. Losing is one thing, but losing like that……”
That has been Tribe baseball all year long. The lack of fundamentals just kills any real momentum this team gets. The Perez error Friday night was the team’s 99th of the season, or one more than they made all last year when they were a below average defensive team. The next closest team in errors had 85 as of Friday night.
A night later, the Tribe trailed 2-0 early which came with another unearned run thanks to a throwing error from Chris Dickerson coupled with pitcher Danny Salazar not backing up the play the way he should. As they tend to do from time to time, the bats did enough to just barely scratch enough across to get back in the game. They entered the ninth again tied, this time at two. Holt led off with a single and was bunted over by Perez, who seemed to be squaring to move runners over all weekend. Michael Bourn was essentially pitched around to set up the double play as Astros skipper Bo Porter decided he would rather face Ramirez. Jose would make him pay with a walkoff RBI single to left off of Jake Buchanan. It was the Tribe’s league leading 11th walkoff win of the season. The Holt to Perez to Ramirez triangle was not exactly how it was drawn up back in Goodyear, but we will take it.
“I think we understand that we’re here for a reason. They called us up here for a reason, because they believe we can do it. I think ‘Berto and myself and the guys we’ve called up, we fit in perfectly and we understand our roles,” Holt said of his fellow rookies now playing huge roles down the stretch.
Of those kids, Ramirez is clearly making the biggest and most important strides. The 21-year old who made the playoff roster a year ago has taken over as the regular shortstop since Asdrubal Cabrera was sent packing on July 31 and the team hasn’t missed Cabbie a bit. He has hit .278/.328/.352 in the month of August while playing a more than solid short, which isn’t his natural position. The range and arm strength he shows reminds you of Cabrera in his younger, slimmer days. Ramirez’s big weekend—seven for 13 with two RBIs—was one of the lone offensive bright spots. His seventh inning, two-out RBI single Sunday afternoon was the insurance run that the Indians needed in their 3-1 win.
Thank goodness for Ramirez or else the Indians may not have scored at all this weekend. Despite taking two of three, the Tribe bats managed just six runs total. So how exactly did they win twice? It is simple – great starting pitching.
It was less than a month ago that I wrote on this very website that the Indians rotation was a bleep show—a cavalcade of pitchers who couldn’t get through five plus innings and rode the I-71 shuttle. But now? The Indians have won nine of their last 13 with an offense that has given almost no run support. Read it and weep:
Last 13 starts, Indians’ rotation has 1.71 ERA, 0.90 WHIP & .176 opponents’ average with 87 K/22 BB in 79 IP.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) August 24, 2014
The train kept rolling this weekend with two encouraging starts from Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar and closed with Trevor Bauer’s superb performance on a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field. Said Bauer of his rotation-mates: “Every day, you run a new guy out there and have this feeling that he’s going to post a really good start and we’re going to win the game. It’s nice to have that confidence as a team every day.”
Carrasco gave up his first earned run since re-joining the rotation two weeks ago, but that was it. He went six innings Friday night and gave up just two hits while striking out eight. He threw 90 pitches and is just about stretched out to the point where the Indians need him to be. In three starts, Carlos has an ERA of 0.50 in 18 innings. This might be the real thing folks, and if it is, it is a gigantic boost for this ballclub long term.
Saturday evening was Salazar’s turn, like Carrasco, the young right-hander was strong for six innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on three hits. Danny punched out seven Astros and walked two. His resurgence has come at a perfect time as well. Since being put back in the rotation just over a month ago, Salazar has allowed three runs or less in five of his six starts. His command has been sharper, his secondary pitches improved. The work he did during his two months in Columbus is paying off.
Back in April, I wrote a piece talking about the importance of Carrasco, Salazar, and Bauer as the future of the Tribe rotation. In it, I talked about how at least two of them had to hit. Is it possible that all three could actually slot behind ace Corey Kluber to make up a formidable power-arm filled rotation?
Bauer loves pitching at Progressive Field and Sunday was no different. The Astros had little answer for him as there was a legitimate “Bauer Outage” with the Houston offense. Trevor departed after six shutout innings with nine strikeouts. He walked off the field after a leadoff walk in the seventh to a standing ovation. The intense and stoic Bauer even tipped his hat to the crowd in appreciation.
“I was trying to throw strikes,” said Bauer, who had a 63-percent strike rate on the day. “That was kind of the focus all day long. It turned out well. I got away with a couple mistakes that helped out. The defense made some really nice plays that helped out, too.”
He was especially appreciative of his right fielder Holt, who made two diving catches to rob Marc Krauss of hits.
When your starters are giving you this kind of quality—two earned runs in 18 innings—you should win the series. Unfortunately, a sweep didn’t happen thanks to a sleepy offense and ill-timed fundamental breakdowns Friday night.
“We haven’t been scoring a ton of runs,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And we’ve won a couple series in a row because of [our pitching]. The hope is the pitching stays strong, we start scoring a few more runs and we stretch a couple of games out.”
It is impossible to ask the pitching to continue to perform at this level every single night. But with the way the Indians offense is going, they almost have to or else they don’t have a chance to win. Then again when you have half of your lineup filled with guys who were in AAA a month ago, it is to be expected.
The third and final part of this soft stretch comes Tuesday as the Indians travel to Chicago to take on the White Sox. While they will face two lefties in the three-game set, neither of them will be named Chris Sale. Though Tuesday’s starter Jose Quintana has given the Tribe fits over the past couple of years. T.J. House will oppose him in a battle of southpaws. It is of the utmost importance for the Indians to continue to take series, especially against a team like the White Sox. A make or break seven-game stretch with the first place Royals in KC and the Detroit Tigers at home starts Friday.