This weekend series was once again another example of what this 2014 Cleveland Indians team is all about. The AL East leading Baltimore Orioles came to town with the biggest margin of any division top dog in baseball. Their offense is beastly, with power up and down the lineup. So naturally the story of the weekend was the Indians starting pitching. You know, the group that was Corey Kluber and a bunch of rotating pieces shuffling between Columbus and the bullpen? Well here they were, dominating one of the best offenses in the game and leading the Indians to a series win, one they needed badly to keep pace in the race for the second Wild Card.
It is still tough to see this team making another run like they did last year and it was this weekend that was example number one. There is a reason that the Wahoos haven’t won more than four games in a row this season. You can point to the up and down starting pitching all you want, but the hot and cold offense is the real reason. The much maligned rotation is on a crazy run this last week. Going back to last Saturday in New York, the Tribe starters have pitched 44 innings and has allowed just four earned runs. That’s good for a 1.02 ERA. On top of that is an 0.73 WHIP and an opponents batting average of .168. It was one thing to shut down the 4A lineup that Arizona Diamondbacks. It is quite another to do what Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar did to the Orioles.
Kluber was Kluberific once again Friday night. In a weekend full of odd decisions, Manager Terry Francona pulled his ace with two out in the eighth inning after he gave up a single to Nelson Cruz. At 116 pitches, Tito called for Bryan Shaw to protect the 1-0 lead. Earlier in the season in these situations, Francona has gone to closer Cody Allen for a four out save. It was not as if Kluber couldn’t have gone one more batter either. He had only given up five hits with 10 strikeouts. More on this in a minute.
A night later, it was Carrasco’s turn. Sure, some thought his five inning shutout of the Yankees last Sunday was a fluke. So what would you say about seven scoreless innings against Baltimore? And it is not like Carrasco struggled doing so. The right-hander with the killer stuff only allowed three hits and didn’t walk a batter. Did I mention he struck out five and threw just 79 pitches? Yes, I am talking about Carlos Freaking Carrasco, people. Nobody is more surprised by this than me.
I will be the first one to admit I was on the Carrasco-to-the-pen bandwagon for at least two seasons. His move to the pen did him a world of good. Whatever he, pitching coach Mickey Callaway, and bullpen coach Kevin Cash have worked on, has paid dividends. Carlos has learned to relax. That bullpen mentality of having a short memory has kicked in. Carrasco is now working exclusively from the stretch and it puts him in that same frame of mind where he enjoyed so much success. As a reliever, Carlos sported a 2.06 ERA and an 0.98 WHIP in 48 innings. He emerged to find a rotation spot waiting for him, thanks to the failures of Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister.
“I don’t know that that just changes everything,” Francona said of Carrasco working out of the stretch. “I just think that’s part of what he was doing in the bullpen, and he was pitching really well. So I don’t see the big deal. OK, you’re a starter, but if you’re more comfortable, there’s less moving parts.”
This may have been his last chance to prove he can be a starter in Cleveland. In his two outings since the return, Carrasco has now tossed 12 scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and ZERO walks.
“I think he’s better equipped to pitch, whether it’s in the bullpen or starting,” Francona said of Carrasco. “I think he feels good about himself. I think being out in the bullpen helped him a lot. I think it let him settle in and get his confidence and kind of understand who he is and he’s taken the same mentality now into the starts. Man, it’s a big lift for us.”
It is too early to call Carrasco a “savior” but his emergence was as if the Indians got a starter at the trading deadline. The 6-0 Tribe win Saturday gave them a chance for the sweep. It was Danny Salazar’s turn to step forward. With the way this offense has been going, any sort of “off” start will kill the chance for a win. He wasn’t as good as Kluber and Carrasco, but he entered the sixth inning with a 1-0 lead. After giving up a double to Steven Pearce and hitting Adam Jones with a pitch, Francona pulled the plug. The bullpen has been so reliable, so you can understand why he called for Scott Atchison, despite Salazar throwing just 91 pitches. “Sometimes you want to finish,” Salazar said. But he’s the manager. He knows the game better than me or anybody else.’
Atchison gave up back to back two out RBI singles which gave the Orioles the lead for good as they took the series finale 4-1. But the Tribe starters were the talk of the weekend. You will take three earned runs in 19.2 innings every time. The sad thing is when you get three starts like this, you should sweep your opponents. Which brings me to the offense.
Yes, they won two of three games, but the same issues linger. It took a Mike Aviles walkoff homer in the 11th innings on Friday night to win a game 2-1, their seventh walkoff homer of the year. This came after three runs in 21 innings in Wednesday’s split doubleheader with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Of those five runs in those 32 frames, three came from solo homers (two by Zach Walters,who has been on the team for five minutes). Ubaldo Jimenez’s return to Cleveland was the tonic that the slumbering offense needed as they jumped all over him for three in the first in Saturday’s 6-0 win. Once again, it was the home run ball that did the damage, this one coming from Carlos Santana who scored the newly activated Michael Bourn and Jose Ramirez who both walked. Michael Brantley added a two-run blast in a three-run fifth.
Reality set back in on Sunday when O’s stud rookie Kevin Gausman and three relievers held the Tribe bats to one run on two hits. Both hits came back to back in the fourth. Save for that, the Indians were 0-24. Many baseball people devalue the “win” statistic for pitchers, which I completely agree with. I am now on board with devaluing the overall runs scored category knowing the Indians rank fifth in the American League. Anyone who watches this team on a regular basis knows how tough it is for them to score runs. This week says it all. They scored five runs in 32 innings, then six in two innings, then get on on two hits in going for a sweep.
Bourn is now back, which should help lengthen the lineup. Moving Kipnis out of the leadoff spot was something that was long overdue. But as we have said all year, too many guys just aren’t pulling their weight. Other than Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes, every single member of the offense has slumped at one point or another. Now they are attempting to make this playoff run without the now-departed Asdrubal Cabrera, plus injured starters Nick Swisher and David Murphy, who both we won’t see for at least three more weeks. Now it is not as the this is Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga of ’95 being missed, but the Tribe has been forced to go with the likes of Chris Dickerson, Ryan Raburn, Walters, and Ramirez in their steads.
We all liked the Dickerson story when he first came over from the Pirates AAA affiliate, but there was a reason the 32-year old journeyman was available. In his last 21 games, Dickerson is 7-50. Raburn I can’t even get into at this point other than to say I still can’t believe the Indians gave him two years guaranteed in the middle of last season. The brass wants to see more of Ramirez and Walters, which I am completely down for. I mean, they can’t be much worse than what Swisher and Asdrubal was giving to the team. And I haven’t even gotten into the struggles of Lonnie Chisenhall.
We all knew that Lonnie Baseball was not as good as his .400 start suggested, but this offense desperately needs something of a wake up from him. This is a regression to the mean for Chisenhall for sure, but this tweet from our own Jacob Rosen heading into Saturday night woke me up a little.
Lonnie Chisenhall’s last 50 games: 35-for-178, 10 extra-base hits, 21 walks, 42 strikeouts, .197/.289/.309 line. #indians
— Jacob Rosen (@WFNYJacob) August 16, 2014
It will be interesting to see how Francona mixes and matches his guys the rest of the way. Speaking of Tito, he is the master of juggling personalities and having his guys want to run through a wall for him. But his in-game decisions, particularly with his bullpen, have really been odd at times this season. I mentioned earlier about going to Shaw with two outs in the eighth and lifting Kluber when he did Friday night. Allen was a fresh as he could be and has had two four-out saves since taking over the closer’s role in May. Of all the guys Francona has overused, Shaw is the most egregious. He’s tied for second in the AL with 59 appearances (I know, Allen is next with 58) and has slowed down a bit in the second half. He entered the game needing one out for the hold and gave up back to back singles which tied the game and took away any chance Kluber had to win.
OK, call me a second-guesser after the fact if you want, but then how do you explain Francona going back to Shaw a night later with a 6-0 lead in the ninth? Anyone could have been used their; CC Lee, Kyle Crockett, whoever. Why use your set up man with a six run lead? Sunday he used six relievers over the last four innings, but used them in an odd fashion. Like why use not have one of your three lefties face Chris Davis with two outs in the sixth in a tie game? What about going to Lee in a one run game in the seventh? This weekend was not one his finer moments.
The finest moment of the weekend to me was easily watching our old friend Ubaldo be, well, Ubaldo in his first inning inside Progressive Field since signing elsewhere. As much crap as I have him when he was here, Jimenez was brought in to pitch the Indians to the playoffs. That is exactly what he did. I know it was two years after the fact, but he did what he came here to do. On top of that, ask anyone who covers the Indians and they will tell you he was a great guy. Win or lose, Jimenez was at his locker making no excuses, and this was a guy who had some real stinkers while he was here.
During that incredible transformative stretch during the second half of 2013, Ubaldo was nails. For that, I will always have a soft spot for him. Let us not forget that Justin Masterson all but the final weekend of September with a side injury and it was on Jimenez to play the role of ace. He made six starts in September, and the Indians won all of them. Ubaldo’s ERA in those six starts was a sterling 1.09. In 41.1 innings he struck out 51 and walked just seven. He used that stretch to get himself paid. The Indians had seen two plus years of mostly junk and two and a half months of gold. They weren’t fooled, so they let him walk and collected a first round pick for him. The Orioles gave Jimenez $50 million over four years.
What has that produced thus far? A return to the guy we saw way too much of here; a command issue waiting to happen at every turn. Jimenez has made 20 starts in Baltimore, has a 4.83 ERA and 1.55 WHIP and has 66 walks to his 98 K’s in 110 innings. His -0.4 WAR is the worst of his career.
He took the mound here Saturday night to a smattering of both cheers and boos, nothing to loud either way. As we have seen so often, he walked two guys in the first, then gave up a three-run bomb to Santana. His line on the night: four and a third innings, six runs, five hits, three walks, and five strikeouts. After the game, his catcher Kaleb Joseph has this to say:
“It’s difficult, because you know it is in there. And you want to try and call pitches that kind of get him back on track. You try as best as you can to get him back on track. But at the end of the day, he’s the one with the ball. And you are just trying to facilitate him throwing strikes. And like I said, when he does that, he does a good job for us. We are going to need him to throw strikes. It’s in there. We believe in him. He’ll be better.”
You could have cut and pasted that from any time between mid-2011 and mid-2013 and attributed those quotes to Ubaldo’s old battery-mate Santana and nobody would have known the difference. The good news is that he is somebody else’s problem now.
The Indians are still five games back of that second Wild Card with four teams in front of them, but they are coming off a series win that could be called unexpected. You cannot count this team out because of the soft schedule in front of them. After Monday’s off-day, the Tribe will play their next nine games against three AL doormats – Minnesota, Houston, and Chicago. If there was ever a time to start a run, now would be it.
(photo via Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)