They are back. They are right in the thick of it. And they aren’t going anywhere. Your Cleveland Indians, left for dead by almost everyone, continue to win and are surging into September.
Their best month of the season came at the right time. The Wahoos were 16-9 and were three outs away from being 17-9 before mother nature took over in Kansas City. All of a sudden, a team that looked like they were going to be playing out the string in September are right back in the same spot as they were a year ago.
On August 31, 2013, the Indians were 71-63. On August 31, 2014, they were 70-64. Ironically, as bad as they have been at times and as poor as they are defensively, this year’s club sat three-and-a-half games back of both the division and the Wild Card on Sunday. A year ago? They were seven-and-a-half games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and four-and-a-half games back of the second Wild Card.
How did this happen exactly? It is hard to say, considering the defense. I have said this many times and I will repeat myself: the Tribe is the worst defensive team I can ever remember following. But here way are, right in the thick of the playoff hunt with 26 (full) games remaining.
Let us first touch on the (almost) sweep of the first place Kansas City Royals.
The weekend series was as entertaining as you could have asked for. The pitching was (once again) first rate. Friday night’s opener saw Danny Salazar and five relievers hold the Royals scoreless until there were two outs in the ninth. Long man Josh Tomlin couldn’t hold the shutout, but the Tribe got the win 6-1. If we learned anything about what this final month is going to look like, Terry Francona gave us a little peek into the future. He is going to lean on his bullpen even harder than he has done in the past two seasons.
Salazar departed after a 44-minute rain delay after just five innings and 73 pitches. A night later, it looked as though the pen was going to be in for another long night. Trevor Bauer started Saturday night’s tilt by walking the bases loaded. We had that “uh oh” feeling from Trevor, who has had issues early in starts before eventually righting the ship and looking great. The 23-year old knew what he had to do. He struck out Billy Butler for the big first out. He then punched out Salavdor Perez and gave a little fist pump. But there was still one more big out to get, Raul Ibanez. Bauer, ever focused and intense, fanned Ibanez to kill the threat. The kid fired a gigantic yelp and hit his glove on his way off the mound. That reaction was priceless.
“Early innings for me are tough and so I was fired up just being able to get to that position, to get two outs and have a chance of getting out of it,” Bauer said.
That was the biggest and best chance the Royals would get against Bauer, who pitched six and two-thirds of scoreless baseball before turning things over to the pen. That’s when the Tribe’s horrific defense reared its ugly head.
Scott Atchison, Francona’s seventh-inning righty, pitched a perfect frame and came back out for the eighth with Bryan Shaw in need of a rest to hold the 1-0 lead. He walked Alex Gordon to start the eighth, but got the double play ball he needed. Butler’s ground ball back to the box should have been an easy 1-6-3 DP, but the throw got between both shortstop Jose Ramirez and second baseman Jason Kipnis and rolled into center field. (It really should have been Ramirez’s play, but Kipnis got in his way.) With second and third and nobody out, the Tribe’s lead looked to be in big trouble. Atchison would strike out Perez before turning things over to Nick Hagadone. It turned out to be a strange decision as Hagadone came on and intentionally walked pinch hitter Eric Kratz. Now the bases were loaded for the right-handed hitting Lorenzo Cain. Out went Hags, in came C.C. Lee.
A couple of things were at play here: Francona was showing just how important this game was as he was playing it like it was Game 7 of the World Series. In addition, Tito was showing major confidence in guys like Hagadone, Kyle Crockett, and Lee in putting them in huge spots. He truly feels as though he can use his three lefties (Hagadone, Crockett, Marc Rzepcyznski) and his now-“Big four” right-handers in Lee, Shaw, Atchison, and Cody Allen in any late game situation.
Lee was tasked with getting a ground ball in the eighth inning with the bases loaded and a one run lead against the team they are chasing for the division crown. This is the same Lee who has ridden the I-71 shuttle most of the year. He delivered, but that defense failed again. Cain hit a ground ball to Ramirez at short. He charged the ball and should have fired home for the second out. Instead he threw across his body to second to attempt to start a 6-4-3 DP. It turned out to be a mistake. You have to know the score and situation. Cain is not Billy Butler. Ramirez’s throw to second got one out, but Cain easily beat the throw and the Royals tied the game without even recording a hit. Rzepcyznski came on – the fourth pitcher of the inning – to get the third out.
The drama of this game wasn’t done. We would go to extras where the Indians were down to their last reliever (Shaw was not available), the long man Tomlin. He loaded the bases with one out and it looked as though this game just wasn’t meant to be four our Wahoos. But Tomlin worked a Houdini routine and wiggled out of it with a ground out and a strike out of former Indian Jayson Nix.
The door was left open for our boys to push across some runs, with an assist from that below average in-game strategist, Ned Yost. Instead of going to Jason Frasor, he turned to lefty Scott Downs who had been DFA’d by the White Sox earlier in the season and carried an ERA over five. It was that spark plug Ramirez who did him in. He laced a pitch the other way and legged his way into a leadoff triple.
“I [just] about swallowed my tobacco when he rounded second. But he made it,” Francona said. “You were going to have to lasso him to stop him.”
Ramirez has made nobody miss Asdrubal Cabrera, that is for sure. In the month of August as the regular shortstop and two hole hitter, the 21-year old hit .301/.348/.398 in 83 ABs. It seems as if he has had more big hits in this one month than Asdrubal did all season. Actually, what Ramirez is doing is reminiscent of the boost Cabrera gave in the 45 games he played down the stretch for the Tribe in 2007. His hustle got the Indians the lead as he came home on Michael Brantley’s bloop single to right.
“He’s been all over the place at shortstop,” said Francona. “When we trade Cabbie, we did it for a reason and it wasn’t because we didn’t like Cabbie.”
Brantley stole second and went to third on a throwing error from the KC catcher Perez. He came around to score thanks to a Carlos Santana single. That run turned out to be huge because Tomlin gave us all a scare.
Saturday night’s affair had a playoff feel. The two teams traded shots and stops back and forth and the Royals failed in more chances than a team ever should. In their final lick, they nearly got Tomlin. With two out Jarrod Dyson singled and scored on Perez’s double. But Tomlin, working on fumes, struck out Kratz on his 54th pitch of the night.
The alert echoed loud and clear: Every night these games are going to mean so much and feel like potential playoff games. Saturday took a couple of years off my life. Then Sunday came and it was more of the same.
With a taxed bullpen, it was up to T.J. House to go deep into the game and put the Indians in a position to sweep. They had already beaten Jason Vargas and ace James Shields, now it was hard-throwing lefty Danny Duffy. Again, the Tribe’s starter had trouble in the first as House gave up two hits and a sac fly in the first three batters. He then hit Butler but came back to get a monster double play ball off the bat of Perez. From that point on, House was NAILS.
“He started off the game kind of having to pitch out of trouble, got the sac fly and seemed to settle down, and then really kept the ball down. … I thought he was really good,” Francona said. “It thought it was his best game. His stuff was sharp.”
The Tribe chipped away at Duffy, taking a 2-1 lead in the fourth while House continued to mow the Royals down. Never could they have imagined that T.J. would give them seven strong innings and get them to Shaw, but that is exactly what he did. House allowed just three base runners over the next six innings. What a shot in the arm.
Of course, no Indians game could be drama free. After Shaw got through the eighth unscathed, Allen came on for the save. He hadn’t blown one all year, so naturally Gordon led off the ninth with a homer, which gave us free baseball for the second night in a row. The sweep seemed so close. But this Tribe team is resilient as all get out. The talent may not be up to the standards of the big boys, but this club doesn’t quit.
Facing arguably the best closer in the game in Greg Holland, the bats showed some life with an assist from the KC D. The Royals are one of the best defensive teams in the game, but Butler’s two-out error on a Kipnis chopper opened up the door. Lonnie Chisenhall kicked it in. After a Yan Gomes single – his fourth hit of the game – the pinch hitting Chisenhall spanked a double off the wall in right field which put the Tribe back on top 4-2. Almost instantly, the winds in Kansas City picked up. A fierce storm was about to hit and as the Indians took the field for the bottom of the 10th, the rains came.
With the umpiring crew needed in St. Louis for a 1:05 PM game and the Indians scheduled to meet the Tigers in Cleveland at 4:05 PM, a decision was made around midnight that the game would be suspended and restarted in Cleveland on September 22. The Indians were not scheduled to be back in KC this season, but the Royals travel to Cleveland one more time. The game will resume with the Indians up 4-2 in the bottom of the 10th.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling, the game’s not over, but I’d rather have the lead,” Francona said. “As weird as it is, you put this in your rearview mirror and move on quickly, and then we’ll figure it out once the time comes around.”
They were three outs away from the sweep, but no doubt the momentum was there and the Indians had stated their case to the rest of the AL; they aren’t going anywhere. The unfortunate part was now they weren’t going to get to Cleveland until 3:45 AM Monday and would have a game 12 hours later against the Tigers and David Price.
That is a tough task for a rested team, let alone one who just played an emotionally draining three-game series in which they didn’t even finish. So they came back to C-Town and hoped to keep things going.
The Labor Day affair turned out to be a fiasco. It was the perfect time for a sell out crowd. A holiday. Michael Brantley Bobbleheads. Corey Kluber vs. David Price. The opener to a four-game set against the rival Tigers. I am not exactly sure where everyone was, but only 23,000 plus showed up (many of which were Tiger fans) to see what was expected to be a pitchers duel. Instead they got a clunker of mass proportions.
Things were not good from the jump. Francona has been known to move guys around the diamond. With the lefty Price on the mound, he chose to go with Mike Aviles in right field over rookie Tyler Holt, an actual outfielder. The decision bit him in the behind from the first batter. Ian Kinsler sent a liner towards right and for some odd reason Aviles made a diving attempt at it. He wasn’t even close and Kinsler wound up on third. Two batters later, Miguel Cabrera hit his first homer since August 3 and Detroit had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The game shouldn’t have gotten out of hand the way it did. Aviles’s glove work was costly to say the least. With two out in the third, Cabrera sent a fly ball to right which Aviles charged. The ball went right off his glove, extending the inning. Victor Martinez was next. He crushed a two-run homer off of Kluber. J.D. Martinez followed with a solo blast. A 2-1 game was all of a sudden 5-1 and Kluber was chased in the shortest outing of the season.
The game was over for all intents and purposes at that point, as the Tigers would go on to pound the tired Tribe 12-1. Detroit has three guys that have killed the Indians this season. Cabrera and the Martinez’s. Take a look at this:
— Jim Berdysz (@JBirdman27) September 1, 2014
Of bigger concern is the all of a sudden struggles of Kluber. He has already surpassed his career high in innings pitched. The way he has looked in his past three starts, there could be signs of wearing down. After looking like a potential Cy Young candidate, Kluber has 11 earned runs in his past 16 innings.
“Klub could have stayed out there and battled and done just fine,” Francona said. “But since we were down and there are no days off, now that we are in September … the most important thing is to allow Klub to come back in five days and not work harder than he has.”
Kluber did not exactly like the question from @hoynsie about him approaching 200 innings, "I told you five days ago I feel fine!"
— Anthony Lima (@AnthonyLimaFAN) September 2, 2014
This, from a media session that allegedly lasted all of one minute…
In the end, had the Tribe lost Sunday night in KC and won yesterday against the Tigers, nobody would have cared and it would feel so much different. The bottom line is that the Indians are now in it, trailing the Royals by four and a half games in the division and the Tigers by four for the Wild Card. There are three more with the Tigers, which include Tuesday night where they Send Carlos Carrasco out to face rookie spot-starter Kyle Lobstein.
“You grind through so many ups and downs to get to this point where it is meaningful,” Francona said. “I’ll tell you, players get a lot more tired when they’re 30 games out. … Our dugout [on Sunday night] when Lonnie doubled, they looked like high school kids. So that helps.”
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)