September baseball at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
A year ago today, the Cleveland Indians were 61-86, 20 ½ games out of first, and less than ten days away from firing manager Manny Acta.
There was no joy here at the Corner, as the future looked less than bright for a Tribe team that didn’t have much in the immediate minor league system, and had no real way to attract free agents.
That’s not the baseball that’s being played in Cleveland right now.
Fast forward to Tuesday Night’s ballgame, with the Cleveland Indians down 3-0 in a very meaningful game against Kansas City Royals.
Yes, you heard that correctly. It was a meaningful game between the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals. It’s an odd statement, and one that I’ll delve into a little more over the offseason. It’s almost as odd as saying that the Pittsburgh Pirates may win their division, or that Brandon Weeden will develop into an elite quarterback. I know…I know…no football…and no fantasy.
The Cleveland media and fandom were lacing twitter with comments like, “You can tell if the Indians are going to win or lose the game before it gets to the second inning,” and “You can’t win ballgames when the three and five hitters aren’t doing anything.”
I’m not critiquing the comments as I was a willing participant, but I’m just making note that most fans were struggling with this team and for good reason. The frustration had set in that the Cleveland Indians were going to lose game two of a three game set to a Royals team that is all about momentum right now. The Tribe had already lost game one to the Royals ace, James Shields, and seemed to be that team ready to make a move to the playoffs.
The Indians were facing Yordano Ventura, a rookie phenom for Kansas City who was making his first major league start. Ventura is a short and slight top pitching prospect who has hit 100 MPH in every start in this season in the minors, and has a very nice, progressing set of breaking pitches to go along with it.
Yeah, I thought about Danny Salazar as well.
He was good, and he was making a veteran team of Indians’ hitters look bad.
As I was watching this baseball game, I couldn’t help but think about the season as a whole. I thought about that 22-4 run, followed by the 4-18 run.
I thought about a rotation that has been dominant at time, good for most of the rest, but seemingly always making some wonder when it was all going to turn into a pumpkin.
I thought about how this team lacks that one player that folks can identify with, and how it really is the complete opposite a team than the one built of superstars in the 90’s.
I thought about how this team is…well…a team. When they’re good, it’s hard to pinpoint why, and when they’re bad, it’s usually because of the offense or the bullpen, and rarely just one guy.
Last night seemed to mirror that in so many ways.
The team struggled in every area to start the game. Offensively, they could do nothing. Defensively, they looked slow and indecisive. The starter wasn’t getting calls, and just didn’t have his best stuff. It wasn’t looking good at all, but you couldn’t point to that one thing.
In the top of the sixth, Nick Swisher, the first major free agent to sign on to play for Cleveland during the hot stove league season in 2012, singled with one out. Then, Carlos Santana followed with a two-out single, bumping Swisher to third. Then, the iceman, Michael Brantley, drove Swisher home to knock Ventura out of the ballgame.
The comeback was on. That seems to be the motto of this year’s Cleveland Indians.
The first run was scored by a guy that most Indians fans thought would never sign here. He was driven in by a couple of guys that most felt needed complimentary players to make them great.
Santana is a confounding clean-up hitter. He walks a lot. He looks at a lot of pitches. He frustrates just as much as he excites.
Swisher has struggled all season, but at the end of the year, his numbers look a lot like his numbers every year.
Michael Brantley is a guy that really is the glue of this team. He’s a guy that when you look at the parts of his game, you can’t quite put your finger on what makes him so valuable. Then he comes up with a two-out hit like last night, and you realize that he’s really more than even the sum of his parts. He comes up big, and while you can make a case that it’s not sustainable, he keeps sustaining it. He’s an important part of this team.
In the seventh, Yan Gomes, a player that the Indians flat out stole from the Toronto in that now-infamous Esmil Rogers trade, got hit by a pitch. Michael Bourn followed with a triple to right field, scoring Gomes. Sure, the shot to right maybe should have been caught, but by the time the dust cleared, Bourn was on third, Gomes was home, and Swisher was up again, with one out and Bourn on third. He launched a fly ball to deep left field. It was nearly to the track, and Bourn could have moon-walked home.
The score was 3-3, and any momentum that the Royals had was gone.
Yan Gomes is a player that just has the look of a guy that could take over this team in every way. His offensive game looks every bit as real today as it did three months ago when we were all waiting to see if he could continue his hot streak production. But it really goes deeper than that, and last night’s game was a window into what Gomes really will be with the team.
Corey Kluber was struggling in his start last night, but the umpires were also pinching him on calls. He wasn’t getting anything low, and it ultimately bounced him from the game. In an eighth inning at bat, Gomes took a low called strike, in the same area that Kluber was getting hosed on. It was a repetitive call that the Royals were making that saw several Indians players take home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth to task.
Gomes did as well. He was tenacious in his response to the called strike. In that moment, you could see not only what he’s made of, but what kind of respect he’s already built with his pitching staff. Those are the small things that can make a difference in a tough game down the road between a pitcher and a catcher. This kid seems to have it all. He has a stick, he can play defense, and most importantly, he has the intangibles that could make him special.
Remember, he was a bit player in a trade that brought Mike Aviles to the Indians…for Esmil Rogers.
Michael Bourn takes hit after hit for not being the player he has been in the past. When you mention his name in a crowd, someone will inevitably say “diminishing skills.” Well, take those diminishing skills and compare them to the Indians lineup in 2012 or 2011. There just wasn’t anyone with his ability at the top of the line-up. He’s a born and bred lead-off hitter, and when he’s on, he’s one of the best in the game. Maybe he’s just figuring out the American League. Maybe he’s just beginning a decline in ability. Whatever you think, he’s still one of the better players on this team, and in an instant, he can make a pitcher’s life miserable.
Swisher brought him home. Run that statement over in your head a few times. Swisher came home. Swisher likely brought home Bourn in February (along with Francona, of course). Swisher, who has been injured all season, is clearly working through that. Swisher has said himself that he’s been “trying to find a swing that doesn’t hurt.” Well, as a left-handed hitter, he’s hitting .222. As a righty, he’s hitting .291. His career numbers as a lefty are substantially better, coming in at .250, while his righty numbers are slightly worse, coming in at .274.
In other words, his left shoulder is improving his swing from the right side of the plate, while decreasing his left-handed value.
That’s neither here nor there though, as Swisher has come through when it counts…
The Indians, who “were lethargic and not ready to play,” according to a tweet, were knocking on the door, and had Terry Francona smiling in the dugout.
Carlos Santana led off the eighth inning with a walk, and was immediately replaced by Drew Stubbs as his pitch runner. That’s right, Terry Francona took out his best offensive player for a pitch-runner in a tie ballgame in the eighth inning. I likely would have done the same thing, but it’s one of those things that had folks chirping early. It was a ballsy move that only guys like Terry Francona make.
He’s got the collateral. He knows how to win games in September.
If you make that move, you have to score the run. Brantley grounded out to the first baseman, but Stubbs got to second. Then the much-maligned Asdrubal Cabrera, who cost the Indians two runs in the bottom of the third when he missed a throw from Corey Kluber to get Esmil Bonafacio, who was stealing second, doubled to score Stubbs and tie the ballgame.
The Indians were in the lead, and the Stubbs replacement worked out.
Drew Stubbs was supposed to be a superstar for the Reds. He wasn’t. Every Reds’ fan that I know have some not-nice things to say about Stubbs, who has the size and look of a guy that could be Mickey Mantle. He has power and speed and can field with the best. He just rarely puts it all together.
The Indians acquired him in the Shin-Soo Choo trade, and he really was a bit part to that deal. The focus was on Trevor Bauer. Bauer has been a bust so far. Stubbs has been a major cog in the field, and at the bottom of the order. He struggles mightily, but as a nine-hole hitter, he’s so good, especially when you look at what others have done in that role for the Tribe in the past.
He can provide burst. He can provide an electric home run. He can provide phenomenal defense. He can score big runs late in games.
Shin-Soo Choo would have been gone after this season. Stubbs is here for at least one more.
I don’t know what to say about Drubs here. He’s not played well. He has showcased power, and is hitting a lot of homeruns. His hit was huge last night, but without it, he was lining himself up to be a bum. That’s really been his story for three years. If he’s good in the first half, he’s bad in the second. If he does something nice with the bat, he screws up with the glove. There’s always something.
Last night, his something leaned towards the good.
Michael Bourn iced the game in the ninth inning with a moon shot to deep right field. It really looked like a Lofton homer, if you can remember when he would throw in power shot during his run with the Indians.
Look at those names.
Carlos Santana. Nick Swisher. Yan Gomes. Michael Brantley. Drew Stubbs. It’s a mix of old and new. It’s a mix of expected and unexpected. It’s a mix of even-ness that the Cleveland Indians lineup has produced this year.
Before I get there though, I need to get to the pitching from last night.
Corey Kluber struggled, but that’s to be expected. He was making his third start since returning from his sprained finger. He’s looked okay in his first two starts back, but was up against the Mets and the White Sox. He wasn’t getting calls last night, but you could also make a case that he’s not all-the-way back.
That’s a concern.
Justin Masterson is out, and the oblique is scary. At the very least, he’ll make one start prior to a potential playoff run after missing three weeks. You don’t know what you are going to get.
Zach McAllister isn’t right, and hasn’t been since his return. He just hasn’t been consistent.
Scott Kazmir struggled, and seems to have one or two good starts to three or four bad ones. He just hasn’t been consistent.
Danny Salazar has been dominant, but he has struggled a bit with pitch efficiency, and has only been going four innings with a limited, 75-pitch limit. Thankfully, we have a deep bullpen right now.
Ubaldo has been the rock.
I don’t care what his numbers have been, that still scares me.
I’m not trying to over-critique this staff. They have been the unadulterated saviors of this team this year. I think they can match up with many other teams. They are just in a scary state of grey right now.
Ubaldo is the rock.
How did that happen?
Thank goodness it happened, because where would the Indians be right now without him?
Yeah, that’s what goes through my head when Corey Kluber struggles.
After Kluber, came Rich Hill, and while you have to wonder how he’s still with the team, he did his job in the LOOGY role. He faced one batter, threw four pitches, and was gone.
Enter Bryan Shaw. He faced three batters, got two outs and gave up an infield and was gone.
Enter new lefty Mark Rzepczynski. He gave up a seven pitch walk to Alex Gordon, but then got Bonifacio to ground out. He reentered the game in the seventh and struck out Erik Hosmer on three pitches.
“Scrabble” was then pulled for Cody Allen. In nine pitches, he faced three batters, bookending a single with a flyball out and a punch-out. Job well done.
Enter the eighth, and a revitalized Joe Smith. Smith struck out Lorenzo Cain on four pitches. He forced Alicides Escobar into a ground out on three pitches. He gave up an infield single to Dyson on a ball that woulda rolled foul. Mike Aviles decided to play it, and nearly pulled it off, but Smith got Alex Gordon to fly out on one pitch. Job well done.
Then came Perez. It was supposed to be a tense ninth-inning, but Perez did something he doesn’t usually do.
He got a groundout from Bonifacio, then buzzed down Hosmer and Butler on six pitches. He had moxie. He had velocity. He looked like “Pure Rage.”
The bullpen has come around. There aren’t names in this pen, past Perez and Vinnie Pestano. The rest are unheralded. Rzepczynski was kind of scoffed at during the trade deadline, but he has righted the ship, taking over the bulk of the innings as the primary lefty reliever. He’s been good.
Joe Smith has returned as the anchor, after struggling a bit in July.
Shaw and Albers are solid, if unspectacular.
The pen has picked up the rotation a bit. No, Perez isn’t “Pure Rage” in many games, but when he is, this pen is as good as it gets. When he’s not, the Indians generally have enough in the tank prior to win ballgames.
The give and take of this team has been monumental.
Which leads me back to the even-ness of the team. Who is the MVP?
Is it Kipnis, who carried this team on his shoulders in June? Is it Ubaldo, who is the only starter to not spend time on the DL, and who is one of the best starters in all of baseball the second half? Is it Masterson, who is the best starter on the team? Is it Kluber who came out of nowhere? Is it Carlos Santana, who is the best offensive player on the team? Is it Yan Gomes, who may be the best offensive player on the team? Is it Ryan Raburn, who may be the other best offensive player on the team? By the way, both Gomes and Raburn are part-timers.
The rotation has six different guys that have carried the team at one point or another. The pen has come from the depths, and thanks to trust given to it from Terry Francona, and thanks to fundamental confidence given by pitching coach Mickey Callaway, they are pitching fairly well. The lineup has no star, but when they are playing well, can beat you with power and speed.
This team is evenly built.
When they are evenly bad, as they were up through the sixth inning against the Royals, they can make you want to pull out your hair.
When they are evenly bad, as they were in three straight losses to the Royals dating back to last week, they can make you want to drive your head through a wall.
But when they are evenly good, they are tough to beat, and can hit you from many different angles.
When they are balanced and confident, they are a team that can contend with anyone.
When they are playing parallel to their skill, they are often unparalleled on the field.
In other words, this team is playing meaningful games in September…
…and they are built to win.