Covering the Bases: Game 22

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Photo DayFinal: Indians 5, Royals 1

FIRST: Corey Kluber stood at his locker, answering questions as robotically as he worked through Kansas City’s lineup on Thursday. A few lockers over, Justin Masterson leaned back in his chair, grinning.

Between inquiries, Masterson chimed in.

“Did you smile after the game?” Masterson asked.

Kluber smirked.

“I did,” Kluber replied. “Only when I saw you.”

Kluber has heard all the jokes about his quiet, collected personality. The running joke is that the pitcher never smiles. During the spring, I asked him if it bothered him at all. Kluber smiled.

“No, I like it,” he said.

In a way, the personality that Kluber allows everyone to see fits his pitching style. He stands still on the mound, seemingly expressionless, and then does all he can to pound the strike zone aggressively. Kluber attacks, begging for early contact and counts in his favor. When hitters attack back in early-count situations, it can sometimes play into his hand.

“It can probably play into anybody’s hand as long as you work ahead in the strike zone,” Kluber said. “If you continue to execute your pitches, they’ll tend to get more aggressive as the game goes on and maybe chase some pitches out of the zone early on until you establish the zone.”

Kluber was extremely efficient against Kansas City on Thursday. He registered 75 of his 101 pitches for strikes and threw a first-pitch strike to 22 of the 31 batters he faced. The fact that he ended the afternoon with a career-high 11 strikeouts and nearly finished with fewer than 100 pitches was a testament to how aggressive he was in the zone.

In all, Kluber created 23 of 27 outs via grounders (12) or strikeouts. That will happen when a pitcher logs 52 sinkers and has a 25.8-percent swing-and-miss rate with his slider and changeup.

The Klubot ended the day with his first career complete game. He also became the first Indians pitcher (and only the seventh since 1914) to have no earned runs allowed, no walks and at least 11 strikeouts in a complete game. The last? Len Barker in his perfect game on May 15, 1981.

That list includes Kluber, Barker, Luis Tiant (7/3/1968), Stan Williams (5/18/1968), Sam McDowell (5/1/1968), Bob Feller (6/6/1941) and Guy Morton (8/15/1915).

Prior to Thursday, the last American League pitcher to have no walks, no earned runs, four or fewer hits and at least 11 strikeouts in a complete game was King Felix Hernandez. He did so in his perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012. The last Cleveland pitcher to have at least 10 strikeouts and no walks in a CG was CC Sabathia on Sept. 7, 2005. The previous Tribe hurler to do that at home was Orel Hershiser on June 5, 1995.

Only twice did one of Kluber’s outs go to the outfield, and both were flyouts to left.

“I was a little bit bored, but I’ll take it any day,” Indians right fielder David Murphy joked. “It was fun to watch. When you’ve got a pitcher that throws 100 pitches and 75 strikes and is able to strike out 10 guys and just have dominant stuff like he did today, it’s fun to play behind him and it’s fun to watch.”

SECOND: As April has progressed, Kluber and fellow Indians right-hander Zach McAllister have given the rotation some stability amidst inconsistency. Justin Masterson has been up and down, Danny Salazar has looked lost of late and Carlos Carrasco has also been slow out of the gate.

Dating back to the home opener, McAllister and Kluber have gone 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 41 strikeouts and six walks in 49 innings (seven starts). The three other members of the current staff (so, excluding Trevor Bauer’s spot start) have combined to go 0-5 with a 6.45 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 66 strikeouts and 30 walks in 60 innings (11 starts).

These numbers also do not include the first outing for both Kluber or McAllister, who were each roughed up in the season-opening series in Oakland. Even so, the Indians love what they have in that duo, which is unheralded around the league, but certainly appreciated within the organization.

“All winter long until now,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “we’ve consistently said that we think we can win those guys. That’s a pretty big compliment to young pitchers.”

THIRD: Of course, Kluber gets nowhere without a little help from his friends.

Cleveland’s offense took care of that with a five-run outburst in the fifth inning against lefty Bruce Chen, who has been hard on the Indians over the years. After breezing through the first four innings with only one hit allowed and 11 retired in a row, here’s how the fifth went down:

Carlos Santana: leadoff double, snapping 0-for-16 drought.
Michael Brantley: run-scoring single to center.
Ryan Raburn: walk.
Yan Gomes: single to left to load bases.
Murphy: two-run double down left-field line.
Mike Aviles: sacrifice bunt to move two runners up a base.
Asdrubal Cabrera: two-run double to left.

Chen: showers.

“He’s the epitome of kind of the crafty lefty,” Francona said of Chen. “He gives you different angles, different speeds. He’ll throw injust enough and then get you to reach, and you’ll hit something in the air that doesn’t go far enough. He kind of takes the sting out of your bat. And then Carlos with a good swing the opposite way. Mikey getting the bunt down. Sometimes, little things lead to big things. We strung our hits together. Cabby swung the bat all day.”

As for Murphy’s hit, it was an awkward swing, but he made contact deep in the zone and slapped it just inside the third-base line and into left.

“It’s funny,” Francona said, “because his [butt] was going the other way and the ball went that way. But he’s got really good hands.”

Asked about the hit, Murphy laughed.

“I don’t necessarily have the best lower half incorporated into my swing,” he said. “But I try to use the eye-hand coordination that I’ve been blessed with. In that situation, it’s just do anything byt strike out. There’s a lot of good things that can hapen when the bases are loaded right there. I didn’t hit it very hard and it didn’t look pretty. I got the end of the bat on it and it found a hole.”

HOME: Cabrera is only hitting .238 on the season, but the big reason behind that paltry average is his .156 (7-for-45) mark against right-handed pitching. The switch-hitting shortstop has hit .343 (12-for-35) against lefties after going 2-for-3 with his two-run double against Chen on Thursday.

“He’s swung the bat pretty much all year right-handed,” Francona said. “And then when he starts swinging the bat left-handed … he’s got really goot hands [but] sometimes he gets himself in a position where he really can’t use them. You see some of those swings where he’ll roll over and hit a ball like into their dugout or something, or be late. It’s not because he doesn’t have bat speed. He just gets himself sometimes in positions where he can’t use his hands.”

Cleveland will face three righties (Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong) in the upcoming series in San Francisco, giving Cabrera a chance to get that left-handed swing going.

On deck:

Indians (11-11) at Giants (12-10)
at 10:15 p.m. ET at AT&T Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 20

Salazar422Final: Royals 8, Indians 2

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona said it a few hours before Tuesday’s game. There is a learning curve for every player in the Major Leagues. Right now, Danny Salazar is experiencing that with Cleveland.

“Regardless of how much time you spend in the Minor Leagues,” Francona said, “when you come to the big leagues and you’re an everyday player or you’re a starting pitcher, whatever you do, there’s a learning curve. You can’t get around that.”

Well, chalk Tuesday night up as another learning experience.

Salazar allowed no hits through three innings before falling apart in the fourth. The right-hander was gone before the end of the fifth after giving up five runs (four earned) on seven hits. He struck out six and walked two.

Over his past three starts, Salazar has logged only 12 2/3 innings. Yes, he has 19 strikeouts in that span, but he’s given up 15 runs (14 earned) on 19 hits with seven walks.

Between his last start and this one, Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway met with Salazar to talk things over, and to reinforce with the pitcher that the club has all the confidence in the world with him. Francona said Salazar admitted to feeling pressure to live up to expectations.

After Salazar’s latest lapse, his teammates were supportive, too.

“It’s growing pains. This is his first real go-around,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “We have the utmost trust in him. He has plus stuff. When he figures it out, it’s going to be a lot of fun to be on this side. He’s a young cat. He’s going to figure it out.”

The Indians appear willing to let Salazar figure it out in the Majors. Cleveland could option him to Triple-A, but there’s always the chance he simply overpowers Minor Leaguers with his stuff and doesn’t actually learn from the experience. Maybe that could serve as a confidence boost for Salazar, but an argument could be made that he might benefit more from growing pains in the big leagues.

“Baseball, this is tough. This is not easy,” Salazar said. “Everybody from every team that is up here, if he’s here, it’s because he’s good. You just have to learn about all those little things and keep your head up.”

SECOND: One issue that has plagued Salazar all season is slipping during the second time through the batting order. It’s especially glaring when looking at a breakdown of his pitch ranges.

Entering Tuesday, Salazar had held hitters to a .133 average/.525 OPS on Pitches 1-25. The numbers jumped to .421/1.165 in Pitches 26-50 and .462/1.434 for Pitches 51-75. This is when it’s worth noting that Salazar had thrown exactly 50 pitches through his three no-hit innings. He was at 76 pitches after Kansas City’s four-run, five-hit assault in the fourth.

“It’s kind of like maybe I’m doing something obvious,” Salazar said, “so they know what pitch I’m going to throw.”

Maybe there’s something to that?

After the game, Salazar said he might be tipping his pitches. After reviewing video, the right-hander noticed some variation in how he positioned his glove prior to fastballs or changeups. In the fourth, Salazar threw consecutive changeups to Mike Moustakas. The second one rocketed over the wall in right field for a three-run home run.

“With my changeup sometimes, I open up my glove too much,” Salazar said. “That’s the only thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes, I just try to, when I’m going to throw my fastball, I try to open my glove, too, just to try to confuse. I think sometimes I forget.”

More to the point, maybe a second straight changeup — a hanging one at that — wasn’t the best pitch selection.

“That was a mistake,” Salazar said. “I should’ve thrown a fastball outside or something. Not back-to-back changeups.”

We’ll certainly follow up with Callaway and Francona about the possible tipping pitches issue over the next few days.

THIRD: With so much focus on Salazar, and rightly so, the outing turned in by Kansas City’s James Shields was kind of pushed to the side in Cleveland’s clubhouse. Let’s give the man some credit, though. Big Game James spun off six solid innings, striking out nine, walking one and allowing only one earned run among two allowed.

“They did make him work and he started to labor a little  bit right at the end of the sixth,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “His pitch count got up, but nine punchouts and, combine that with what he did his last start, that’s pretty impressive work.

“Every time James Shields is on the mound and we get a couple of runs and we get a lead, I feel good.”

It was a little more frustrating in the other dugout.

“Unfortunately, he’s pretty much the same every time you see him,” Francona said. “He pounds the strike zone, very difficult to run on. He can cut his fastball, he can throw it into lefties, he can change speeds off of it and he competes. That’s why he’s one of the best.”

HOME: As a result, the Indians only scored two runs on the night. That said, there were some silver linings within an otherwise dismal offensive showing overall.

Michael Bourn showed signs of life, coming through with two hits, including an RBI single. Swisher collected a pair of hits, including a double, and drew a walk. Yan Gomes had two hits, and yanked a pitch from Shields down the left-field line with authority for a run-scoring double in the sixth. Michael Brantley stayed hot with two hits as well.

“I do think our at-bats are getting better,” Francona said. “We need to string them more together — that’s kind of stating the obvious. But those pitchers they had out there were pretty good.”

Said Swisher: “We’re trying to get on that rhythm. This team can get super hot. Sometimes we can get super cold. I think if we just keep going out there and battling the way that we know how, scrapping and fighting for every pitch, every run, we just have to get back to that. It hasn’t exactly been the start that we wanted as a team. But it’s still early in the season and we’re going to keep grinding, I know that.”

On deck:

Royals (10-9) at Indians (9-11)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 19

SwishSquirrelWe are exactly three weeks into the season and the Indians hold a 9-10 record. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, the defense has been disappointing and a handful of key hitters have been slow out of the gates. There have been some positives, but the Tribe certainly hasn’t found its stride, yet. It seems like a good time to start Covering the Bases again.

Final: Indians 4, Royals 3

FIRST: After the Indians dropped six of eight early last September, Justin Masterson headed into the outfield at Progressive Field during batting practice with a live chicken in tow. It wore a small cape with Cleveland’s block “C” and the team named him “Cody.”

After the visit by the Rally Chicken, the Indians won 19 of 24 games and made the playoffs.

Coincidence? Well, yes. Coincidence.

In the second inning of Monday’s game against the Royals, though, a squirrel showed up on the field in Cleveland. It ran around the outfield and then sprinted into the infield, causing a brief delay. At one point, first baseman Nick Swisher tried to catch it with his glove as the critter ran out to right field.

Marc Rzepczynski, who was in the Cardinals’ bullpen during the famous appearance of the Rally Squirrel in the 2011 Fall Classic, just so happens to be in the Tribe’s bullpen now.

“They won the World Series,” Indians setup man Cody Allen said with a smirk. “I know it’s April, but …”

OK, let’s not get carried away, but the squirrel did provide some entertainment for a home crowd that has been hoping for a spark — any kind of spark — for this year’s Tribe. For a little more than an inning, the squirrel gave them just that, to the point that the fans booed when the fleet-footed guest was surrounded and forced into the Cleveland bullpen in center field.

Indians closer John Axford sounded disappointed that he never got a look at the little guy.

“I guess he just took off,” Axford said. “Hopefully he’ll be back tomorrow so I’ll get to say hi.”

SECOND: Now that we’ve got the super important stuff out of the way…

Indians right-hander Zach McAllister gave his team another solid outing, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits in six innings. the right-hander struck out just two, but walked only one in the win. Over his last three starts, McAllister has posted a 1.37 ERA, giving up three earned runs with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 19 2/3 innings.

Given the inconsistency early on from Cleveland’s rotation, Indians manager Terry Francona has been happy to have McAllister slotted in every five games.

That’s a nice feeling,” Francona said. “I mean, this is a young kid still that I think is enjoying the responsibility and the challenges of getting better. He came into camp and he was throwing the ball so well, and he had that downward plane on his fastball. Then he kind of lost it a little bit toward the end of spring, and he’s kind of recovered through hard work and with [pitching coach Mickey Callaway].

“He feels good about himself, and he should. If you’re around Zach for five minutes, he desperately wants to be so good.”

On Monday, though, a problem that has plagued the Indians arose again. After the Indians took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, McAllister coughed up three runs in the top of the fifth. Over the past nine games, Cleveland has scored in 25 innings and has allowed at least one run 15 times in the next half-inning.

“Any time they give us runs, you want to have a shut-down inning,” McAllister said. “To give up three there was pretty frustrating for myself, especially in a game like that where runs are at a premium. To not get that shut-down inning was frustrating for me. Our guys picked me up again.”

Francona does not buy into trends, but he does feel that shut-down innings are of the utmost importance.

“I just don’t buy the trends. I think every game is different,” Francona said. “I agree, though, that when you score, the next inning is really important, the shut-down inning. And we certainly need to do better.”

THIRD: The Indians made three errors on Monday night, upping the team’s total to 19 errors on the young season. Heading into the day, Oakland led the American League with 20 errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall made two errors and McAllister was charged with another. The pitcher’s came on a throw to first after fielding a bunt, helping fuel the Royals’ rally in the fifth.

“I would say it’s different probably every night,” Francona said of the errors. “I do know that we’re probably the type of team that, obviously, the cleaner we play, the better it enhances our chances of winning. We put ourselves in kind of a predicament tonight with some miscues, but I think we’re a better defensive team than we’ve shown, and I think it’ll show. We’ve just had some missteps early, for sure.”

HOME: I know, I know. You want something a little more uplifting to end on. How about the early showing for Michael Brantley?

Over his past six games, he’s launched four home runs, knocked in nine runs and hit at a .292 (7-for-24) clip. Before the game, Francona said Brantley’s lower half looks stronger this season and, because of that, the outfielder looks to have the potential to up his slugging percentage. Brantley then went out and belted a two-run homer off Jeremy Guthrie in the fourth.

Jason Kipnis came through with a two-run homer of his own in the sixth inning to put the Indians ahead for good. Over his past four games, he’s hit .385 (5-for-13) with the home run, two RBIs, three walks and four runs scored.

It was Swisher who set up the Kipnis home run with a double to the wall in left-center field. That was Swisher’s second double in as many at-bats — practically to the same spot. Since an 0-for-12 slump, Swisher has hit .333 (5-for-15) with the two doubles, plus one RBI, one run, one walk and one sac fly for the Tribe.

That’s kind of one of the first games where we’ve really kind of had the middle lineup do what we know we can,” Swisher said. “Maybe it’s bringing Big G {Jason Giambi] back to the lineup and having a presence like that again or, I don’t know what it is. It just kind of felt like we put the emphasis on today and that’s it.

“We might not be where we want to be as of right now, but if we take each day for the day, we’re going to do great, man.”

Now, the Indians will hope that Carlos Santana begins showing signs of life at the plate, too. For Monday’s game, Santana received a mental break from Francona. Expect him to be back in the lineup for Tuesday’s tilt against Kansas City.

On deck:

Royals (9-9) at Indians (9-10)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field

–JB

Bastian’s 2014 preseason picks

CLEwcIt is a time-honored tradition: completely misfiring on predictions for the upcoming season. Then again, maybe some Cleveland fans are happy I picked Detroit to win it all last year. My track record of jinxing things speaks for itself.

One of the beauties of baseball is the unknown. We don’t know which team or player will be the breakout performer in the year ahead. We don’t know which player will come out of nowhere after being nowhere to be found.

I’m talking about the Scott Kazmir’s of the world. Could anyone have seen that coming last season? Maybe this season’s comeback story will be Grady Sizemore in Boston. Who knows? That’s the great part of it.

We barely knew how to say Yasiel Puig’s name during Spring Training last year. Now, he’s must-see TV. Everyone was on the Blue Jays bandwagon before the wheels came tearing off. The Pirates made the playoffs. The Indians did, too. What a world.

Last year, I did predict five (Rays, Tigers, Braves, Reds and Dodgers) of baseball’s 10 postseason teams, but I only correctly called two division winners (American League Central and National League East). I did correctly predict 14 of the 30 teams’ place in the standings, but I went 0-fer in the AL East. I did, however, nail the one-through-five finish in the AL Central. I just didn’t expect Cleveland to claim a Wild Card spot.

I’m not going to make that mistake this season. While I am not going to list the Indians as the division’s top spot just yet — I think Detroit has earned that place in the predictions — I do think Cleveland will give the Motor City a good fight. I think the Tribe might even win the Central, but I won’t call that just yet. I do think the Indians have what it takes to grab one of the two Wild Card spots again. The key will be solid seasons from the arms behind Justin Masterson in the rotation.

How did I fare in other predictions last year? Well, I had the Red Sox finishing in last place in the division. So, there’s that.

For the awards, the only one I had right was Wil Myers taking home the AL’s Rookie of the Year honor with the Rays. Adrian Beltre (.880 OPS in 161 games) and Joey Votto (.926 OPS in 162 games) had nice runs as my MVP picks, but they finished seventh and sixth, respectively, in voting. I had Joe Maddon (92 wins) and Fredi Gonzalez (96 wins) taking home the Manager honors. Nice showings, but no dice. Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06) was third in RoY voting in the NL as my pick.

As for the Cy Young Award, let’s just say my record remains flawless, in that my picks in that category often crash and burn. Jered Weaver was my choice in the AL, and he went 11-8 with a 3.27 ERA in 24 starts. Not terrible, but an injury hurt his cause and he garnered no votes. In the NL, I gave the nod to Matt Cain, who then went 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA for the Giants. Sorry, guys.

I’m tempted to make Justin Masterson my man for the AL Cy Young this season, but I know how important he is to the Tribe’s chances. I’ll steer clear of that jinx, Tribe fans.

With all of that said, here are all of my preseason picks for 2014…

AMERICAN LEAGUE

East
1. Red Sox
*2. Orioles
3. Rays
4. Blue Jays
5. Yankees

Central
1. Tigers
*2. Indians
3. Royals
4. White Sox
5. Twins

West
1. Angels
2. A’s
3. Mariners
4. Rangers
5. Astros

NATIONAL LEAGUE

East
1. Nationals
2. Braves
3. Mets
4. Marlins
5. Phillies

Central
1. Cardinals
*2. Pirates
3. Reds
4. Brewers
5. Cubs

West
1. Dodgers
*2. D-backs
3. Padres
4. Giants
5. Rockies

*indicates Wild Card pick

PLAYOFFS

NL Wild Card: D-backs over Pirates
NL Division Series: D-backs over Nationals
NL Division Series: Dodgers over Cardinals
NL Championship Series: Dodgers over D-backs

AL Wild Card: Indians over Orioles
AL Division Series: Indians over Red Sox
AL Division Series: Tigers over Angels
AL Championship Series: Tigers over Indians

WORLD SERIES

Dodgers over Tigers

AWARD WINNERS

AL Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Angels
AL Cy Young Award: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
AL Rookie of the Year: Jose Abreu, White Sox
AL Manager of the Year: Brad Ausmus, Tigers

NL Most Valuable Player: Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
NL Cy Young Award: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
NL Rookie of the Year: Billy Hamilton, Reds
NL Manager of the Year: Matt Williams, Nationals

Debate away…

–JB

Swisher: “I couldn’t have been more honored to wear it.”

photoThere it was in all it’s glory, hanging from a hook inside Jason Giambi’s locker at Fowler Park on Friday afternoon. It’s gold and black with flames around the waistband. And it’s got a lot of hits under its belt.

“I only got to use it one time. That’s it,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “But I couldn’t have been more honored to wear it.”

We are, of course, talking about Giambi’s famous thong. It made appearances throughout last season in his locker, but consider this its 2014 debut. That’s impressive, because the 43-year-old Giambi says he’s had his lucky thong since 1997.

The story of the thong isn’t new, but the fact that Swisher revealed that he used it during the 2009 World Series with the Yankees added another layer to the legend. Over the years, when teammates have been in brutal slumps, a replica version has found its way into their locker, or into their hands.

“It’s only when guys need it,” Giambi explained. “It’s only when guys need a hit. It’s always around and it’s never not gotten a hit. That’s all I’ve got to say. It’s never not gotten a hit, swear to God. … Sometimes it gets them out of [a slump], because they don’t want to wear it the next day. There’s guys who have worn it and they’ve gotten hits.”

In an article in the Daily News in 2008, Derek Jeter admitted to wearing the thong.

“I had it over my shorts and stuff,” Jeter told the newspaper. “I was 0-for-32 and I hit a homer on the first pitch. That’s the only time I’ve ever worn it.”

But, Swisher and Giambi weren’t teammates in ’09. So, how did Swisher wind up with it?

Well, Swisher was hitting just .114 (4-for-35) in the playoffs heading into Game 3 against the Phillies. New York’s trainer at the time came to Swisher with the replica version of Big G’s thong.

“He was like, ‘Hey, I think you need to wear this,’” Swisher said .”I’m like, ‘Bro, I ain’t wearing that thing.’ He was like, ‘Come on, man. It’s a guarantee.’ That’s what he says, so, all right, I put it on. … I remember putting it on and saying to myself, ‘Am I really wearing this?’”

Top of the fifth inning…

“Hanging breaking ball, double bounces over the bag,” Swisher said. “I double down the left-field line.”

Top of the sixth inning…

“I went deep,” said Swisher, laughing at the memory. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to wear this thing for the rest of my life!”

Yankees won, 8-5, and took the Series in six games.

Why do players think it works? Giambi said it’s because the last thing they’re thinking about at the plate is their slump or their mechanics. What’s on their mind is how uncomfortable they are with the thong on. Giambi said no teammates wound up with the replica in their locker last season. The one that was hanging in Giambi’s locker on Friday was the original.

“It’s made a lot of road trips,” Giambi said.

“You have to be in dire need,” Swisher said. “I got to wear the replica, which he has blessed. It works just as well.”

–JB

 

Covering the Bases: March 24

tito3Final: Indians 8, Reds 3

FIRST: It’s decision time for the Indians. Carlos Carrasco logged six innings on Monday and Josh Tomlin is scheduled to start on Tuesday. You can bet, though, that Cleveland already has in mind which direction it plans on going.

“I’m sure we’ll go back and revisit some things,” Indians manager Terry Francona said after Monday’s win. “We need to just visit. I think we probably know how we feel about things, but I think there’s also a respectful way to talk to players and things like that, so we need to make sure we do that.”

Translation: Tomlin’s upcoming outing will not determine the final rotation job.

There are only two ways the Indians can go right now. Option 1: Carrasco makes the rotation, and two of Scott Atchison, Blake Wood and Tomlin make the bullpen. In that scenario, I think Tomlin would head to Triple-A for regular turns and to better control his innings as he continues in his comeback from Tommy John. Option 2: Give the rotation spot to Tomlin and put Carrasco in the bullpen. That means one of Atchison and Wood (I’d place my bet on Atchison) would fill the final relief role.

If it were my decision, and no one in the Indians’ front office has asked me yet, I’d give the job to Tomlin. You could argue that, with the exception of Justin Masterson, Tomlin has had the best camp among Cleveland’s starting pitchers. He’s shown the same pinpoint control as in the past, but he’s also displayed increased velocity and, at least for the spring, an improved strikeout rate. As for Carrasco, he’s showed last year that he can be a weapon out of the bullpen.

All of that said, Carrasco gave the Indians an encouraging performance against Cincinnati. Last time out, the right-hander allowed eight runs (five earned) on nine hits with two strikeouts and two walks in 2 2/3 innings. This time around, Carrasco logged the six planned innings and allowed three runs on nine hits with five strikeouts and no walks. Two of those runs and four of those hits came in his last inning, during which he also struck out the side.

Francona was happy to see Carrasco have a strong finish to an otherwise rough inning.

“Definitely. That was really good to see,” Francona said. “Even as he got fatigued, he didn’t back off.”

Carrasco said the key for him was examining some images from his past handful of outings. The lead arm mechanics he worked so hard on over the winter had gone awry of late. His arm had lowered, some deception was lost and he was hit around. Carrasco said he made the fix in this outing and it paid off.

“I feel good,” Carrasco said. “The last inning, they got two runs. I missed a couple spots right there, but I finished strong. More important, I feel good.”

Carrasco knows a decision is coming soon.

“I’m just doing my job. They’ve seen everything,” he said. “The only thing I care about is my job, just doing that. Right now, my mind is on the starting rotation. If they make another decision to send me to the bullpen, I’ll do my job. But right now, it’s rotation.”

SECOND: It sure sounds as though Atchison is in a great position to win one of the final bullpen jobs. He has had a solid spring, and never underestimate the Francona Factor. The manager had Atch (as Francona calls him) in the ‘pen during his days with the Red Sox. In face…

“I kind of go back to a conversation I had with him my last day in Boston,” Francona said. “I knew I wasn’t coming back. I remember he was walking away and I said to him, ‘Atch, regardless of what happens next year, you can pitch for me any day.’ It’s funny how this game kind of turns around.”

Atchison spun one uneventful inning against the Reds. For the spring now, the 37-year-old righty has given up two runs on seven hits with eight strikeouts and one walk in eight innings. Wood, who is coming back from Tommy John, has also been solid, giving up one run in nine innings. The hard-throwing right-hander also has 11 strikeouts, but the five walks leave something to be desired. There’s never been any doubt that Wood has a power arm. It’s controlling it that has been the consistent issue.

As for Atchison, Francona has made it clear that he feels like he knows what to expect.

“He’s exactly what we thought, or we hoped,” Francona said. “He’s had some arm issues maybe back a couple years ago. He elected not to have the Tommy John and rehabbed it. He has late movement, he throws the ball in the zone, and he doesn’t beat himself. He’s very valuable.”

THIRD: Francona isn’t exactly sure how he will use Lonnie Chisenhall this season, but the details do not matter at this point. Chisenhall was told he is on the Opening Day roster. During that meeting, the young third baseman expressed to Francona and GM Chris Antonetti that he is willing to do whatever the team asks of him. Francona called that meeting a highlight of the morning.

“I thought Lonnie had a good day before he stepped on the field,” Francona said. “There were a lot of tough conversations and some that [weren't]. I haven’t been around Lonnie as much as everybody else, but they’ve seen him grow up. But in the course of a year, just to have that conversation with him today, makes you feel really proud of him.”

Going 2-for-4 with a home run against the Reds to raise his spring average to .308 didn’t hurt Chisenhall’s case for at-bats, either.

“He swung the bat well today,” Francona said.

HOME: A bit of miscommunication led to a feel-good aspect to Monday afternoon. The Indians initially had Nick Swisher listed as the DH, but the Reds didn’t want to use one in the game. So, Swisher was given the day off and everyone moved up a spot in the order. Carrasco was told he’d hit ninth, and was instructed to fight temptation to swing and keep the bat on the ol’ shoulder.

Then, the Reds let the Indians know that they could still use the DH if they wanted. Well, with Swisher already gone for the day, Francona saw the chance to create a special memory for a father and son.

Minor League outfielder Nick Hamilton got the nod as the DH with his dad, Tom Hamilton, watching from the radio booth.

“We were like, you know what? Hammy’s sitting up in the booth,” Francona said. “I think there’s always maybe a little time in Spring Training to have a nice, special moment. I’m sure both of them thought it was really cool. I know our players got a kick out of it.”

Nick Hamilton — taken in the 35th round of the 2012 Draft out of Kent State — got the news about 15 minutes before the game started.

“I don’t mind surprises,” he said with a smile. “It was really just a lot of fun. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to get out there and get that first taste of playing in the big leagues. It was just a lot of fun and something I can learn from and build on from here. … Eventually, looking back, I’m sure this is definitely something that I’m going to cherish.”

Check Indians.com for more on the news of the day and roster decisions.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Antonetti, Masterson discuss stalled talks

Here are two transcripts from today’s interviews about the stalled talks between the Indians and All-Star starter Justin Masterson. GM Chris Antonetti met with reporters to discuss the matter on Friday morning and Masterson talked about the situation after his outing against the Rockies in the afternoon.

Chris AntonettiIndians general manager Chris Antonetti

What can you tell us about the contract talks breaking down?

“I met with Justin this morning. I think at this point, we both agreed to table discussions on a multi-year contract and potentially revisit it down the road. But, right now, our focus will be on preparing for the season.”

Were you hopeful that you would get something done before Opening Day?

“That was our hope. I think both sides made a really earnest effort to try to find common ground and get something done. In the end, we just weren’t able to align.”

Is the door still open?

“We’ll always leave the door open. We’ll never close any doors. It stems from our profound belief in Justin. He embodies everything we want our players to be. He’s a great teammate, a great person and an exceptional performer. I know there remains a desire on our side for him to be here long-term, and I think he’d like to be here long-term. That’s a good common ground to start with. It’s just, at this moment in time, we weren’t able to align on the right contract form.”

What do you say to fans who think this means the talks are completely over?

“We’re fortunate that Justin is here for this year and we’re not going to close any doors. There will be other junctures in time that we can explore an extension with him. That’s just not right now.”

Would you revisit it during the season?

“Our preference is, during the season, to allow everybody to focus on the season and not have any distractions. But, if there’s the right time in the future to re-open things, we’re open to it.”

How much did future payroll obligations play a role in talks breaking down?

“That’s a consideration. I think the thing that we want, and I know Justin wants, is to be a part of a championship-caliber team. So what we need to do is look at how we fairly compensate players, but fit them within the constructs of what we expect our payrolls will be moving forward.”

Do you view future payroll as an obstacle in the talks?

“Not as an obstacle, but a consideration. We made an earnest effort to try to get something done. I’ll stay away from the specifics of things, but we made a very competitive offer within the marketplace for contract extensions for starting pitchers.”

Are the numbers being reported accurate?

“We’ll stay consistent in not commenting on specifics, but I would say what’s been written isn’t accurate, or at least what I’ve seen written in terms of values is not accurate.”

Was there a point when you thought you’d get a deal done?

“There were times in the process where we felt we were closer than others. But, again, it’s one of the reasons why I refrain from commenting is close doesn’t mean you get a deal done.”

What have you thought of how Masterson’s handled all of this during the spring?

“Justin is incredible that way. He’s been able to compartmentalize it. It hasn’t affected in any way the work that he’s done, the teammates that he is, how he interacts with players, coaches, the front office The dynamic has been the same. You wouldn’t know that Justin was working through any other considerations contract wise by the way he’s gone about his business. He’s been a consummate professional.”

How did the talk go with Masterson this morning?

“He was great. I think Justin expressed appreciation in our desire to keep him here beyond this year and appreciated the efforts that both sides made to try to get something done. It’s been a fairly lengthy process that dates back, really, to the start of the year.”

Is it wrong for fans to think this is CC Sabathia or Cliff Lee all over again?

“Justin’s a big part of our team. He’s going to start Opening Day for us and we’re counting on him to lead us ot a postseason and then , hopefully, to a World Series. That’s, right now, our focus. Where things lead ater that, and if we have another opportunity to revisit things with Justin, we’re open to doing that.”

What was Masterson’s mood this morning?

“It was a very typical morning for Justin and very typical interaction. He handled things as he always does.”

Are you prepared that this could be a bad PR hit for the team?

“Our job is to build the best team we can and make the decisions we think are in the best interest of the organization moving forward. I’m hopeful that our fans remain excited about the team we have. Justin’s a big part of that.”

Was it fair to use the Homer Bailey contract as a comparison?

“That’s one of the contract extensions that’s in the marketplace. We were very cognizant of that contract, but there are others. I feel like we made an earnest attempt to get something done and offered Justin a contract that was fair relative to the marketplace. But we didn’t attach, nor do we ever for any negotiation, attach it to any one contract specifically.”

Are you any closer on an extension with Jason Kipnis?

“Again, I’ll refrain from commenting on specific guys.”

What aspect of the deal with Masterson posed problems?

“There were parts of the deal that we overlapped on, where we were able to find common ground. We just couldn’t get all the pieces to fit together. We examined a variety of different structures and lengths and values, but we just couldn’t find that right combination.”

Could that change?

“Sure. Yeah. As you get more information, circumstances change and evolve. But I wouldn’t expect anything in the short-erm to change.”

———————————————-

MastersonAll-Star starter Justin Masterson

How disappointed are you that a deal didn’t happen?

“It’s just for right now. There’s still time. The season doesn’t end hopefully until the World Series is over. Although we talked, while it’s not going to be probably talked about within the next few months or something, there’s still always potential to make something happen. Even though it didn’t happen right now, I’m not overly disappointed. It’s kind of like, ‘All right, we’ll just push it back a little bit.’ We’ll go out and slice and dice and have some fun.”

Is there motivation to still get something done?

“We’ll cotinue to work and see in due time. But, again, it’s always been one of those where we enjoy each other, and you have some business things you have to work through. They’re not always going to meet up for each individual. I think we’ll continue to see how the season goes. Win the World Series and I’m sure we’ll probably be back here next year.”

Is the timing at least good in the sense that now you can focus on the season?

“I was never really concerned about it. You guys do a good job of making it all fired up. That’s fun. I don’t mind it. But, no, it is nice a little bit to not have to wonder what we’re doing, this, that or the other. But again, the whole time it’s been this year we’re going out and pitching. It doesn’t really matter what’s going to take place. We’re here this year and we’re going to do our thing, and there’s still that hope that we can all have that things may happen for next year.”

After showing a willing to sign a shorter deal, are you surprised they didn’t get something done?

“You look at it and you have the years here and there, but there’s also the amounts that are out there. Although you’re taking less years, where do you put the amounts to make it fair? So, is it still fair? You’re giving up a couple things. You’re just working through all that. And, though, it might be giving up some things on my end, there’s still tough things that they have to work through on their end. They’ve got to run a ballclub. They’ve got to do a lot of things. Again, if we go win a World Series, I think things could work out pretty good.”

How’d your conversation go with Antonetti this morning?

“I gave him a hug and we shook hands. It was cordial. We get along very well. I get along with everyone here well. It was one of those like, hey, we worked through it. We tried hard. We enjoy each other. But at this moment, we can’t necessarily make it happen. That’s fine. We’ll continue to go through the season. The doors are technically closed, but they all have doorknobs that you can at one point open again.”

The Indians don’t typically negotiation during the season. Would you?

“That’s what they always say. I’m sure they’re probably working on deals that they started in January, that they say they won’t talk about. That’s why you have people who do those things. If things change, whether or not on our end or their end, hey, why not? It’s not like it’s going to bother me, and they’re not playing, so it’s not like it’s going to bother them too much. You don’t want it to be a distraction, but if it’s not, then the doors are always open.”

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 19

CarrascoFinal: A’s 13, Indians 3

FIRST: It’s been in the back of everyone’s mind for the past few weeks: Would Carlos Carrasco slip back into Carlos Fiasco mode at all this spring? Well, it happened on Wednesday and the rotation race officially has its first wrinkle.

Oakland tagged Carrasco for eight runs (five earned) on nine hits in 2 2/3 innings. He was supposed to log five. Yes, there was a fielding error that did the righty no favors. Yes, two runs were tacked on to Carrasco’s line after he exited the game.

Still, the Indians have asked Carrasco to focus on limiting damage and maintaining his aggressiveness. Neither elements were present in his abbreviated effort against the A’s.

“We started off an inning where we didn’t convert a play,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But then he didn’t limit the damage. I thought he worked away from his fastball a little bit. It’s a frustrating outing. The good part is it was Spring Training, but we’re looking for him to build. It was a little disappointing.”

This comes one day after Francona was raving about Carrasco.

“His stuff is off the charts,” Francona said on Tuesday. “His stuff is top-of-the-rotation stuff across the board.”

That said, both Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway both noted on Tuesday that Carrasco appeared to slip into some old bad habits during his “B” game outing last week. Even Carrasco, while discussing the race for the final spot in the rotation, mentioned that on his own on Tuesday.

“My last game, the ‘B’ game, I didn’t feel that,” said Carrasco, referring to the more-aggressive mentality. “I didn’t feel normal over there. But, no matter what, when you pitch, if you pitch an ‘A’ game or ‘B’ game, you have to continue doing your job, and have the same mentality. There’s a hitter right there, so it’s important to attack the zone.”

The first hitter Carrasco faced on Wednesday, Sam Fuld, drew a walk. The next batter, Daric Barton, drilled a double. Two runs came in the fifth inning (Carrasco’s first frame), and another three came across in the sixth. As Francona hinted, that inning did start with a fielding error by third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall. The floodgates were hardly blown open by that point, though. Carrasco had time to reel things in.

“That’s probably something we need to talk to him more [about],” Francona said. “We talked to him the other day, just about this same exact thing.”

SECOND: Let’s run through the scenarios for the final spot in the rotation.

(First, notice that I keep referring to it as the final spot and not the fifth spot. While the Indians have not come straight out and said it, it seems pretty clear  that right-hander Danny Salazar will open in the fifth slot. That will give him some more time to build up his innings before making his first start of the year. Cleveland doesn’t need a fifth starter until April 8. Obviously, this is all subject to change.)

Carrasco is out of options. Josh Tomlin has an option. Aaron Harang is a non-roster invitee who, if he’s not in the Opening Day plans, must be given a $100,000 retention bonus with a June 1 opt-out clause if he’s willing to go pitch in the Minors. Each contractual factor will play a role in the decision, especially for a team that needs to maintain as much depth as possible. Trevor Baur remains a darkhorse candidate, but he appears ticketed for Triple-A.

Scenario 1: Tomlin gets the final spot and Carrasco goes to the bullpen. This potentially puts Bauer one wrong development in the Majors away from a promotion, if Harang isn’t willing to pitch in the Minors. On Tuesday, Francona said he thinks Harang is a Major League pitcher. Does that mean Harang is a leading candidate for the final job? Or is Francona simply hinting that the Indians might try to do right by Harang and find him an MLB job if he’s not in the Opening Day plans. We’ll see.

Scenario 2: Carrasco gets the final spot. This would once again risk losing Harang as a layer of depth. Tomlin could go to the bullpen, but the way he’s pitched (arguably the best of the three main candidates), it seems logical to assume Cleveland would want him going every fifth day in the Minors to remain at the ready. That would also allow Francona to stick by one of the many relief candidates hanging around in the mix for the one or two jobs available in the ‘pen.

Scenario 3: Harang gets the final spot and Carrasco goes to the bullpen. This is an interesting option, because it would maintain the most depth. Tomlin goes to Triple-A and keeps Bauer’s timetable intact in terms of continuing his development and avoiding rushing him before Cleveland might think he’s ready. This also gives the Indians a way to limit Tomlin’s innings early in the season given that he’s coming back from Tommy John. It would also allow Carrasco to perhaps regain the kind of aggressive mentality he displayed as a reliever last year (“You can’t ignore that,” Callaway said Tuesday). This also keeps Harang’s veteran presence in the clubhouse, and buys some time for any rotation issues that might develop. And, hey, if Harang’s strong spring doesn’t translate into a strong season showing, you’ve got Tomlin waiting in the wings, or Carrasco possibly available to slide back to the rotation.

As of Tuesday, I was thinking more along the lines of Scenarios 1 or 2. After Wednesday’s outing by Carrasco, Scenario 3 now looks more intriguing. If we’re going strictly on performance, and ignoring the contractual elements, Tomlin would certainly appear to be the front-runner. There are probably some readers who would be fine with Carrasco being outrighted. I believe another team would grab him off waivers. His stuff is good, and there are needs around the league.

The rotation battle already looked like a tough call. It just got a little more interesting.

THIRD: Oh, hey, Salazar. Remember him? He pitched, too! The hard-throwing righty actually got the start and was supposed to log four innings. Things went a little awry early on, so Cleveland pulled Salazar after 3 2/3 innings to keep him on his pitch count. The righty didn’t give up any runs and ended with three strikeouts and two walks.

“I just think he’s still working to try to drive the ball down,” Francona said. “He had some good life on his fastball. He’s just still leaving a lot of fastballs up. I think with repetition and getting his legs under him, he’ll start driving his fastball down better.”

Salazar essentially said as much after his outing. He said he felt like he could’ve thrown harder, or put more on his pitches, but decided to hold back a little since it’s still Spring Training. Salazar said he was trying to work on getting his fastball down in the strike zone more consistently and focusing on his slider against lefties.

“I got behind in the count a couple times,” Salazar said. “I think that’s why they took me out, because I threw too many pitches [in the first inning]. My fastball, I tried to work down. In the bullpen, I threw really good. Out there, I was a little wild.”

Physically, Salazar said he feels ready for the season. And possibly being the fifth starter? That’s fine with him.

“If you’re there, first or second or even fifth, that means you’re good,” Salazar said. “You’re good enough to be there.”

HOME: This was the first game of the spring that featured Chisenhall at third base and Carlos Santana behind the plate. It was actually Santana’s first game as Cleveland’s catcher this preseason. If they both make the Opening Day roster (meaning, if Chisenhall isn’t sent to Triple-A), you’d probably see that alignment mostly against right-handed pitchers. Santana would presumably be a sound option against tough lefties (Chisenhall’s weakness to this point in the big leagues).

That said, Yan Gomes’ off-days from catching and the days Cleveland faces a lefty surely will not always align consistently throughout the season. That makes the third-base playing-time situation an interesting one, and it’s probably one reason why Francona is quick to admit that he’s still not sure how this is going to go. One thing he does know is that Santana doesn’t want to be the designated hitter on a regular basis.

“I think he’d much rather play a position,” Francona said prior to Wednesday’s game. “I think he’s enjoying the heck out of playing third. The part about going behind the plate it to try to help our team more. Honestly, I think if he had his choice, he’d play third base every day, but he understands that we’re trying to put the best team out there and he’s willing to try to do this.”

Chisenhall (11 games) made two errors in the field on Wednesday, pulling him into a tie with Santana (11 games) in Spring Training blunders. I will say this, Santana has looked increasingly comfortable at the hot corner since the first handful of games he played at the position.

————————————-

Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links:

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 17

Kluber2Final: Reds 5, Indians 4

FIRST: There are setbacks that are easier to accept in Spring Training than during the regular season. Monday’s second-inning showing by Indians righty Corey Kluber is a fine example.

Cincinnati rocked Kluber for three runs on five hits and loaded the bases before the starter escaped with a strikeout to Joey Votto. In the regular season, Tribe manager Terry Francona may have been more tempted to turn to his bullpen early. To a point, it’s easier to let a pitcher work through things in the spring.

Francona stuck with Kluber, who got out of second, breezed through the third and fourth, and pitched into the fifth.

“The second inning, he gave up some hits and some balls were hit pretty hard,” Francona said. “But he came back in the third and fourth and, in the third inning, he threw six pitches, all strikes. Fourth inning, seven pitches, all strikes. And got them out. I thought that was really impressive. In a Spring Training game, you can kind of hang your hat on that.

“It was a long second inning, and you’re almost getting to the point where you almost take him out, and then he ends up getting deep enough where it ends up being a really productive outing.”

Overall, Kluber said he was pleased with how his pitches were working.

“I felt really good,” Kluber said. “I felt like for the most part my stuff was right where I needed it to be. There was a decent amount of soft contact, broken bats and things like that. In that second inning, I left a few balls up and there was also some fly balls that got caught in the wind. That’s bound to happen.”

Was Kluber working on any specific pitch or approach in this outing?

“No. I’m just trying to go out there and get ready at this point,” Kluber said. “I think now is kind of the time to start trying to lock in and get ready to go — for me, at least. I’m at the point now where I feel my stuff is where I need it to be. So it’s just a matter of going out there and getting to a point where you can consistently execute all your pitches.”

In all, Kluber was charged with three runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, in which he struck out five and walked two. Those two walks are his only free passes of the spring in 14 1/3 innings. Kluber has 15 strikeouts. The ERA (5.02) leaves something to be desired, but the last thing anyone with Cleveland is doing is basing evaluations on Cactus League stats. Stuff-wise, Francona has been impressed with Kluber, who will open as the team’s No. 2 starter.

“I think he looks really good, I really do,” Francona said. “He’s got such late action on all his pitches, and he’s aggressive. Again, I think the more he pitches, the more people are going to realize how good this kid is.”

SECOND: Francona has been conservative to this point when it comes to the instant-replay challenges he’s had the chance to use in a select number of games this spring. Monday’s game marked another chance for a review, and it was the Reds who used that ability this afternoon.

In the fifth inning, Brandon Phillips was called out on a stolen-base attempt of third. The throw beat him to the bag, but Phillips appeared to get his hand on the base ahead of Lonnie Chisenhall’s tag. Reds manager Bryan Price saw it that way, so he challenged the ruling by umpire Alan Porter.

Cincinnati asked the play to b reviewed and, following a one-minute delay, the call was overturned.

“I didn’t think it was bad,” Francona said of the timing. “I think everybody seems to be working together to get the play right.”

Kluber said the replay review timing was OK from his perspective as well.

“I thought it worked fine,” Kluber said. “I don’t exactly know what their protocols are and stuff, but it didn’t seem to me like it took too long. It seemed like a pretty speedy process and didn’t really interupt the flow of the game too much. I thought it was fine.”

THIRD: In the fourth inning, Indians first baseman Nick Swisher yanked the first pitch from Cincy’s Mike Leake down the right-field line for a solo home run. It marked the second day in a row that Swisher went yard for the Tribe. Over his past four games, Swisher has gone 4-for-11 at the plate, following a 2-for-16 showing earlier this spring. With two weeks until the season opener, Cleveland can only hope that Swisher is getting his bat revved up.

“We kind of said it a couple weeks ago,” Francona said, “as guys start playing back to back games, and they string some at-bats together, you’ll start to see them get their timing. That’s kind of the normal course of Spring Training.”

HOME: During Cincinnati’s hectic second inning — the Reds’ offensive outburst included two doubles, one triple and a hit-by-pitch, among other things — infield umpire Brad Myers was the unfortunate recipient of a line drive off the bat of Phillips. Myers fell to the ground in obvious pain and, well, let’s just say he was carted off the field in a three-ball count.

Did Kluber see where Myers got hit?

“I heard him say where he got hit. I didn’t see it,” Kluber said with a smirk. “I’ll leave that to your imagination.”

Myers was replaced in the field by umpire John Trumpane (he had been in the replay truck), who was later drilled in the rump by a throw from Indians Minor League first baseman Joe Sever. Not a great day for Team Blue.

Francona said he had never seen an umpire get drilled in the field like Myers did on Wednesday.

“Never. Never,” Francona said. “Man, I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’d even watch a game without wearing a cup. That’s dangerous, man. He got smoked.”

———————————–

Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 9

TomlinFinal: Indians 4, Brewers 2

FIRST: If former Indians manager Manny Acta would’ve seen Josh Tomlin’s performance on Sunday afternoon, we all know what he would have said to reporters:

“I couldn’t be any prouder of my little cowboy.”

Acta famously (at least for us scribes) uttered that quote on April 20, 2012. Tomlin isn’t a big fan of the nickname (“Why couldn’t he have just said ‘cowboy?’” he once asked), but hey, what the right-hander has accomplished is something to take pride in.

It’s certainly not lost on the pitcher.

“I feel pretty blessed to be in this situation right now, competing for that spot,” Tomlin said on Sunday. “The main thing I take out of these outings right now is how I feel the next day and how I feel in the outing. So far, so good.”

Feeling good is such a positive for Tomlin, because he missed most of last season while coming back from Tommy John surgery. That operation is becoming fairly standard, but missing a year can set a pitcher back not just in terms of healthy, but positioning on a staff. Once a lock in the rotation, Tomlin is now fighting for the only job available.

In his latest effort, Tomlin spun four shutout innings and ended with five strikeouts and one walk — a first-inning free pass to Jonathan Lucroy that snapped Cleveland’s 20-inning streak with no walks.

“I’ve got to cut down on those,” quipped Tomlin, who had zero walks in 29 1/3 innings between the Majors and Minors last year.

Tomlin — up against Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Harang and Trevor Bauer — for the lone vacancy in the rotation — said he was pleased with his curveball. He was able to throw it for a strike and use it as a swing-and-miss pitch. After the outing, Indians manager Terry Francona sounded nearly as proud of Tomlin as Acta was two years ago.

“I thought he pitched as advertised and how he needs to pitch,” Francona said. “He threw strikes. He kept the ball down. He holds runners. He, basically, doesn’t beat himself. I think the more he gets removed from Tommy John, the more you see him feeling good about himself and attacking the zone. His future is really bright.”

On the spring, Tomlin has allowed two runs on eight hits with nine strikeouts and two walks in nine innings.

SECOND: Say what you will about the fact that it’s only Spring Training, but the Indians have been extremely sharp on the mound to this point. Toss aside the fact that Cleveland is 9-1-1 (with no losses in 10 games), because wins and losses don’t matter. What does matter is getting ahead, showing strong command and putting batters away. The Indians have done that consistently so far this spring.

With Sunday’s win, Cleveland improved its Spring Training-leading ERA to 2.70. The Indians have a 1.08 WHIP and an opponents’ slash line of .209/.268/.327. The team’s strikeout-to-walk ration currently sits at 3.33 (100-to-30).

Francona, pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash preach strike one, and throwing strikes in even-count situations. That’s why there are leaderboards just inside the clubhouse doors for first-pitch strikes and 1-1 strikes for Cleveland pitchers during Cactus League play. It’s a way to motivate and stress importance at the same time.

“You know what? We were actually talking in the dugout,” Francona said. “Normally in the spring, you let guys pitch out of innings just because they need their work. Guys have come in and thrown strikes. They really haven’t had a big inning. Saying that, it’ll happen tomorrow. You know it. But, staff wide, they’ve done a really good job of working ahead and all the things you’re looking for.”

THIRD: The Indians have reached the point in camp when the it’s time to not only build up the pitchers, but give the regular hitters more and more at-bats. On Sunday, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder David Murphy appeared in their second straight game. Murphy went 0-for-4 as the DH and Cabrera went 2-for-2 with one walk. More and more everyday guys will get consecutive games in soon.

Francona gave Cabrera a day in the leadoff spot to get him his at-bats as quickly as possible.

“That was just to get him at-bats,” explained the manager. “He was playing back to back and I wanted t get him that third at-bat without having him stand out there. I think playing two days in a row, same with Murph, was good for both of them. You’ll see that with select guys in the next week or so. They’ll play back to back games.

HOME: That’s where I will be going Monday morning. I’m flying back to Cleveland to spend time with Mrs. MLB and my two kiddos for the next week. The Tribe beat will go on, with MLB.com’s Doug Miller and Joey Nowak pinch-hitting for me over the next seven days. Indians.com will be in good hands, especially because Miller is a big Pearl Jam fan and Nowak is a fellow Spartan. Those qualities are essential for my replacements. Keep checking Indians.com and give those two a follow on Twitter for Tribe coverage while I’m away. Apologies in advance for the blog being dormant in my absence.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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