May 2012

Antonetti: “We still have our work cut out for us.”

With roughly a quarter of the regular season in the books and the Tribe sitting atop the American League Central, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti took a seat in the home dugout on Saturday afternoon for a wide-ranging discussion with reporters about his ballclub. Here is the full transciption of the interview. 

Q: Things haven’t necessarily gone as planned, but the team is still in first place. You have to feel pretty good about this overall.

Antonetti: I think we’re pleased with where we stand right now. Obviously, it’s good to get off to a good start and be in first place at this point in the year, but we know it’s a long season and we still have our work cut out for us. I think the thing we’re collectively most encouraged by is we feel we have the opportunity to play better in all facets of our game. We think we can be more consistent on the mound, in the batter’s box and also defensively. We’ve played reasonably well so far, but we think we have an opportunity to continue to play better.

Q: The last few games, Damon has been drawing a lot more walks. It seems like he’s seeing the ball a little better. How encouraged have you been by some of those steps forward for him?

Antonetti: Well, it’s been a process for Johnny to get re-acclimated to Major League pitching. I think we’ve seen over the last week or so the quality of his at-bats continue to improve. His command of the strike zone has continued to improve. His swing mechanics are getting better and he’s looking more comfortable in the batter’s box. So I think we’ll begin to see some results more consistent with how Johnny has performed in the past.

Q: Now that he’s further in his rehab, where do you look at Grady? I know there’s no timetable for him, but at least he’s making progress.

Antonetti: We continue to be encouraged by the strides Grady has made. He hasn’t had any setbacks in his recovery. He’s initiated baseball activities now. He was on the field taking batating practice the other day and he’s been running around a little bit. We’re encouraged by the progress he’s made. Now, hopefully he can continue to ramp up his activities, get into some Minor League games and not have any setbacks along the way, because as we’ve said all along, when Grady is healthy and on the field, he’s got a chance to really impact our team.

Q: Do you have a No. 1 concern at this point?

Antonetti: I think just consistency. I think we’ve seen each area of our team demonstrate its ability and ability to contribute, but we’ve had some inconsistencies in each area. I think for us to be the team that we want to be, we’re not able to rely on any one area to carry us. We ned to get consistent contributions from all facets of our team.

Q: Are you a fan of Interleague Play?

Antonetti: I am. I think to some degree it gives you an opportunity to see teams that you normally don’t see to mix things up a little bit. I’m a much bigger fan of Interleague Play when we get to play in American League ballparks than National League ballparks, but yeah, generally. It’s not perfect — I’m not sure there is a perfect solution — but in general I like it.

Q: Everyone knew going into this season that your lineup was a left-handed heavy lineup. You said at one point you didn’t think that was a big deal, as long as you were winning games. Have you changed your opinion at all based on how the season has gone?

Antonetti: Not really. I think our focus is trying to win as many games as we can, score a lot more runs than our opponents. However we have to go about doing that, we’ll do it. I think we’ve at times seen the benefit of having a lineup that’s predominantly left-handed, giving us a platoon advantage against a lot of right-handed pitching. To the extent that continues, and we  continue to put up runs against right-handed and left-handed pitching, then we’re OK with it. Now, if there are opportunities to improve the club, we’ll certainly be flexibile and creative at how we do that. I think we’ve demonstrated that we won’t be preoccupied with the handedness of the batter that we acquire.

Q: How encouraged have you been by what Matt LaPorta has done at Triple-A?

Antonetti: Matt’s made a lot of strides offensively and defensively. I think he’s gone down there with a great attitude and a great approach. He’s worked very hard with the Columbus staff and our Minor League coordinators to continue to improve as a player. I think we’re starting to see more consistency with his approach at the plate and with his at-bats and that’s translated into his performance down there.

Q: Is he any closer to a call-up? Are you guys considering it?

Antonetti: There are two things that go into that. Obviously, how Matt’s doing — his progress. Not only in just his performance, but the process in getting there. And then, the opportunity. Both of those things need to come together for us to make a move. Again, we’re encouraged by the progress he’s made and hopefully he can continue that so if and when we have a need, he’s ready.

Q: What have you thought of Kotchman to this point? He’s been hitting better of late, but what have your thoughts been on him overall?

Antonetti: Well, he’s been really consistent defensively. Obviously, he’s made a huge impact on our infield not only with our defense at first base, but our defense around the diamond, because of his ability to pick balls in the dirt and save runs around the bag. That’s been consistent from Day 1. Obviously, he got off to a tough start offensively the first fw weeks of the season. But, if you look at how he’s performed for the better part of the last month, it’s bene consistent with how he’s performed last year and at different points in his career. Much like Johnny, the quality of his at-bats have improved recently and we’ve been encouraged by how he’s been able to contribute both offensively and defensively, especially as of late.

Q: You always say you’re willing to make the team better or look to make the team better. This might be a better question or 30 days from now, but is there a time that the trade market starts to open up? Are you always looking at different options and taking calls?

Antonetti: You’re always looking to improve the team. I think there are natural junctures during the course of the year where the intensity of those calls pick up. Typically, after the amatuer draft is when the intensity of a lot of the trade calls ramp up, because teams at that point have had an opportunity to assess what they have, assess what their needs might be, assess the competitiveness of their team and try to look externally to find a potential match. So that’s when the volume of calls typically picks up. But we had a few calls last week on trade discussions, so you just never know.

Q: Do you think the presence of an extra Wild Card will make the Trade Deadline different this year?

Antonetti: I do think it has the potential to make the Trade Deadline a little bit different. I think you have the opportunity, obviously, with another Wild Card team to have more teams in the mix. There’s also the added component of the new CBA, with new compensation for free agents and there’s some effect on the value of the players that are traded in the last years of their deals. So it’ll be an interesting trade environment and we’ll have an opportunity to see how it all plays out in the next couple of weeks.

Q: Do you look at LaPorta as a first baseman or a left fielder?

Antonetti: Either. Matt’s been playing both left field and first base in Columbus and we think he’s got the chance to contribute at either position, depending upon where we have a need.

Q: What’s Lonnie Chisenhall’s status?

Antonetti: He actually should be playing this weekend. He strained his calf and it took him a little while to get back. He progressed through baseball activities. He took ground balls and BP yesterday and should be in the lineup either today or tomorrow.

Q: What’s been going on with Scott Barnes? He made a couple starts and then moved into the Triple-A bullpen. Is that a role change, or did it have something to do with his knee injury last year?

Antonetti: For right now, I think Scott will get the bulk of his opportunities in the bullpen, at least for the near term. We feel Scott’s got a great opportunity to potentially contribute to our Major League team. We’ve seen his ability as a starter. He’s a guy that has not had any opportunities to date to really pitch out of the bullpen in professional baseball for any extended period of time, so we wanted to at least acclimate him to that role in the event that we had a Major League need in the ‘pen he could be an alternative for us.

Q: Does that mean you’re viewing it as a faster way for him to reach the big leagues?

Antonetti: Potentially. [It could speed] the timeframe for him to contribute at the Major League level, but also the versatility. We wouldn’t have been comfortable promoting him to our Major League bullpen without him having some experience in the bullpen in the Minor Leagues.

Q: With Damon and Grady, that whole situation, has the thought process of the team changed at all about when Grady comes back, Damon will be coming or going? Or, are you just going to wait and see how everything plays out?

Antonetti: Nothing’s really changed. We have to get to that juncture and time first. If we have everybody healthy, we can assess what moves we’ll make at that point and how all the pieces fit together.

Q: You added Derek Lowe and you knew he had a lot of intangibles. You obviously also thought he could still pitch, but he’s pretty much become your ace. You couldn’t have expected something like that.

Antonetti: Derek has really done everything we could’ve potentially asked for, not only with his contributions when he’s on the mound. He’s given us an opportunity to win every game he’s started, really. He competes exceptionally well. He manages games well. When he’s had runners on base, he’s been able to execute pitches to get out of it. So he’s performed exceptionally well when he’s bene on the field. But he’s also been a great influence in our clubhouse. We heard he was a great teammate and a great competitor. He’s certainly reinforced that belief since he’s gotten here and probably been even better than we could’ve thought. He’s got a lot of energy He’s impacted our other starters with his professionalism. He’s constantly talking about the game, and I think that’s helped some of our other young pitchers.

Q: What do you see from Ubaldo right now compared to when he came over in the trade?

Antonetti: Ubaldo continues to be inconsistent. I think the results have been inconsistent. His work, his preparation, his commitment hasn’t wavered. He’s worked tirelessly with Scott Radinsky to solidify his delivery mechanics to allow him to be more consistent. It just hasn’t clicked continuously every five days. And so there have been times where, within each outing, there have been encouraging elements, and he’s made progress over the last handful of starts. But, for us to be the team that we want to be, we do need Ubaldo to be more consistent. I’m optimistic with his work that he’s put in with Scott Radinsky, and the way the two of them continue to approach things, that he’ll continue to improve and we’ll continue to see more consistency from him.

Q: What was your reaction to Ubaldo working on his mechanics?

Antonetti: That was an ongoing dialogue with Ubaldo, collectively.

Q: When you think of Ubaldo, what do you think of ideally? What do you want to see?

Antonetti: I think he’s demonstrated that when he works ahead in the count and attacks hitters aggressively and throws strikes, he’s got the weapons and the ability to pitch very effectively at the Major League level. I think his challenge has come when he has a difficult time locating his pitches and he falls behind in the count. That inevitably leads to hitter-advantage counts, which puts hitters at an advantage to have extra-base hits, or it potentially leads to walks. But the outings when he’s worked ahead he’s had success.

Q: Any news with Roberto Hernandez?

Antonetti: We continue to be in touch with his representatives, but there’s no real news to report. It’s still in the hands of the State Department.

Q: He’s still working out?

Antonetti: He’s working out at our complex in the Dominican. He threw a simulated game there this past week.

Q: Has that process gone on longer than maybe you expected?

Antonetti: Not really. We didn’t really have any expectations. We understood the complexities of the process from the very beginning. Really, as I’ve communicated to you guys, we didn’t really have any sort of expectations on a timeframe. So to say it’s either exceeded or been beyond, I’m not sure that’s very fair.

Q: When he throws a simulated game, is that nine innings?

Antonetti: At this point, we’re monitoring his volume. It’s more along the lines of 60-65 pitches. I think he’s gone as high as 75, maybe. That’s been around the range he has typically worked.

—————————-

Note: No “Covering the Bases” tonight or Sunday. Back at it again on Tuesday for the start of the series against the Tigers.

 –JB

Covering the Bases: Game 39

Final:

Marlins 3, Indians 2

FIRST: Every loss is tough for a team, but there are definitely ways of losing that are harder to swallow than others. Take Friday night for example. The decisive turn came in the eighth inning and the go-ahead run scored courtesy of a leadoff walk, a throwing error and a sacrifice fly. Ouch.

The throwing error came from sidearmer Joe Smith, who is typically one of the Tribe’s better fielding pitchers. The situation was this: Bryan Petersen on second base, one out and Omar Infante at the plate. Infante chopped a 90-mph sinker back to Smith, who had two choices.

Smith could’ve checked the runner and taken the sure out at first base, or he could’ve tried to catch Petersen off guard at second base. When Smith spun to take a glance at Petersen, he felt the runner was a little too far off the bag. Instead of throwing the ball immediately, Smith headed off the hill anticipating a rundown.

Petersen bolted back to second, though, and Smith hesitated to make the throw. That led to a throwing error and allowed Petersen to run to third base. The next hitter, Hanley Ramirez, used a sac fly to put the Indians in a 3-2 hole.

Asked if, in hindsight, he should’ve taken the sure out, here’s what Smith said: “In hindsight, if anything, I’m catching it and getting rid of it. But I thought it was the right play. Even going back and looking at video, he was easily far enough [off second]. If I just plant and make a throw, we’ve got him. No doubt.”

SECOND: When a game comes down to a play like that, there are typically other factors involved. As in, had the Indians mounted much in the way of offense, maybe Smith never faces that situation, or maybe his error doesn’t prove so costly. As it happened, Cleveland scored twice in the second inning and did nada the rest of the way. The Tribe had one hit in its final 26 plate appearances. The middle of the lineup (Nos. 3-6) went a combined 0-for-16. That doesn’t make things easy for the pitching staff. The need to be nearly flawless to make up for that. Flawless, they weren’t.

THIRD: Sinkerballer Justin Masterson gave the Indians a solid effort: two runs allowed on six hits in seven innings of work. Big Masty struck out five and walked three, throwing 111 pitches (65 strikes). It was a solid bounceback effort after he allowed six runs in six innings last time out against Boston. Alas, Masterson walked away with a no-decision. It definitely looked like a step in the right direction for the big right-hander, though.

HOME: Masterson kept the Indians within striking distance, but Carlos Santana certainly did his part as well. Santana threw out Infante, Emilio Bonifacio and Petersen at second on would-be stolen bases in the ballgame. Bonifacio was a perfect 20-for-20 on stolen bases on the year coming into the game. The Marlins hadn’t been caught stealing three times in one game since Aug. 25, 2006. On the year, Santana has thrown out 8-of-25 (32%) of would-be base stealers.

On deck:

Marlins (21-18) at Indians (22-17)
at 4:05 p.m. ET on Saturday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 38

Final:

Indians 6, Mariners 5 (11 innings)

FIRST: I am aware that Brandon League saved 37 games last year and made the American League All-Star team along the way. I’ve even heard lots of people rave about the right-handed sinkerballer as one of the top closers in the game. The thing is… I haven’t seen that guy.

When I covered League in Toronto from 2005-09, he was that reliever that the organization always pumped as a future closer, but never trusted him with that role. During the course of his Blue Jays career, he had a 4.09 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP.

Since I’ve moved to the Indians beat, I’ve seen League in the closer role for the Mariners, but I’ve only seen rough outing after rough outing. League has four blown saves in the past two seasons against the Tribe and seven blown saves in nine career chances against Cleveland.

So, again, I keep hearing that he’s good. Haven’t seen it. Hey, Brandon. Maybe it’s not you. It’s me. And, for what it’s worth, the Indians seem to be licking their chops when they have a chance to take him on these days.

“I think it’s probably in his mind, too,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “We know that we’ve done it off him before and I think we know we can do it again. Doing it off him before means guys have seen him and guys have had success against him. I think people are pretty confident when they go up to the plate against him.”

League’s 11th inning on Thursday went: walk (Jose Lopez), strikeout (Shin-Soo Choo), walk (Kipnis), RBI single (Asdrubal Cabrera), walk (Aaron Cunningham) and walk-off single (Carlos Santana). That’s how a game can swing from 5-4 Seattle to 6-5 Cleveland in a few minutes.

SECOND: Why was Cunningham included in that sequence? DH Travis Hafner was hit on the right hand by a pitch from Charlie Furbush in the ninth inning and later exited when he had trouble gripping a bat due to swelling. Hafner did not undergo an X-ray and both he and manager Manny Acta were confident that the DH might be recovered enough to play on Friday.

Worth noting: with that hit-by-pitch, Hafner set the Indians franchise record by being hit 80 times over the course of a career. The previous mark of 79 by Nap Lajoie stood for 98 years. Asked what kind of reward he gets for setting that record, Hafner quipped: “A bucket of ice, I think.”

THIRD: Santana’s walk-off single will steal the ledes, headlines and photos, but it was the work of Cabrera and Lopez that really fueled the offense in this one.

Cabrera delivered RBI singles in both the seventh (off reliever Lucas Luetge) and 11th (off League) innings for the Tribe. His seventh-inning single  snapped Cleveland out of the early nap it took against Mariners righty Hector Noesi (6.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R)

“That got us going,” Acta said. “I think the energy level kind of rose up there.”

Down 4-1 in the eighth inning, and with two runners on base, Lopez crushed a 2-0 pitch from Steve Delabar to left field, where it barely cleared the 19-foot wall. Lopez was not sure if it was a home run at first, so much so that he missed first base while on the run.

“I knew for sure it was a double,” Lopez said. “I didn’t hit it very good, but I was sure it was a double. I knew we’d get two runs. I didn’t know how far it would go. It was close. I didn’t even touch first base, because I was looking at the ball.”

No harm done.

HOME: Today’s tip o’ the cap goes to right-hander Zch McAllister, who fought his way through 5 2/3 innings for the Indians. E-Z Mac was uncharacteristically off his game — he walked five after entering the day with one walk in 13 innings — but did all he could to limit the damage. The result was four runs (three earned) allowed on three hits. McAllister labored with his control, but still kept the Indians within striking distance.

“Tat makes a big difference for me,” McAllister said, “knowing I can kind of battle through some games where I’m not throwing my best and do my best to keep the team in the game. I was able to do that today and they came back huge and got a big win.”

The passed ball that led to a run in the fifth? Santana called for a curve and McAllister sent him a fastball. No worries. The two got together between innings to go over where their signals got mixed up.

On deck:

Marlins (20-17)* at Indians (22-16)
at 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday at Progressive Field

*Doesn’t include Thursday’s result

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 37

Final:

Indians 9, Mariners 3

FIRST: I know, you want to talk about how Felix Hernandez just didn’t have it going for him tonight. Well, maybe, that’s because the Indians’ hitters did have it going for them tonight. King Felix was dethroned for a day (couldn’t resist), as the Tribe banged out eight runs (six earned) and chased him from the game after 3 2/3 innings.

“I think the key is just to get good pitches to hit,” Indians DH Travis Hafner said of the team’s approach against Hernandez. “We were able to, for the most the part, lay off his offspeed stuff that starts in the zone and breaks down. I think we were able to get good pitches.”

Hernandez essentially offered up the same explanation.

“They came out with a good approach,” he said. “[They were] swinging early, but not swinging at my breaking ball. Everything was flat today, my location was not that good, and they got me pretty good.”

The Indians scored four runs in each of the first and fourth innings and managed at least two baserunners in each of the four frames Hernandez pitched. On April 19, King Felix blanked them over eight innings with 12 strikeouts. For his career, he had a 2.49 ERA against the Indians going into the night.

For one night at least, the Indians finally had his number.

SECOND: The outpouring of offense overshadowed a solid bounceback showing from Ubaldo Jimenez. The right-hander threw six innings, giving up three runs on five hits with four strikeouts and two walks. He logged 69 strikes in 107 pitches. Jimenez didn’t blow hitters away, but he cut down the traffic and pounded the strike zone better.

Indians manager Manny Acta said it was the best he’s seen The Big U pitch this season and Jimenez did not argue that assessment. What Cleveland needs now is a bit more consistency from the big right-hander.

Check out his last four starts:

May 16 vs. SEA: 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 107 (69)
May 11 at BOS: 4.1 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 5 BB, 4 K, 0 HR, 99 (58)
May 6 vs. TEX: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 6 K, 0 HR, 108 (62)
May 1 at CWS: 4.2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 1 K, 2 HR, 105 (54)

“We’re moving in a good way,” Jimenez said. “Tonight it showed. I was able to throw a lot of strikes. Now I have to try to be consistent with it.”

THIRD: The two unearned runs on Felix’s line came courtesy of a pair of throwing errors (one by catcher Jesus Montero and another by left fielder Chone Figgins) in the first inning. With two outs, Carlos Santana on first and Asdrubal Cabrera on third, and two strikes on Johnny Damon at the plate, Santana attempted a delayed steal.

Montero pump faked to second before throwing to third base with the hope of catching Cabrera sleeping. The ball sailed into left and Cabrera scored on the play. Figgins’ throw to the plate bounced away and Santana, chugging along the entire time, made it all the way around and slid into home ahead of a tag to score as well.

“It’s a play we took a shot on: delayed steal, two outs, two strikes,” Acta said. “It worked for us, but Carlos, he deserves a lot of credit because he never slowed down. That was a pretty big run. Errors or no errors, when you’re able to put up a four-spot against Felix Hernandez in the first inning, you feel like you have a chance.”

HOME: Hafner has been one of the Indians most consistent offensive performers early on this season… except with runners in scoring position. When he roped an RBI double into right field with two on in the fourth, it snapped an 0-for-25 dry spell with RISP for Pronk.

“Somebody told me about it two days ago,” Hafner said of the slump. “I was pretty surprised when I heard it. Overall, I feel like I’ve been swinging the bat really well. It was good to get a hit there and break that up, but overall I feel good. I feel like I’ve been swinging the bat well.”

On deck:

Mariners (16-23) at Indians (21-16)
at 12:05 p.m. ET on Thursday at Progressive Field
–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 34

Final:

Red Sox 12, Indians 1

FIRST: It’s tough to put too much of this one on sinkerballer Justin Masterson. Yes, he was inconsistent again (six runs yielded in six innings with three hit batsmen and one walk) and the four-spot he surrendered in the first inning put the Tribe in an early hole. That hole increased to five runs by the seventh inning. The problem right now is that a four- or five-run hole seems like the Grand Canyon for Cleveland’s offense.

And it’s not just me saying that.

“The way we were swinging the bat since two or three days ago,” manager Manny Acta said, “five runs were a big hole to climb out of.”

The Indians looked to be in a good spot on Thursday, when they claimed an 8-3 win over Josh Beckett and Boston. Since scoring seven runs and hitting .467 in the first three innings of that game, however, the Tribe scored just eight runs and hit .223 over the final 33 innings of this four-game series.

Cleveland has lost five of six and three games in a row for the first time this season. That said, the Indians are still in first place in the American League Central. Detroit isn’t going to remain in hibernation all summer, though.

SECOND: Acta said one unfortunate trend of late is having one or two hitters on a hot streak while others slump. Lately, it has been Michael Brantley who has been swinging a hot bat for Cleveland. He went 3-for-4 on Sunday and is now hitting .321 (25-for-78) over his past 19 games after hitting .196 (11-for-56) in his first 13 games this season. With Johnny Damon still struggling (0-for-3 Sunday and now hitting .159), it seems like a good time to consider moving Brantley back into the No. 1 spot.

THIRD: Signing Dan Wheeler made sense on the surface over the offseason, but the veteran right-hander has officially pitched his way of the ballclub. On Sunday, Wheeler gave up five runs on six hits in the seventh inning, allowing a 6-1 deficit to bleed out into a 12-1 laugher. The Indians designated Wheeler for assignment after the game.

Wheeler wasn’t terrible in April, when he posted a 3.68 ERA in eight games. In May, though, he posted a 16.20 ERA (nine earned runs in five innings) across four appearances. On the year, the righty had seven walks compared to two strikeouts. His ERA jumped to 8.76 from 4.76 on Sunday.

Cleveland hasn’t announced who will take Wheeler’s place in the bullpen. It seems like a safe bet that it would come from one of Jeremy Accardo, Hector Ambriz, Frank Herrmann or Chris Ray, who are all with Triple-A Columbus. Among the four, Herrmann has the best K/BB ratio, Ray has the best ERA, Accardo the best WHIP and Ambriz the most strikeouts.

HOME: Let’s end on a warm note, shall we? Prior to the top of the third inning, the Red Sox showed highlights of Johnny Damon’s contributions to Boston’s run to the 2004 World Series. After the highlight package wrapped up, the home team put the camera on Damon, who stepped out of the dugout, lifted his helmet and waved to a crowd that was offering him cheers and standing ovation.

That was a special moment for Damon.

“It’s the first time since I’ve been back that they’ve given me recognition for what I did with the Red Sox,” Damon said. “It’s the first highlights that I’ve seen of me doing something good. It was definitely very special. Obviously, I would like to thank the Red Sox for putting it up and I’d like to thank the fans who did applaud me, the fans that really appreciate how I go about my business and play baseball.”

Damon agreed that Boston’s gesture might have had something to do with the fact that he no longer plays on a rival team in the American League East. Damon left the Red Sox after the 2005 season as a free agent, signing with the Yankees. He played for the Rays last year.

“I knew there were hard feelings on both sides for a while,” Damon said. “It seems like everything is getting back to normal. I really wanted to come back here when I became a free agent. They failed to sign me. Unfortunately, the only other option was New York, but I’m still happy I had that experience, because I think I know better than anybody now how both sides are. I’m just very appreciative that I’ve been able to play for both sides and also to be able to be playing on my seventh team right now.”

It only took seven seasons for the Red Sox to acknowledge his contributions.

“Lucky seven, I guess,” Damon said with a smile.

On deck:

Indians (18-16) at Twins (10-24)
at 8:10 p.m. ET on Monday at Target Field

NOTE: I will not be traveling to Minnesota. I’ll be back on Indians coverage for the upcoming homestand. Keep checking Indians.com for the latest on the club.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 33

Final:

Red Sox 4, Indians 1

FIRST: In this election season, nobody leans left more than Cleveland. Of course, I’m not actually talking politics here. The Cleveland Indians are the ones heavy on the lefties. We knew going into this season that the Tribe would feature a lot of left-handed hitters and we knew the risks associated with that approach.

“That’s a chance we’re taking,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “We’re going to see more righties than lefties and not every time out are you going to face a lefty that’s going to be able to dominate them. We’ve seen that so far this year. But, there are going to be times when those guys are going to go out there and are going to neutralize these guys.”

Before Grady Sizemore got hurt, and after the Indians signed Casey Kotchman, the potential for an all-lefty lineup was realistic. Then, Sizemore got hurt. But, THEN, the Indians signed Johnny Damon. Now, we’ve witnessed Cleveland roll out starting nine with nine left-handed batters in the order six times so far.

Consider: during the entire 2012 season, there was only one occurrence of a team using an all-left-handed starting lineup. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the A’s did so on Aug. 20 in a 5-1 win over the Blue Jays. That’s once for all 30 teams over the course of the entire year. It’s May 12, and the Tribe has done so a half-dozen times.

Why am I bringing this up now? The Indians didn’t have an all-lefty order out there against the Red Sox on Saturday night. No, but they did face another lefty starter: Felix Doubront. And the lefty-laden Clevelanders were shut down once again. Then, for the 23rd time in 33 games, the opposition went with a lefty reliever as its first option out of the bullpen. This is why the Tribe leads baseball in at-bats (456) vs. southpaws. Teams are playing the percentages as much as possible.

The Tribe is now 4-8 on the season against left-handed starters with a .217 team average against lefties overall. There isn’t much to be done about it right now. Sizemore is expected to possibly be rejoining the team some time in June. Maybe in July, Cleveland can target a right-handed bat to help even things out a bit. One thing is clear: it was projected to be an issue and it has been one to this point.

SECOND: One trend we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks has been using switch-hitting Carlos Santana at first base instead of designated hitter on the days he does not catch. If you remember, Acta noted in spring that Santana would likely see more time at DH than 1B this season. DH Travis Hafner was going to be sitting some against lefty pitching. Well, Acta is the boss and he reserves the right to change his mind.

Given Hafner’s solid start this season, Acta decided it has been in the Indians’ best interest to keep him in the lineup on an everyday basis. The slump of first baseman Casey Kotchman certainly hasn’t helped things. That combination has led to Santana seeing four games at 1B (May 1, 5, 7, 12) and one at DH (April 19). Each of those games has come with a lefty on the mound.

THIRD: The offense’s struggled on Saturday really overshadowed what was a sound performance from right-hander Zach McAllister. Over seven innings, E.Z. Mac piled up a career-high eight strikeouts and ended with four runs allowed on eight hits and no walks. McAllister logged 112 pitches and his fastball actually gained some velocity as the evening wore on.

“He’s a big strong kid,” Acta said. “He’s one of those kids I could see being durable — a 115-120 pitch-type of guy. He can handle that. He works extremely hard and he doesn’t lose any stamina as the game goes on. I’ve seen that in him.”

McAllister was called up from Triple-A before the game to fill the roster spot vacated by Josh Tomlin, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a right wrist injury. The timetable for Tomlin is unclear, though he will be eligible to be activated on May 23. In the meantime, it’s McAllister’s spot. Acta said this is not a one-and-done outing for the big boy from Illinois.

HOME: Runs have been scarce against left-handed pitching this season, so it’s hard to fault Hafner for trying to stretch a single into a double in the second inning. He pulled a pitch from Doubront into right field with one out and the ball looked destined for the corner. Instead, it kicked off the wall that juts near the right-field line midway into the outfield and bounced back toward right fielder Cody Ross. Ross gloved the ball, spun and fired a laser to second base. It was a bang-bang play, but Hafner was ruled out.

“Good swing  and good effort, too,” Acta said. “I like to see him go for that. You’ve got to give credit to Cody. He made a good play. He turned around and threw a strike over to second base. We like when guys take chances and Hafner can do that. I thought it was a good play by him.”

On deck:

Indians (18-15) at Red Sox (14-19)
at 1:35 p.m. ET on Sunday at Fenway Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 32

Final:

Red Sox 7, Indians 5

FIRST: The Curious Case of Ubaldo Jimenez continued on Friday night at Fenway Park. One outing after turning in his best start of the season, the enigmatic right-hander turned in his worst showing of the 2012 season. The search for a happy medium persists.

On Friday, Jimenez was charged with seven runs on nine hits over 4 1/3 innings, in which he walked five, struck out four, threw one wild pitch and hit one batter. In his previous outing against the Rangers, Jimenez gave up no runs on two hits over seven innings, piling up six strikeouts against five walks.

On the season, Jimenez is 3-3 with a 5.17 ERA, 30 walks and 24 strikeouts in 40 innings. Since being acquired by the Indians, he has gone 7-7 with a 5.13 ERA, 86 strikeouts and 57 walks in 105 1/3 innings. Everyone keeps waiting for the real Ubaldo to show himself.

“I don’t know which guy is the one that you guys are waiting for,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “We just want him to be more consistent in the strike zone. I don’t think any of us is sitting here expecting 97-100 mph.

“We’re just working on his mechanics so he can repeat his delivery and be more consistent in the strike zone. He still has pretty good stuff and he can get people out.”

For what it’s worth, Jimenez said he continues to make strides with his mechanics, and he blames his mechanics for the slow start this season. When a pitcher is going through some adjustments, ups and downs are expected. Cleveland can’t  afford a long-term project, though, if it wants to be a legitimate contender.

SECOND: About the offense, Acta said: “I like the fight.” Of course, most of said fight came when the game was put out of reach by Jimenez’s poor performance. Still, the Tribe scratched and clawed and was one swing away from swinging the momentum. That one big hit proved elusive, though, especially early on against Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz. Cleveland ended the evening 4-for-15 with runners in scoring position, stranding 14 runners in the loss.

THIRD: It could just be coincidence, but center fielder Michael Brantley has sure looked better at the plate since dropping into the seventh spot of the lineup. He went 2-for-5 with a pair of RBIs in Friday’s loss, and is now hitting .297 (11-for-37) as a No. 7 hitter this year. Granted, there’s a chance that Brantley has just been heating up at the plate, regardless of his lineup position. If that’s what the Indians believe, it might not be the worst idea to try playing the hot hand, moving him back to the leadoff spot to take a little pressure off Johnny Damon, who is clearly struggling at the plate right now. Just a thought. Or, maybe you don’t want to move Brantley in case the production is related to his new lineup spot. It’s a good topic for debate anyways.

HOME: In the second inning, Jack Hannahan tried to score from second base on a two-out single to left from Jason Kipnis. Hannahan beat the throw from left fielder Daniel nava, but catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was blocking the plate well. Still, Hannahan did an admirable job of trying to kick up Salty’s foot while sliding into the plate. No dice, though. Hannahan was ruled out and the inning ended.

Third-base coach Steve Smith charged down the line and argued the play with home-plate ump Derryl Cousins. Truth be told, Smith was simply trying to take over the arguing for Hannahan, so the third baseman wasn’t tossed from the game. Well, Cousins had a quick hook and sent Smith to the showers. Acta (a former third-base coach for the Mets and Expos) took over the third-base coaching duties for the remainder of the game.

On deck:

Indians (18-14) at Red Sox (13-19)
at 7:10 p.m. ET on Saturday at Fenway Park

–JB

 

 

Covering the Bases: Game 31

Final:

Indians 8, Red Sox 3

FIRST: Derek Lowe continued his early-season renaissance against his former club, spinning six solid innings on Thursday at Fenway Park. Lowe gave up two runs on nine hits, ending with three strikeouts, one walk and 13 outs via grounders. His pitch count climbed to 107, forcing him out after six, but Lowe provided another quality start.

On the year, the 38-year-old Lowe is 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA.

Then there was Josh Beckett, making his first start for Boston since GolfGate. The righty was chased after 2.1 IP in light of giving up seven runs on seven hits, including home runs to Jack Hannahan and Jason Kipnis. Walking off the field, Beckett was booed loudly by the Fenway faithful.

Lowe was asked if it was the worst reaction he’s heard at Fenway. At that, the pitcher let out a chuckle.

“Until they have to stop the game,” he said with a smile, pausing before continuing with his tale. “I was telling a couple guys, I remember in ’01, I was closing. I blew a three-run game in like literally 30 seconds and it happened to be they gave out my posters that day. Well, they turned into airplanes really fast.

There was a 10-minute delay. They stopped the game. The whole nine yards. I sat in the clubhouse until 2 o’clock and I’d stick my head out to see if I could leave yet, and they would still be standing there saying, ‘ I see you in there!’ Yeah, so no, I’ve seen worse. It’s happened to me.

“When you play here, you understand that’s part of it. If you go out there and probably don’t pitch the way you would like, they’re going to let you know about it. … They folded them into airplanes and launched them back onto the ol’ ball diamond. They had bonfires outside. So, yeah, I’ve seen way worse.”

SECOND: Kipnis loves him some Fenway Park. In five career games in the Back Bay, all the young second baseman has done is go 7-for-21 with one double, four home runs and four RBIs. He homered in three straight games in Boston last year as part of a run of four straight games with a home run. “I definitely like playing here,” Kipnis said.

THIRD: Say what you will about Johnny Damon (and I know a lot of fans have had plenty to say about his poor start with the Tribe), but one thing he has done is help the Indians lengthen out their lineup. Michael Brantley has looked great in the seventh spot (he went 4-for-4 on Thursday) and Hannahan is a sound threat in the nine hole. That’s a strong lower third to help set the table for the top of the lineup.

HOME: Vinnie Pestano labored through a 41-pitch eighth inning, but no harm done. He allowed no runs on no hits (we’ll just ignore those three walks). Mixed in, though, was a strikeout against Jarrod Saltalamacchia. That gave Pestano at least one strikeout in each of his first 16 appearances this season. That, folks, is a new mark by an Indians reliever to start a season, dating back to 1918.

Longest strikeout streak by Indians reliever to start a season (since 1918):
1. Vinnie Pestano, 16 — April 5-May 10, 2012
2. Doug Jones, 15 — April 6-July 11, 1987
Longest strikeout streak by an Indians reliever (since 1918):
1. Paul Shuey, 21 — Aug. 20, 1999-April 10, 2000
2. Vinnie Pestano, 18 — Sept. 25, 2011-May 10, 2012
2. Paul Shuey, 18 — Aug. 25, 1998-April 12, 1999
2. Dan Spillner, 18 — Sept. 18, 1981-May 11, 1982
On deck:
Indians (18-13) at Red Sox (12-19)
at 7:10 p.m. ET on Friday at Fenway Park
–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 30

Final:

White Sox 8, Indians 1

FIRST: It was bound to happen. After posting a 2.14 ERA between Spring Training and the regular season, Jeanmar Gomez was due for a rough outing. It’s the law of averages. Granted, giving up eight runs (and six in one inning) is not the type of regression I was anticipating.

But, that’s what happened on Wednesday night and it cost the Indians. Gomez surrendered a two-run homer to Adam Dunn (his 10th of the year, a total Dunn didn’t reach until July 26 a year ago) in the first inning and then allowed six runs in the decisive fourth. Gomez’s season ERA soared from 2.82 to 4.66.

All of that said, allow me to tip my cap to Mr. Gomez. Following that fourth inning, he logged 2 2/3 solid innings to help save the bullpen. In fact, after Gordon Beckham’s sac fly, which rounded out the scoring in the fourth, Gomez retired 9 of the final 11 hitters he faced. That’s you leave on a high note.

Jairo Asencio followed suit with 2 1/3 shutout innings, which helped Cleveland give its main bullpen guys another day of rest. That’s big heading into a four-game set in Boston, where we all know games can get out of hand in a hurry.

SECOND: This is where I could pile on the Indians’ offense, but it’s hard to do that when the pitcher who did the silencing tonight was Jake Peavy. He’s baseball’s latest renaissance man, going 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA thus far and looking like the Cy Young winner of old. On Wednesday, Peavy allowed one run over seven innings, marking the fifth time he’s given two runs or fewer in his seven starts.

That said, Cleveland went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Not that anyone is counting, but the Tribe is 1-for-17 with RISP in its past two games and 4-for-25 over its past three games. Cleveland did get a run in with the bases loaded in the seventh, but it was with a groundout. So that makes the Indians 5-for-32 with the bags juiced this year. Again, not that anyone’s counting.

THIRD: In the middle of Chicago’s six-run fourth, left fielder Johnny Damon came up empty on a fly ball at the wall off Alexei Ramirez’s bat. Damon said it was a ball he should have had and he was candid in his comments, throwing a lot of the blame on his shoulders on Wednesday night.

As for handling balls at the 19-foot wall in Progressive Field, here’s what Damon had to say:

“Other outfielders told me that the ball dies as soon as it gets to the wall. That’s exactly what it did. I was preparing to leap and go up against the wall and it came back when I went for it. It very well could’ve and should’ve been a homer, but the balls do die out there. … I started my jump too soon. I definitely have to get better at going back on the ball. It seems like I’m all right coming in for the balls right now. Learning to play here, it is an adjustment, but we’ll be fine.”

HOME: Damon also went 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot, making him 1-for-14 over his past three games. Since joining the Tribe, the 38-year-old veteran has hit .167 and no one is more disappointed in his performance that himself. Damon did praise Peavy, but only to a point.

“He was definitely aggressive with the strike zone,” Damon said. “He was going up, down, in and out. He was close with all of his pitches and sometimes you get the benefit of the doubt when you’re pitching like that, when you’re being aggressive.

“That’s no reason for me to be struggling like this. A lot of it falls on my shoulders. I’m the leadoff guy and I’ve been pretty awful. It affects the guys coming up, the guys who drive the runs in — [Jason] Kipnis and [Asdrubal] Cabrera. I definitely need to get it going.”

Maybe shipping up to Boston will help.

On deck:

Indians (17-13) at Red Sox (12-18)
at 7:10 p.m. ET on Thursday at Fenway Park

–JB

 

Covering the Bases: Game 29

Final:

White Sox 5, Indians 3 (10 innings)

FIRST: You just knew we’d have a Chris Perez vs. Alex Rios rematch eventually. On Thursday in Chicago, Rios took exception to Perez’s celebration after saving a 7-5 win over the White Sox. The two exchanged words on the field and Rios complained in postgame comments to the media about Perez’s antics.

Well, Rios got his revenge. In the 10th inning on Tuesday night, Rios sliced a fastball from Perez into the right-center field gap for an RBI triple. That broke open a 3-3 tie and helped ignite a two-run inning for Chicago. Perez picked up his first loss since Sept. 10 last season… when Rios hit a walk-off grand slam off the closer.

Lifetime, Rios has hit .300 (3-for-10) with one home run, two triples, five RBIs and one shouting match against Perez. Save all the complaints about using Perez in a non-save situation. That argument is tired (That means you, Camino). Perez was perfect in such scenarios going into Tuesday and he had a 0.75 ERA over his previous 13 appearances.

SECOND: Justin Masterson wasn’t at his sharpest on Tuesday night. You don’t need to look any further than the five walks issued for evidence. That said, the White Sox only managed two runs on six hits in six innings against the sinkerballer. Masterson didn’t have his best stuff, but he battled his way to a quality start and kept the Tribe within striking distance. The offense did rally to tie the ballgame, allowing Masterson to escape with a no-decision.

THIRD: The three-run rally in the eighth inning was fine and all, but there was also the matter of the seven scoreless innings that came before it. Cleveland managed only three hits in the first seven frames and the club ended the day 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. It was an overall poor day for the offense, which leads us to our final item of the evening.

HOME: As much as possible, you will continue to see teams throwing lefties at the Indians throughout the season. With such a lefty-heavy lineup, you can bet teams like the White Sox will play the percentages over and over and over. Tuesday’s game included lefty John Danks, lefty Chris Sale and lefty Hector Santiago. That led to an 8-for-34 showing. On the season, the Tribe is now 4-7 against left-handed starters and has a .223 team average vs. lefty pitching.

On deck:

White Sox (14-17) at Indians (17-12)
at 7:05 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

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