Covering the Bases: Game 82
Indians 3, Rays 1
FIRST: The Baseball Gods showed some mercy on Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin on Thursday night. After enduring a rough seven-game stretch (with a few splashes of success mixed in), Tomlin was strong in a win over the Rays.
“He’s a pitcher. He pitches well,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “You cannot cooperate with him. You’ve got to make him come over the plate. And whenever he did, it appeared from the side, he was coming over the edges.
“He was sharp. And then again, probably knowing that we have not been too prodigious offensively he may have had a little more confidence.”
Fair enough, Joe. Fair enough.
But, no matter the woes being experienced in the batter’s box right now by the Rays, it is worth celebrating Tomlin’s performance for the Tribe. He showed a spike in velocity in the early innings, had strong command of his fastball and curve and the changeup was there more than it has been of late.
The result: 7 innings, 2 hits, 1 run, 0 walks, 3 strikeouts, 88 pitches.
That’s a drastic upgrade over his recent slide and more in line with what he gave the Indians every five days a season ago, when he won 12 games. In his past seven starts, Tomlin posted a 6.93 ERA and batters hit at a .331 clip (.959 OPS) against the righty. Try 29 runs on 51 hits in 37.2 IP (11 runs coming in his last two starts) during that spell.
“I don’t know what it is. I honest to God don’t,” Tomlin said of his struggles this season. “The inconsistency this year for me has been the biggest disappointment. Last year, I felt like I could go out there every start and figure out a way to pitch deep into the game. That hasn’t happened as much this year.
“Hopefully I can pick it up from here and hopefully this continues for the rest of the season.”
SECOND: All of the Indians’ offense came courtesy of three solo home runs: Shin-Soo Choo (first inning), Michael Brantley (second) and Travis Hafner (eighth). I could wax poetic again about Choo in the leadoff spot, or how Hafner’s blast showed again what he means to this lineup, but I’m going to focus on Dr. Smooth.
(That’s Brantley’s nickname, which is growing up popularity around these parts.)
The contributions of Choo, Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera have been well-documented, and rightly so. But let’s not forget what Brantley has meant to this lineup so far this season. He’s been one of the team’s top hitters in the “clutch” (see his .305 (25-for-82) average with runners in scoring position for evidence), and manager Manny Acta has moved him up and down the lineup all year.
In fact, Brantley has hit in every spot of the batting order with the exception of the eighth and ninth hole.
“Brantley has been just fantastic for us,” Acta said. “Brantley was huge for us in the month of June, just picking up just about everybody who was struggling in the middle of the lineup — hitting third, fourth, fifth, sixth, you name it — and he continues to be very solid for us.”
In June, Brantley hit .286/.345/.400/.745 in 27 games and hit first (1), third (1), fourth (1), fifth (22) and sixth (2). On the season, he has spent the bulk of his time in the fifth spot (114 plate appearances), and has hit .311/.351/.453/.804 out of that slot for Cleveland.
Thursday’s home run was Brantley’s second blast in as many games, creating some quips about whether he considers himself a power hitter now.
“Absolutely not,” Smooth replied with a laugh.
But know this: Brantley is excited about the fact that he is closing in on his dad Mickey’s career high in RBI (56 with the Mariners in 1988). With his homer on Thursday, Brantley now has 41 steaks on the season. Brantley seems unlikely, however, to equal the 15 homers his old man launched that season.
“Next year,” he said with a grin.
THIRD: In a recent chat with Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano, I asked him what stat he cares about the most as a reliever. He first pointed to the percentage of inherited runners scoring. He quickly added that he takes great pride in his team’s record when winning after seven innings: 36-1 this year.
Here is the thing, when the Indians have the lead after six, it lines things up for sidearmer Joe Smith in the seventh, Pestano in the eighth and closer Chris Perez in the ninth. That’s one of the top bullpen trios in the game right now. The one-two punch of Pestano and Perez has been especially effective.
“When they come in,” Tomlin said, “the game is pretty much over with.”
Dating back to April 8, the Indians are 25-0 when Pestano and Perez appear in the same game. Cleveland is 25-2 in such games overall this season. Pestano and Perez have combined for a 1.97 ERA with 54 strikeouts in 50.1 innings when they both pitch in the same game.
“We’re very well equipped to handle games like this,” Pestano said. “That’s one of our strengths. When the ball’s handed to us, we take it as pride and try to seal it for the team.”
HOME: The primary purpose for having outfielder Aaron Cunningham on the roster right now is for what he brings as a late-inning defensive replacement. Consider him a kind of closer for left fielders Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon, who aren’t known for their Gold Glove-caliber prowess.
Say what you want about Cunningham’s offensive production — and plenty of you have had your say in my inbox and Twitter feed — but he showed again on Thursday night why he is valuable in his limited role.
With one out in the eighth inning, Elliot Johnson sent a pitch from Pestano down the left-field line for a sure single. Given Tampa Bay’s one-run deficit, Johnson decided to try to push for a double. Cunningham swiftly tracked down the ball, and fired a bullet to second base, throwing Johnson out.
It was a critical out that halted a potential rally.
“That was huge,” Pestano said. “When it lands on the line like that, you’re kinda deflated. For A.C. to come up huge, just staying with it and not giving up on it — it’s easy to watch that ball go foul and pick it up, and kind of nonchalantly hose it in — to come up firing and doing that, it was a great play.”
“[That was] very important,” said the skipper. “That could’ve gotten ugly there and he made a great throw. He’s done his job when he comes in to play defense for those guys in left field. That was huge, not only how fast he got to the ball, but to put it right on the money on those guys that are very aggressive on the bases.”
Rays (43-40) at Indians (43-39)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field
NOTE: I will not be covering the remainder of this series, so “Covering the Bases” will return in the season’s second half. I will be traveling to Kansas City this weekend to help out with coverage of the All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium. In the meantime, keep reading Indians.com for news and updates.