July 2012

Covering the Bases: Game 82

Final:

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.”

Acta agreed.

“[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.”

On deck:

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.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 81

Final:

Indians 12, Angels 3

FIRST: Indians manager Manny Acta referred to “The Hafner Effect” following his team’s rout over the Angels. It’s too easy to say Pronk’s return is the reason for the Tribe’s lopsided win, but his impact was certainly noticeable.

Consider the first inning. After Jason Kipnis drew a two-out walk from Ervin Santana — let’s not let Kipnis’ free pass get lost in this — Travis Hafner engaged in an 11-pitch battle with the Angels pitcher. The DH fouled off six pitches and took five, four of which were balls. It was a critical walk that helped wear a struggling Santana down.

“That was a phenomenal at-bat,” said Michael Brantley. “He was up there battling really hard — fouling off some tough pitches. When you wear down a pitcher like that, it obviously makes them a little bit tired and maybe they’ll leave a ball up out over the plate. Hats off to Haf. What an incredible at-bat.”

Brantley had a great view of the plate appearance from the on-deck circle. The center fielder then reaped some of the reward by drilling a 1-1 changeup from Santana out to right for a 3-run home run. Santana was forced to throw 32 pitches in the first inning, and he was gone after reaching 58 in the second.

Cleveland pounded the pitcher for eight runs in 1 1/3 innings.

Acta said he feels quality at-bats are contagious, especially against a laboring pitcher. Hafner is typically a lock for a quality at-bat, and it is those type of at-bats that seemed to take a back seat on occasion over the past month. In June, the Indians’ walk rate, OBP and two-strike approach suffered.

Consider this. The Indians had a .338 OBP and an average of 4.4 walks per game in their first 43 games before Hafner was shelved with the knee injury. In the 37 games without Hafner, the club’s OBP dropped to .320 and the walk rate dipped to 2.7 per game on average. Cleveland went 16-21 with Hafner on the DL and 25-18 with him on the roster.

Actually, make that 26-18 now.

SECOND: Spotted with a 9-1 lead after two innings, Indians starter Derek Lowe could essentially go into cruise control. He held the Angels to three runs over six innings an improved to 8-6 on the year. It was Lowe’s first win since June 1 and only his second win in his past nine outings.

Asked his approach with such a large cushion, here’s what Lowe had to say:

“You don’t want to walk anybody. I think that’s the biggest thing. [Catcher] Lou [Marson] did a good job of setting up right down the middle, because you don’t want to walk your way into some jams. You know you’re probably going to give up some hits along the way.”

Lowe gave up 11 hits, which was right on par with his average of 11.2 hits per nine innings on the season. It’s what Lowe does with the rest of the hitters that matters. Lowe had no walks and 11 outs on the ground. For the most part, he did a good job of minimizing the damage.

THIRD: Combined, Casey Kotchman, Johnny Damon and Lou Marson went 7-for-12 with a home run, four RBIs and five runs scored in Wednesday’s win. It was a solid showing for three players on the upswing of late. Damon has hit .333 (13-for-39) in his last 12 games, Marson has hit .393 (24-for-61) in his last 20 and Kotchman has hit .258 (50-for-194) over his past 58 games.

HOME: The Indians have reached the 81-game mark, or the midpoint of the 162 game season. It seems like a good time to see how the 2012 version of the Tribe lines up with the 2011 ballclub.

Offense

2012: .257/.332/.397/.729, 72 HR, 146 2B, 353 RBI, 294 BB, 518 K, 366 R
2011: .250/.319/.396/.714, 74 HR, 147 2B, 333 RBI, 254 BB, 608 K, 351 R

Pitching

2012: 42-39, 4.51 ERA, 726 IP, 526 K, 275 BB, 725 H, 393 R, 364 ER, 79 HR
2011: 44-37, 3.77 ERA, 723.2 IP, 498 K, 225 BB, 703 H, 333 R, 303 ER, 70 HR

So, essentially, the Indians’ offense is virtually unchanged with the exception of a higher on-base percentage and a better walk/strikeout rates. As a result, the lineup is a touch better than last year. The overall pitching, on the other hand, is worse. That needs to change in the second half.

On deck:

Rays (43-39) at Indians (42-39)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 79

Final:

Angels 3, Indians 0

FIRST: The thing about Angels ace Jered Weaver is, well, let’s have Indians manager Manny Acta handle this one:

“Every five days he does it to somebody different,” Acta said.

It would be dominate. Weaver did it again to the Indians on Monday night, spinning seven shutout innings en route to the win, making him 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA on the season. Weaver’s ERA peaked at 3.21 on April 11. It hasn’t been higher than 2.83 since then. It’s 1.04 over his last six outings.

Cleveland has certainly seen enough of the right-hander. He’s now 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in eight career outings at Progressive Field. Weaver has spun 13 shutout innings against the Tribe this season.

“First of all, he can locate,” Acta explained. “It’s a perfect example for people who think that you need to throw hard up here to get people out. He can locate and he off-sets the hitters’ timing very good. He can go from a 69-mph breaking ball, as you guys saw today, to a 91-mph fastball. He never gives in.

“And he has the confidence that he can get out of it making pitches. He never throws a ball right down the middle of the plate, or at least doesn’t try to. He pitches in and out the whole time. He pitches.”

All of that said, while there’s no denying that Weaver deserves the a tip of the ol’ cap for his performance tonight, Acta was not happy with the approach that his hitters took on early in the ballgame on Monday.

“I felt that we could’ve had a better approach early in the game,” Acta said. “I just felt that we were swinging at his pitches, and too early in the count a lot of times. Too many quick outs. Yeah, he was throwing strikes, but still. We were rolling over a lot and he just kept flipping offspeed stuff and we didn’t make the adjustment.”

SECOND: That brings us to the seventh inning. If you’re not a fan of horror, you might want to go ahead and skip ahead to the next topic.

In the seventh, after Weaver held the first 20 Indians batters he encoutered to two measly singles, Cleveland loaded the bases with no outs. Down 2-0 at the time, this was a prime scoring opportunity. Jason Kipnis drew a leadoff walk, Michael Brantley singled and Carlos Santana walked as well.

“That was a situation where we could try to get some runs,” Indians outfielder Johnny Damon said. “Worst case? One. Best case? As many as possible.”

What was the minimum amount of production Acta would’ve hoped for from his team?

“About three?” he replied. “The three that are on base.”

The Indians came away with zilch.

Damon chopped a pitch to third baseman Alberto Callaspo, who threw home to cut down the lead runner for the innings’s first out. Casey Kotchman followed with a flyout to catcher Bobby Wilson. Weaver then followed with a strikeout to Shelley Duncan, ending the inning.

Oof.

“This one hurts,” Damon said.

The Indians also put the first two hitters aboard in the eighth and came away empty handed. I’ll spare you the details on that disaster.

Think happy thoughts. In the previous four games, Cleveland pounded out 32 runs on 55 hits.

THIRD: The man who told us last season that he always tries “think happy” returned to the Indians lineup for Monday’s game. Catcher Carlos Santana went 1-for-3 with a single and a walk at the plate, and showed no ill effects from the back/right side issue that kept him out the past four games.

Santana’s presence was felt most from behind the plate, though.

Beyond handling another stellar outing from Ubaldo Jimenez, Santana helped cut down some of the traffic on the basepaths.

“They’re like rabbits,” Jimenez said of L.A.’s players. “Once they got on the base, they’re going to be running.”

In the first inning, Erick Aybar singled and was then thrown out trying to steal second base. Albert Pujols was thrown out after over-running second base on a wild pitch in the sixth. In the seventh, Santana threw out Alberto Callaspo on a stolen-base attempt. L.A. did have two successful steals.

“We didn’t score any runs,” Acta said, “but he really stopped some baserunners that could’ve made things even worse for us.”

Santana takes pride in that aspect of his game.

“I’m struggling right now [at the plate],” Santana said before Monday’s game, “but I know I can still do a good job behind the plate calling pitches and throwing runners out.”

HOME: The unfortunate aspect of this loss was that Jimenez’s continued success gets pushed to the background. He was hung with a hard-luck loss, but The Big U continued to pitch well for the Indians, adding to the recent string of strong starts.

Jimenez held the Angels to three runs on eight hits in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out four and walked four, though two of those free passes were intentional. Over his past six outings, Ubaldo has posted a 2.93 ERA (13 ER/40 IP), but only has a 2-3 record to show for his effort.

In that stretch, he’s piled up 36 strikeouts against 15 walks with 33 hits allowed.

It’s the first time since June 24-July 19, 2011 — not too far before he was traded from Colorado to Cleveland — that Jimenez has logged at least 40 innings over six starts. During that stretch, he went 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA, 41 strikeouts, 12 walks and 32 hits allowed.

“I think everybody would take a guy that every five days is going to give you a chance to win,” Acta said. “That’s what he’s done here the last six outings. He’s pitching like a No. 2 or No. 1 guy right now.”

On deck:

Angels (45-35) at Indians (40-39)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Month in review: June

June was a month in which Shin-Soo Choo started swinging like the star of seasons past, Justin Masterson began looking like a No. 1 starter again, Ubaldo Jimenez began turning in his best outings as a member of the Tribe and Asdrubal Cabrera continued his emergence as one of the game’s elite shortstops.

Unfortunately, it was also a month in which a lot of other things went wrong.

The pitching suffered — throughout the rotation and especially in middle relief — and the offense went through drastic spurts of feast or famine. Cleveland lost its hold on first, regained it again and then slipped back into second place in the American League Central.

With 19 of the team’s 27 June games coming on the road, and Interleague Play mixed in, Cleveland knew it was going to be a tough month. Jeanmar Gomez was sent back to the Minors, Travis Hafner was stuck on the disabled list and Lonnie Chisenhall was lost for the season.

And yet, through all the bad, the Indians continued to show promise. Sweeping the rival Reds at home. Overwhelming the Orioles on the road after beginning a brutal road trip with brutal showing in Houston and New York. Perhaps finding lightning in a bottle with the unexpected trade for reliever Esmil Rogers.

The All-Star break is only a few days away and the Indians — for all the ups and downs — remain in the thick of things.

Here is a look at the month that was…

Overall: 12-15
At home: 5-4
On road: 7-11

Offense (AL rank):

.263 average (8)
.318 on-base (9)
.404 slugging (8)
.723 OPS (9)
26 home runs (8)
43 doubles (8)
118 RBI (8)
120 runs (8)
75 walks (10)
180 strikeouts (12)
13 stolen bases (12)
249 hits (5)

Pitching (AL rank)

4.87 ERA (14)
6 saves (9)
233 innings (12)
243 hits allowed (8)
137 runs (14)
126 earned runs (14)
35 home runs (12)
76 walks (10)
179 strikeouts (10)
.268 opp. average (12)
1.37 WHIP (11)
.772 opp. OPS (13)

Player of the Month: RF Shin-Soo Choo
Stats: .333/.382/.579/.961, 5 HR, 11 2B, 1 3B, 13 RBI, 25 R, 38 H, 27 games

Previous winners: DH Travis Hafner (April), 2B Jason Kipnis (May)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Justin Masterson
Stats: 2-3, 2.06 ERA, 35 IP, 29 K, 9 BB, 1.00 WHIP, .206 avg., 5 starts

Previous winners: RHP Derek Lowe (April), CL Chris Perez (May)

Reliever of the Month: RHP Esmil Rogers
Stats: 1.74 ERA, 10.1 IP, 14 K, 1 BB, 0.58 WHIP, .139 avg., 8 games

Previous winners: RHP Vinnie Pestano (April), CL Chris Perez (May)

Performance of the Month (hitting): RF Shin-Soo Choo
Line: 4-for-5, 1 home run, 1 walk, 3 RBI, 4 runs in 11-5 win over Orioles on June 30

Performance of the Month (pitching): RHP Justin Masterson
Line: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K, 15 GO in 8-1 win over Reds on June 20

—————————————

MINOR LEAGUE HONORS

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Month: 1B/OF Russ Canzler
Stats: .299/.372/.588/.959, 7 HR, 7 2B, 28 RBI, 14 R, 29 H, 28 games

Previous winners: 1B Matt LaPorta (April), INF Jason Donald (May)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Eric Berger
Stats: 1-1, 0.98 ERA, 18.1 IP, 20 K, 3 BB, 0.65 WHIP, .143 avg, 7 games (1 start)

Previous winners: RHP Corey Kluber (April), LHP David Huff (May)

Double-A Akron

Player of the Month: OF Thomas Neal
Stats: .333/.406/.643/1.049, 6 HR, 8 2B, 17 RBI, 21 R, 28 H, 24 games

Previous winners: INF/OF Jared Goedert (April, May)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Steven Wright
Stats: 3-3, 2.27 ERA, 35.2 IP, 33 K, 17 BB, 1.15 WHIP, .185 avg., 6 starts

Previous winners: LHP T.J. McFarland (April), LHP T.J. House (May)

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Month: INF Ronny Rodriguez
Stats: .340/.376/.585/.961, 5 HR, 4 2B, 2 3B, 17 RBI, 23 R, 32 H, 27 games

Previous winners: DH Jeremie Tice (April), 1B Jesus Aguilar (May)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Kyle Blair
Stats: 3-0, 1.23 ERA, 14.2 IP, 7 K, 7 BB, 1.02 WHIP, .154 avg., 3 games

Previous winners: LHP T.J. House (April), RHP Shawn Armstrong (May)

Class A (low) Lake County

Player of the Month: OF Jordan Smith
Stats: .337/.413/.467/.881, 10 2B, 1 3B, 12 RBI, 12 R, 31 H, 22 games

Previous winners: OF Luigi Rodriguez (April), 1B Jerrud Sabourin (May)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Mason Radeke
Stats: 3-0, 1.06 ERA, 17 IP, 21 K, 2 BB, 1.00 WHIP, .242 avg., 4 games

Previous winners: RHP Cody Anderson (April), RHP Joseph Colon (May)

Class A (short-season) Mahoning Valley

Player of the Month: C/1B Charlie Valerio
Stats: .283/.320/.413/.733, 1 HR, 3 2B, 7 RBI, 3 R, 13 H, 12 games

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Luis DeJesus
Stats: 1-0, 0.53 ERA, 17 IP, 13 K, 2 BB, 0.71 WHIP, .167 avg., 3 starts

Arizona League Indians

Player of the Month: 3B Jorge Martinez
Stats: .429/.474/.629/1.102, 1 HR, 4 2B, 6 RBI, 6 R, 15 H, 8 games

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Luis Morel
Stats: 1.59 ERA, 5.2 IP, 9 K, 1 BB

Dominican Summer League Indians

Player of the Month: 2B Odomar Valdez
Stats: .341/.466/.378/.844, 3 2B, 10 RBI, 19 BB, 21 R, 28 H, 11 SB, 24 games

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Juan Nivar
Stats: 1.56 ERA, 17.1 IP, 25 K, 7 BB, 0.87 WHIP, .131 avg., 4 starts

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 78

Final:

Indians 6, Orioles 2

FIRST: Let’s take a moment to celebrate an achievement by Aaron Cunningham. Lord knows the man could use a little positive publicity these days, given his prolonged offensive woes as Cleveland’s fifth outfielder.

In the third inning on Sunday, Cunningham hacked at a first-pitch, 90-mph fastball from Baltimore lefty Brian Matusz and launched a leadoff home run for the Indians. Read that sentence again if you’d like, but it’s fact.

After Cunningham circled the bases, his Indians teammates were not waiting for him when he arrived at the dugout. It was an old-fashioned silent treatment, an age-old tradition in baseball for players ending long home run droughts.

“I kind of expected that,” Cunningham said with a grin. “It’s been a while.”

It had been since Sept. 25 of last season, to be exact.

So what did Cunningham do?

“I just kind of ran back [into the tunnel] and back to the air-conditioning,” he said. “I came out a couple minutes later.”

Asked about Cunningham’s sprint into the tunnel, teammate Shelley Duncan smiled.

“Everyone handles it a little different when you get the silent treatment,” Duncan said.

Cunningham has his critics and, sure, it is easy to wonder how a guy hitting .171 (and struggling against lefties the way he has he has) is still on the roster. But, Cleveland likes his defense and that is essentially what he offers. Cunningham is the lone player on the roster who can play all three outfield spots and play them well, unless the Tribe has recently reached a higher trust level with super sub Jason Donald.

There is the matter of Cunningham’s offense, though. Before the home run, he was mired in a 1-for-21 spell dating back to June 3 and a 3-for-38 slump going back to May 7. On the season, Cunningham has just 14 hits in 82 at-bats, and he headed into Sunday hitting .156 vs. left-handers (billed as his speciality when the Tribe traded for him over the winter).

That home run was his first hit since June 18.

Asked if he remembers all his home runs, Cunningham laughed.

“Right now, shoot, I remember singles,” he quipped. “I’m just trying to get on base. I’m trying to do anything I can to help this team. Whatever I can do, I’m trying to help these guys out.”

Duncan — no stranger to a limited bench role — feels for Cunningham. Consider that Cunningham has garnered two or more at-bats in just 19 of the 58 games he’s appeared in this season. There have been also 19 times that he did not have a single plate appearance in a game.

It is hard to keep an offensive rhythm under such circumstances.

“His at-bats get really spaced out in between,” Duncan said. “And he works about as hard or harder than anybody on the team in the cages and during games. He’s done a great job doing what has been asked of him to do. It’s really tough. He goes out there and plays solid defense and he’s about as good a teammate as you could ask for.

“He’s a really good hitter, too. But he’s in a really, really tough spot. He’s a guy that, if he was in there a lot, he’d be pretty solid.”

SECOND: The Indians headed into this Baltimore series ranked last in the American League (and tied for last in baseball) with a .216 team average against left-handed pitching. Cleveland was 5-16 against left-handed starters coming into the four-game set with the O’s.

The Tribe was 1-5 on this road trip, too, and things did not look good when Baltimore had two lefties scheduled to pitch. Then, it seemingly got worse, when the Orioles made a rotation switch and added lefty Dana Eveland to the probables for Saturday. Three lefties in four games? No bueno.

Or… no problem?

Cleveland pounded out 32 runs in the four games in Baltimore and half came against the three lefty starters (Wei-Yin Chen, Eveland and Sunday’s starter, Brian Matusz). In all, the Indians scored 16 runs (15 earned) with a .322 (19-for-59) team average with three wins against those three starters.

And now, the Indians rank 13th (not 14th) in the AL with a .223 mark against lefties.

THIRD: Sinkerballer Justin Masterson gave the Indians another strong outing on Sunday, limiting Baltimore to two runs (one earned) on five hits over seven innings. He struck out seven and walked none.

Over his past six starts, Masterson has posted a 1.93 ERA (nine earned runs in 42 innings) with 36 strikeouts against nine walks. During that stretch, he has lowed his season ERA from 5.14 to 3.92.

“This is the guy that we were anticipating to get from Opening Day,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “He got into a little rut there, but he’s back. Six outings in a row, where the guy has had command of the strike zone and all his pitches, is a pretty good indication. We feel pretty good right now when he goes out there.”

HOME: Both of Cleveland’s 2012 All-Stars — shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez — played a role in Sunday’s win. Cabrera went 2-for-5 with a double and a run, boosting his season average to .300 on the nose. Perez struck out two in a clean ninth to lower his ERA to 2.67 on the year.

All-Star snub Jason Kipnis went 1-for-4 with an RBI single and a walk for the Indians. He also stole his 20th base of the season, making him the first Cleveland infielder to have at least 20 swipes before the All-Star break since Roberto Alomar collected 21 in the first half in 2000.

On deck:

Angels (44-35) at Indians (40-38)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 77

Final:

Indians 11, Orioles 5

FIRST: Choooooooooo!

You could hear it throughout Camden Yards on Saturday and the collective cry grew louder as the game went on. That’s because Choo got on base over and over again. The resurgent right fielder reached five times, with four hits, four runs, three RBIs and one walk.

The Indians poured out 11 runs on 19 hits and had career days from Jose Lopez (five hits) and Lou Marson (four hits), and solid contributions from Asdrubal Cabrera (three hits, two RBIs) and Shelley Duncan (solo home run), but it was Choo who served as the catalyst.

“We’re not going anywhere unless he’s the player we know [he can be],” Indians manager Manny Acts said. “We need him bad. He’s the key to our lineup and I’m glad he’s back to it. It’s that simple. We just don’t have a powerhouse here not to have guys like Choo on top of their game.”

Well, Choo’s been on top of his game for the better part of the past two months.

On May 3, here’s how Choo’s production looked:

.209/.346/.284/.629, 0 HR, 5 2B, 9 RBI, 8 R, 17 games

Here is how it looks now as the calendar flips to July:

.291/.382/.471/.854, 8 HR, 24 2B, 30 RBI, 51 R, 71 games

Since May 3, Choo has hit .318 (67-for-211) with eight homers, 19 doubles, 21 RBI and 43 runs scored in 54 games. Over his past 12 games, he’s been on a tear, hitting .444 (20-for-45) with three homers, six doubles, eight RBI and 11 runs for the Tribe.

People like to point to the fact that Choo turned things around when Acta put him in the leadoff spot, but that turn came on May 14. So Choo’s improvement predates that point in the season. That said, Choo feels hitting leadoff has helped due to providing A) more at-bats to get into a rhythm, and B) more fastballs in his first at-bat.

“I don’t know what my batting average is in my first at-bat,” Choo said, “but I see a lot of fastballs. Leadoff hitters, they don’t want to put them on, especially with [Asdrubal Cabrera and [Jason] Kipnis hitting well. After that, it’s normal.”

As it happens, Choo is hitting .358 (19-for-53) in the first inning this season and .377 (23-for-61) in his first at-bat against a starting pitcher.

Here, however, is the bottom line:

“I think the biggest thing is I feel comfortable,” Choo said. “I’m comfortable in the batter’s box and I’ve had confidence come back. That’s the only reason. I haven’t changed anything — just my mind.”

SECOND: Back when Marson earned the nickname “Laser Lou” last season, it was due to his arm and ability to cut down the running game. Well, of late, the moniker might as well refer to the frozen ropes flying off Marson’s bat.

In Saturday’s victory, Marson went 4-for-5 in setting a career high in hits. He singled in the fourth inning, tripled in the fifth and doubled in the sixth. Marson then had two more plate appearances to try for the cycle.

In the eighth, he drew a walk against Kevin Gregg.

“When I faced Gregg, we were up 10-5,” Marson said, “and they already warned both benches, so I didn’t want to go up and ghetto hack. I just went up, tried to take a strike. I don’t want to start anything. So, he walked me on four straight.”

In the ninth, with the bases loaded and two outs, Marson pushed a pitch from Matt Lindstrom into right field for an RBI single. He stayed in his approach and didn’t try to swing for the fences. Admirable, right?

“That was kind of wimpy,” Acta said with a smirk. “I mean, come on. We gave him a little bit of a hard time. You’ve got to go for the cycle. You can’t try to go the other way. He should’ve been whaling at the first two pitches trying to get the homer, but we’ll take the RBI.”

Oh well.

What really matters is that Marson has produced extremely well while filling in for Carlos Santana. It began when Santana spent timeon the concussion DL earlier this season, and has continued through the month of June. Marson has been filling in for a banged up Santana the past few days, too.

Over his last 18 games, Marson has hit .389 (21-for-54), lifting his season average to .284 from .074.

“The more he plays, the better he gets,” Acta said. “It’s very tough for young guys not to play and for us as managers and coaches to expect them to perform at their level. He’s having good at-bats, very good at-bats. He’s using the whole field.  It’s good, because he becomes more dependable for us at the right time.”

Said Marson:

“I’m just getting consistent at-bats, getting an opportunity,” said the catcher. “I feel good right now. I’m just trying to have quality at-bats and see the ball. I mean, I don’t want to think about it or talk about it. I just want to keep swinging it and hopefully we can keep on winning.”

THIRD: All of the offense did well in overcoming another rocky outing from right-hander Josh Tomlin. Over six innings, Tomlin gave up five runs on seven hits with four strikeouts and three walks. His season ERA climbed to 5.85 in the process.

Tomlin’s biggest mistake came on a 2-1 changeup to Chris Davis in the fourth inning. Davis smashed it to Eutaw Street for a three-run homer. Tomlin said the changeup has come and gone all season, and that is definitely one reason for his subpar performance this year.

“That’s been the biggest pitch for me that hasn’t been there,” Tomlin said. “I haven’t had a changeup, really. I had a good changeup against Seattle early in the year. Other than that, it’s been hit or miss the rest of the year. … The inconsistency with it has been a big issue for me.”

When he doesn’t have the changeup working, how does it affect his approach?

“It affects my approach to lefties more than anything,” he explained. “It’s just another pitch for them to look for out over the plate for maybe it makes my cutter a little more effective. It’s been a pitch that you could go to maybe early in the count to get quick contact with, and put it in their head that I am going to throw it, or that I can throw it for a strike and they have to respect it.”

HOME: In the fifth inning, Tomlin threw a pitch behind the back of J.J. Hardy and home-plate umpire Mike Estabrook immediately came out from behind the plate and issued warnings to both clubs. O’s skipper Buck Showalter barked from the home side and Acta later voiced surprise over the handling of the situation.

Asked why Estabrook felt the need to issue a warning, here’s what Acta said:

“No idea. I was very surprised, because there’s no animosity. We don’t have anything to complain about. I don’t think they have anything to complain about. We were trying to go inside on J.J. J.J. hasn’t done anything to upset us. He plays the game right. I guess [Estabrook] was being a little overprotective. People need to understand that not everybody who gets hit is on purpose. And not every ball that goes behind a hitter is on purpose, either. I was surprised. I don’t know how Buck feels, but there’s no reason for it. Why do we need to get a guy on, a guy who’s been struggling, with Jonesy coming up. Nowadays, they try to control the game and they do that kind of stuff.”

On Friday night, Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall had his right forearm fractured by a pitch from Baltimore’s Troy Patton. In the third inning on Saturday, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis was hit in the right shoulder by a pitch from lefty Dana Eveland.

Even with that recent history, Tomlin insisted it was simply a mistake pitch.

“That ball got away from me,” said the pitcher. “I mean, I know what it looks like and I think [Estabrook] did a good job of maybe stopping something that could’ve got out of hand for nothing, but that ball got away from me. There was definitely no intent with that.”

EXTRA INNINGS: It feels appropriate to once again update the offensive stat from Saturday’s postgame blog in light of today’s outpouring by the Tribe nine. In the first 44 innings of this road trip, Cleveland hit .176 (26-for-149) as a team with a .100 (3-for-30) showing with runners in scoring position and five total runs scored. In the 37 innings since that stretch, the Indians have hit .341 (56-for-164) as a team with a .323 (20-for-62) mark with RISP and 34 runs scored.

On deck:

Indians (39-38) at Orioles (42-35)
at 1:35 p.m. ET Sunday at Camden Yards

–JB

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