Covering the Bases: Game 75

624BrantleyFinal: Indians 5, Orioles 2

FIRST: In theory, the Orioles made the right move in the sixth inning, when they opted to intentionally walk Mark Reynolds to load the bases. With no outs, it set up a double play in all directions and Baltimore had a lefty-lefty matchup between Zach Britton and Michael Brantley.

“Obviously, they’re playing strategy,” Brantley said. “There’s a lefty on the mound, I’m a left-handed hitter, and I just want to make sure I can do what I can for my team — get that run in from third base however I can do it.”

What makes Brantley so valuable is that it is a safe bet that he will put the ball in play in some form or another. His extremely high contact rate and low strikeout rate make Brantley a versatile weapon for manager Terry Francona to utilize. Francona has done so accordingly, actually slotting Brantley in every single lineup spot at some point this season.

When Michael Bourn was out, Brantley filled in as the leadoff man. When Nick Swisher missed time, Brantley took some turns as the cleanup man. Given his propensity for making consistent contact, Brantley can offer solid protection for the hitter in front of him.

Francona said another strength of Brantley’s is maintaining a consistent approach no matter the situation. That might help explain how the left fielder has led Cleveland to this point with a .357 (20-for-56) average with runners in scoring position. The 20th such hit came in the sixth inning, when Brantley sent a slider from Britton up the middle for a two-run single that gave the Tribe a 3-2 lead.

“He doesn’t change his approach,” Francona said. “He doesn’t try to do too much. He just stays with his same approach and he’s a good hitter. If anything, maybe his concentration is unbelievable. You don’t see him over-swing very often.”

Heading into Monday’s game, Brantley led the American League with a 91-percent contact rate. His six-percent swing-and-miss rate was tied for the lowest mark in the AL. Brantley was putting balls in play at a 79-percent clip (eighth-best in the AL) and his 11.6-percent strikeout rate was the 10-best mark in the league. Brantley’s caught-looking strikeout rate of 48-percent is also the highest in the AL, showing that he really picks his spots when swinging.

“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do, man,” Swisher said. “He’s hit in every slot from one through nine. And he’s such a pro hitter, man. To be able to have a guy like that that Tito can bounce up and down the lineup to protect certain guys, obviously he’s shown his worth on this squad for sure.”

Brantley added a two-run home run in the eighth inning, giving him a personal-best (done three times in his career) four RBIs on the night. Over his past five games, Brantley has launched three home runs in 17 at-bats after having two homers in his first 246 at-bats this season. Brantley didn’t become a power hitter over night, but he is certainly on a nice little run of late.

SECOND: The bullpen played a key role in Monday’s win, holding the Orioles scoreless over a combined 3 2/3 innings of work. Rich Hill, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano teamed to back a solid outing from starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who successfully played damage control into the sixth inning against a tough Baltimore lineup.

Francona was especially impressed with the effort from Hill.

Lefty relievers entered Monday with a 7.26 ERA this season for Cleveland, which headed into this season with high hopes for the veteran Hill. The lefty has been better of late and he played a big role on Monday. With a runner on base and one out in the sixth, Hill took the ball, struck out Danny Valencia and induced a flyout off the bat of Ryan Flaherty. In the seventh, he got Nate McLouth to ground out.

“When Rich Hill pitches like that, it complements our whole bullpen,” Francona said.

Cleveland has been trying to get Hill back to his early-season form, when he featured a higher arm slot and more deception. During his first 10 appearances, Hill has a 2.70 ERA with only three hits allowed in 6 2/3 innings. In that span, he threw 61-percent of his pitches for strikes, but had four walks to go along with his eight strikeouts.

So, Hill lowered his arm slot some in an effort to improve his strike throwing and cut down the walks. The tradeoff was less deception and more hits allowed. In the 12 outings after those first 10, Hill posted a 12.54 ERA with 17 hits surrendered, 12 strikeouts, six walks and a 63-percent K-rate in 9 1/3 innings.

Now, flash ahead to his seven most recent appearances. He’s only worked four innings (he hasn’t been exposed as much while working on the arm angle) and his K-rate has dropped to 53 percent, but he’s posted a 2.25 ERA with four strikeouts, three hits allowed and two walks issued.

“Richie is throwing the ball, the last couple times out, pretty good,” Francona said. “Getting him on a roll would be really helpful to our bullpen.”

THIRD: Pestano — no stranger to late-inning drama this season — breezed through the first two hitters he faced in the ninth on Monday. He froze Matt Wieters with a 92-mph fastball on a 1-0 count, and then got the O’s catcher to swing through a pair of impressive 80-mph sliders. Later, with two outs, Pestano ran into a bit of trouble.

Flaherty walked (although he looked to have been rung up on a 2-2 pitch called a ball), McLouth singled and then Manny Machado laced a pitch to the left side. Shortstop Mike Aviles made a leaping grab for the final out of the ballgame. Despite the late heart palpitations, Francona liked what he saw.

“Vinnie threw the ball really well,” Francona said. “I know there was a couple baserunners, but he had the best breaking ball we’ve seen, and he had a little bit more life on his fastball. You’re always looking to be encouraged. — that’s our job — but there is reason to be.”

HOME: Swisher enjoyed one of his best games in quite some time for the Indians. He went 2-for-4 with a single in the first inning, an RBI single in the sixth, a walk in the seventh and a well-struck  flyout to the warning track in left field in the ninth. It was Swisher’s first multi-hit game since May 29 and his first game getting on base three times since June 1.

Swisher — dogged by a left shoulder injury off and on this year — headed into Monday’s contest hitting .100 (6-for-60) in his last 16 games.

“Man, I’ve been trying to keep a smile on my face,” Swisher said. “This game is frustrating. I’ve said it before: I know what type of player I am. I know what I’m capable of doing. Just being able to get back out there and contribute, man, that felt good. It’s nice getting back out there and feeling healthy again.”

Francona was happy to see Swisher look more like himself at the plate.

“He’ll be just fine,” Francona said. “He had good at-bats all night. He wasn’t trying to do too much and he ended up taking good swings. Actually, probably the best swing of the night was the ball he hit to left field for the out. That was really good to see.”

ON DECK:

Indians (39-36) at Orioles (42-35)
at 7:05 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Camden Yards

–JB

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