June 2013

Covering the Bases: Game 64

611KluberFinal: Indians 5, Rangers 2

FIRST: The covering-the-bases curse has been lifted. The Indians went 0-7 after I brought CTB back to this space, making me wonder if I’d soon have my press credentials revoked. Well, thanks to Corey Kluber, the Indians are back in the win column after an eight-game losing streak.

Kluber was stellar in leading Cleveland to this victory over Texas.

Pitching roughly a half-hour drive from where he grew up (in Coppell, Texas), Kluber held the Rangers to one run on six hits over eight innings. The right-hander became the first Indians pitcher since July 20, 2007 (Roberto Hernandez) to hold Texas to one or zero runs in at least eight innings in a game in Arlington.

Kluber did so by straying some from the approach that has worked so well lately. He said that, before the game, he and catcher Yan Gomes discussed how aggressive Texas’ hitters can be early in the count. With that in mind, Kluber tried to force the Rangers to expand the strike zone early in counts in an effort to induce soft contact. The strategy worked.

“We kind of talked about how they’re a really aggressive team,” Kluber said. “We kind of used that against them.”

Kluber was able to create 14 outs via ground balls, including 10 before the end of the fourth. He had never topped nine groundball outs in any previous outing in his career. Kluber also breezed through the first five innings on just 46 pitches, throwing no more than 10 in each frame to that point. When he was done, Kluber only had three strikeouts on the night.

That was a big change from how Kluber found success recently.

Over his previous five starts, dating back to May 15, Kluber was one of the top strikeout artists in the American League. Consider this list:

Strikeouts per nine innings from May 15-June 10
American League starting pitchers
1. Anibal Sanchez, 11.37 (25.1 IP)
2. Corey Kluber, 11.33 (27 IP)
3. Justin Verlander, 11.30 (28.2 IP)
4. Felix Hernandez, 10.36 (33 IP)
5. Derek Holland, 10.36 (24.1 IP)

That is pretty impressive company.

“He’s getting better right in front of our eyes,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

On May 10, when Kluber gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Tigers, the initial thought was that he was sliding back to some of the missteps he made last season. That rough outing is looking more and more like a fluke. In six turns since that forgettable start, Kluber has posted a 3.09 ERA with 37 strikeouts against six walks in 35 innings. In his 10 appearances other than the May 10 start, he has a 3.08 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP, 53 strikeouts and 10 walks in 52 2/3 innings.

What’s going on with this guy?

“Gaining confidence every time out is big,” Kluber said. “I don’t know if I could pinpoint one thing other than that.”

SECOND: It goes without saying that defense is integral on a night when the pitcher is inducing as much contact as Kluber was against the Rangers. The infielders were on their toes and active, making a series of solid plays. The biggest defensive play of the night, however, was a teaming of left fielder Michael Brantley and third baseman Mark Reynolds for a key double play.

In the sixth inning, with the Tribe holding a 4-0 lead, Kluber got off on the wrong foot with back-to-back walks to Leury Garcia and Elvis Andrus. David Murphy followed by slicing a pitch to left field. It was deep enough for Garcia to tag up at second base in preparation for a sprint to third base. Brantley caught the ball and quickly fired it to Reynolds at third.

Reynolds swiftly applied the tag for a crucial double play.

“That was big,” Reynolds said. “I think that kind of took a little wind out of their sails. Brant made a good throw. It was a big play. As I caught the ball, he was sliding into my glove. I’m just glad I held on to it.”

Kluber ended the inning by inducing a groundout off the bat of Lance Berkman.

THIRD: As much heat as Reynolds has been taking lately for his offensive shortcomings, it’s fair to point out that he went 2-for-4 tonight with a pair of singles, including one that knocked in a run in the fourth inning. That represented his first RBI since May 29. Both hits were pushed to the opposite field. Hopefully the performance was a sign that Reynolds is starting to snap out of his funk. Late in the game, he was replaced at third by veteran John McDonald. In late innings of a tight ballgame, having a defensive specialist like Johnny Mac on the bench certainly doesn’t hurt.

HOME: The Indians only went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position, but it’s hard to nitpick after a game that snapped an eight-game skid. Cleveland did have at least one hit from each member of its starting lineup for the fifth time this season. That put constant pressure on the Rangers and gave the Indians ample chances to finally snap out of their funk.

“We just played a nice ballgame,” Francona said. “We kept the line moving at the plate, we ran the bases aggressively and because of that, you get to hear some music. That’s a welcomed sound.”

ON DECK:

Indians (31-33) at Rangers (38-26)
at 8:05 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Rangers Ballpark

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 63

610TitoFinal: Rangers 6, Indians 3

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona isn’t a big team meeting guy in the sense that he isn’t going to call a meeting for the sake of calling a meeting. If it in any way feels artificial or forced, Francona isn’t going to bother trying to rally the troops.

Francona’s take on meetings is that it is best to keep a good gauge on the temperature of the club, and pick spots when a speech — even if it’s just two minutes long — can benefit the team. Francona noted on Monday that he spoke with his team following Sunday’s loss in Detroit just to reiterate how much he believes in them.

“I let them know that I feel that way,” Francona said. “[My message was] pay attention to detail. I think the sum of our parts is good enough to be a really good team. Sometimes, it’s human nature that you try to do too much. We do believe in them. Even through a stretch like this, I think I feel as good about this team as I did two weeks ago.

“I think we’re going to weather it and I think we’re going to figure it out and get better.”

Well, it didn’t get better on Monday.

Cleveland dropped its eighth game in a row and has now lost 16 of its past 20 games. For those keeping score at home, that’s a 4-16 slide directly after an 18-4 run. The baseball season has its peaks and valleys, but these past six weeks have been quite the roller coaster.

We asked lefty Scott Kazmir, who took the loss despite an admirable outing on Monday, if these past three weeks have the team questioning its ability to contend this season.

“No. Not at all,” Kazmir said. “We’re struggling. We are. It’s just little things that cost us a game. It could be a pitch. It could be defensively, offensively. It just seems like there’s something so small that determines the outcome of the game, especially the past couple, or the past three or four. We’ve been in every game.”

As for Francona’s philosophy on team meetings, it has changed over the years.

“When I was young, probably immature, I’d have a team meeting and scream and the only person it helped was me,” Francona said recently in Detroit. “You’ve relieved stress. I remember one time in Philadelphia, we were pretty bad and I had a team meeting. [Brad Mills] came in after and I said, ‘Millsy, what did I say?’ He said, ‘I have no idea. Neither does anybody else.’ So that doesn’t really help. I guess if you get to that point you probably waited too long.”

Francona was asked if there was one team meeting from his playing days that still stands out.

The Indians manager smirked.

“When I was with the Cubs [in 1986], Dallas Green was the general manager,” Francona said. “And we had just moved into the new clubhouse underneath the third-base side. He made us all go down into the old clubhouse, which was now the grounds crew area. Man, I’d only been there a couple weeks. I got called up from Triple-A. So I’m the first one there and I’m sitting in the front row. Lee Smith, Jody Davis, Keith Moreland, they were like, ‘Hey, man. Don’t sit there. Just move back here.’ After that meeting, I was like, ‘Thank God I was in the back.’

“Dallas Green, I’ve never seen 25 guys so scared. Veteran players? Man. I was terrified. If that’s what the meeting was supposed to be about, you accomplished it. I was scared to death. He did anything. [Stuff] was flying everywhere. I was so [bleeping] scared.”

Asked how the team responded, Francona laughed.

“We weren’t very good,” he said. “That wasn’t the problem.”

Francona said Tom Trebelhorn, his manager with the Brewers, had good meetings, because he maintained his composure. Said Francona: “He always took the time to gather his thoughts. I always appreciated that, and I was a little bit older by then. When you’re a younger player, man, you’ll listen to anything. I thought he did a really good job.”

Francona also played for Pete Rose with the Reds in 1987.

“Pete Rose was unbelievable,” Francona said. “When Pete talked, I listened anyway. But when he had a meeting, I was like [bleep], man, if you can’t want to run through a wall for him, you better go do something else.”

SECOND: Maybe it’s purely a coincidence, but the Indians have gone 10-18 since third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was sent down to Triple-A Columbus to “take a deep breath” (to use Francona’s summation). In that same span, Mark Reynolds, who has taken over at third, has hit just .167 over 27 games played.

Reynolds has hit just .140 (7-for-50) with one home run and one RBI in his past 14 games.

Again, it could simply be a coincidence. Or, maybe the physical demands of third base have taken a bit of a toll on Reynolds.

Either way, Chisenhall’s deep breath has included a .379 average with six home runs and 23 RBIs in 22 games at Triple-A. Granted, it’s not like he was setting the world on fire in the big leagues, but his presence allowed the Indians to keep Reynolds in a first base/designated hitter role and rotate Nick Swisher through first base/right field/DH as well.

Maybe it’s time for the Indians to consider bringing Lonnie Baseball back to the big leagues. For what it’s worth, Francona acknowledged on Monday that he left a message with Columbus manager Chris Tremie and plans on speaking with him Tuesday about Chisenhall, among other topics.

THIRD: In the seventh inning on Monday, Jurickson Profar sent a pitch from Kazmir to right field, where Swisher was playing too shallow to track down the ball. It sailed over Swisher’s head and dropped in for a leadoff double. That jump-started the game-deciding three-run rally for the Rangers. Francona said Swisher’s positioning was on the manager.

“We had him shallow there,” Francona said. “[Profar] hadn’t hit a ball there yet, and the way he runs we were taking away the single. So that’s on me. That’s not on [Swisher].”

HOME: The game’s big blow came later in the seventh, when lefty Nick Hagadone — showing signs of improvement lately — surrendered a two-run home run to veteran Lance Berkman with two outs. It was another sour turn for Cleveland’s left-handed relief situation. On the season, the Tribe’s lefties — Hagadone, Rich Hill, Scott Barnes and David Huff (no longer with the team) — have combined for a 7.61 ERA (40 ER/47.1 IP) with a 1.65 WHIP (28 BB/50 H).

ON DECK:

Indians (30-33) at Rangers (38-25)
at 8:05 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Rangers Ballpark

–JB

Covring the Bases: Game 62

69DKellyFinal: Tigers 4, Indians 1

FIRST: Don Kelly headed into Sunday’s game with a .190 batting and he was sporting a .188 mark when he stepped into the batter’s box to face Justin Masterson in the sixth inning.

From what I hear, Kelly’s also been getting the Ryan Raburn treatment of late from Tigers fans, too. That is, being booed and the like. Raburn, who heard plenty from Detroit’s faithful during his rough final season with the Tigers a year ago, was booed again after hitting a home run for the Indians on Sunday.

“I’d rather them boo me for doing that than anything else,” Raburn said with a smirk.

Back to Kelly, though.

Kelly came to the plate after Masterson walks Miguel Cabrera and gave up a single to Prince Fielder. Masterson then worked ahead in the count, 1-2, on Kelly before throwing a pitch down and in — nearly bouncing it. Kelly swung and used his best off-day golf-outing swing to send the offering just over the right-field wall at Comerica Park for the game’s decisive blow.

“I know I barreled it up,” Kelly told reporters, “but it went up, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to carry out or not.”

Well, it did. Chalk up another one for one of Masterson’s foes. With that blast, Kelly improved his career average to .368 (7-for-19) against Masterson. That was, however, Kelly’s first long ball off Cleveland’s sinkerballer.

“Usually it’s not one of those. Usually he drops it in somewhere else,” Masterson said. “This time, he dropped it in over the fence. Some guys, you get that. He’s done a good job of sticking around. He’ll crush some balls and he’s good at being able to fist them off into good spots. That’s what he’s done mostly off of me.”

SECOND: Tigers lefty Jose Alvarez — summoned from Triple-A Toledo before the game — tamed Cleveland’s slumping lineup to the tune of one run allowed (Raburn’s  home run) on three hits over six innings. In his Major League debut, Alvarez struck out seven, walked one and threw 56 of 93 pitches for strikes.

In the process, Alvarez became the first Tigers starting pitcher (since at least 1916) to have at least six innings and seven strikeouts with no more than three hits or one earned run in a Major League debut, while earning the win. The only other Detroit starter to have that line in his MLB debut was Justin Thompson in 1996, but he walked away with a no-decision.

“He did everything,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He had enough velocity. He had a very good changeup and a breaking ball that he threw in all counts. Against a guy like that, you have to stay in the middle of the field. We might’ve tried to do too much. We started getting those roll-over ground balls and things like that.”

I had a few people contact me complaining that this is always the case with the Indians. Some team brings up some pitcher from the Minors and he shuts them down in his big league debut. Well, I’m no fan of generalizations without trying to see if there’s some statistical substance behind it.

I looked at the past five years, because that is what would stick out most in the memory banks. There have been eight pitchers (Alvarez, Jake Odorizzi, Joe Kelly, Jose Quintana, Anthony Vasquez, Scott Diamond, Tyler Chatwood and Brett Cecil) who have logged at least four innings in their Major League debut against the Indians during that span. I split it at four-plus innings to eliminate the relief outings. There were no starts under five innings on the list for the time period in question.

Those eight starters combined to go 2-3 with a 3.63 ERA (18 earned runs in 44.2 innings) and 29 strikeouts against 13 walks. It’s a decent showing, but hardly spectacular.

THIRD: Since there was so much time spent in recent days detailing the woes of Nick Swisher, it needs to be pointed out that the Indians first baseman snapped out of his hitless drought in Sunday’s loss. With a single to left in the sixth inning, Swisher ended the slide at 26 at-bats — the second-longest hitless skid of his career. That said, he’s still in a 1-for-28 slump.

I talked to hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo and Francona about Swisher’s recent struggles and wrote about it in today’s notebook on Indians.com.

HOME: Tip of the cap to Pat McManamon of FOXSportsOhio.com for this final note. Of the Indians’ final 100 games, only 30 games are against teams that boast a record above .500. Cleveland is currently in a stretch of eight straight series against winning teams and has gone 4-15 so far in that span. So, it will get easier on the schedule for the Indians, whose 18-4 run through April and May came during a period of eight series featuring three winning teams.

That leads us to this classic clip from Dumb and Dumber…

ON DECK:

Indians (30-32) at Rangers (37-25)
at 8:05 p.m. ET on Monday at Rangers Ballpark

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 61

Andy Fletcher, Terry FranconaFinal: Tigers 6, Indians 4

FIRST: I guess it about sums up Nick Swisher’s fortunes lately that the man couldn’t even have a conversation without getting his manager ejected from a ballgame.

At least that was the picture painted by Swisher following Cleveland’s latest loss — No. 6 in a row. Before the bottom of the eighth inning, Swisher engaged home plate umpire Andy Fletcher to “have a nice little conversation” according to the Indians first baseman. Swisher wouldn’t delve into specifics other than to say he had questions over the way things were being run.

“I had a couple questions about some things,” Swisher said. “Then the finger pointing started and that’s when the conversation started to escalate. That was it. And then the next thing you know, I was getting blocked out [by manager Terry Francona].”

Francona said he didn’t realize Swisher and Fletcher were arguing, but the manager noticed things getting out of hand in a hurry.

“When I saw Andy get a little more animated, I got out there,” Francona said. “I had no intention of getting thrown out of the game. I just wanted to get in-between he and Swish. The way Andy approached me, I thought he lost his composure. I don’t think I had any chance of staying in that game. Spit was coming out of his mouth, and [he was] gesturing and everything.

“I didn’t know they were even arguing. It looked to me like they were talking and them I saw him gesturing toward Swish, so I realized I had to get out there and get in the way. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but the way he acted towards me, I don’t know how I could stay in the game.”

Francona was indeed ejected, for the second time this season. Both have come during this six-game slump. He was also tossed from Sunday’s home game against Tampa Bay.

SECOND: Say what you will about the team’s recent play, but the Indians have been in each of the last five losses. Cleveland has lost each of the past four by two runs or fewer and each of the last five by three runs or fewer. In each of the last four games, the Indians have had the tying run on base or at the plate in the eighth inning or later.

“I feel like we’re right there,” Swisher said. “You kind of see the wins and loss column, but it kind of feels like [we need] that one hit, man. I feel like we have the tying run up to the plate every game. We just need to break through — we really do.”

I had a few people ask why veteran lefty Jason Giambi didn’t pinch hit in the ninth inning with two runners on base and righty Jose Valverde on the mound. Francona noted that lefty Drew Smyly was warming up for Detroit, so the Indians checked with Giambi and Mike Aviles and opted to have Aviles face Valverde in the final at-bat.

THIRD: The Indians summoned right-hander Carlos Carrasco from Triple-A Columbus for Saturday’s start (Zach McAllister landed on the disabled list with a sprained right middle finger). In just four innings, Carrasco allowed six runs on 10 hits with one strikeout and three walks. He loaded the bases in each of the first three innings and paid for it.

Part of the problem? Carrasco’s inability to pitch inside.

“His stuff is electric,” Francona said. “But there’s still some learning to do, because he didn’t pitch in. If he lets them get their arms extended and then it takes away some of the effectiveness of his breaking ball, because they’re not respecting in. When he learns to start throwing that fastball in, he’s going to be something special.”

Here is what Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter had to say about Carrasco:

“He throws hard. I mean, he’s 94-97 [mph] and you don’t know where the ball is going. It’s uncomfortable. Effectively wild, but today he got behind in the count and we were able to capitalize on him getting behind and getting the count in our favor.”

HOME: Part of the issue lately for the Tribe — a big problem down the stretch last season — has been playing behind early. Consider that the Indians have been outscored 26-2 in the first three innings in the last six games combined. The rotation has gone 0-6 with an 8.49 ERA over the last six games.

“We’re competing. The results just aren’t there right now,” Francona said. “We’re playing from behind a lot and that’s a hard way to play, but if you’re going to do it you’ve got to keep fighting. It’ll be more fun when we play with a lead, but if we’re not, the next choice is to come back and win a game from behind.”

“We’ve just got to win, man,” Swisher said. “A lot of us aren’t feeling too good right now. It’s a frustrating time, man. It’s a super frustrating time for everybody. We’ve just got to go out there and find a way to win a game. Start with one game and it’ll snowball into something good.”

ON DECK:

Indians (30-31) at Tigers (34-26)
at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday at Comerica Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 60

MLB: Cleveland Indians at New York YankeesFinal: Tigers 7, Indians 5

FIRST: Mama said there would be days like this.

It was an evening to forget at the ol’ ballyard for Cleveland’s Nick Swisher on Friday. He went 0-for-4 in the batter’s box, extending his hitless drought to 20 at-bats, and he made a pair of errors (one with his arm and another with his glove) at first base.

The baseball gods saw to it that Swisher was at the plate for the game’s final moment. He grounded out to second base to end the contest, while representing the tying run.

“It was just a bad day,” Swisher said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s just one of those rough days. You’ve got to forget about these and move on.”

And, really, what more can he say?

The first error came in Detroit’s three-run second inning. With Brayan Pena on first and one out, Swisher gloved a grounder from Ramon Santiago. Swisher quickly fired the ball toward second base, but it was off the mark and shortstop Mike Aviles didn’t have a clear shot at it. Swisher was trying for a double play, but he admitted he should have just taken the sure out at first base.

“I just tried to get a little greedy,” Swisher said. “Pena is not exactly a fast runner. I thought I was going to be able to do that, but I should’ve just taken the out at first.”

The second miscue was a ball off the glove and through the wickets from Jhonny Peralta in the fifth inning.

Swisher has played 342 games at first base in his career. This marked only the fourth time he’s made two errors in the same game.

At the plate, Swisher’s 0-for-20 (dating back to Saturday) marks the second-longest hitless drought of his career. His longest is a skid of 28 at-bats running from Sept. 2-9 last season with the Yankees. Through 54 games this season, Swisher is batting .244 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs for the Indians.

In the fifth, following a three-run, five-hit push by his teammates, Swisher offered at a first-pitch changeup from Justin Verlander and popped out to the shortstop.

“I’m just a little off, man,” Swisher said. “I’ve got to find a way to get it back. You go through some of these streaks during the season and you’ve just got to fight your way out of it.”

Indians manager Terry Francona has plenty of faith in Swisher’s ability to turn things around.

“I think he’s probably trying a little bit too hard,” Francona said. “He’s so conscientious. It’s a good quality, he just needs to try to relax. And he will. He’ll be up in those same situations and win games for us. It’s just, right now — you saw his last swing — he’s trying to hit the ball a long way. We love when he’s up in those situations. Those types of things will turn.”

SECOND: Ubaldo Jimenez had seemingly turned a corner, going 4-1 with a 3.21 ERA in his past eight starts, averaging nearly six innings per outing over that span. And perhaps Friday’s debacle will just be a slight setback in his improving season. We’ll see. Right now, however, Big U’s recent performance against the Tigers has been troubling.

In his last two outings against Detroit, Jimenez has allowed 11 runs (nine earned) on 14 hits in seven innings, in which he’s walked six, struck out six and piled up 181 pitches. That’s an average of 25.9 pitches per inning. In the second inning on Friday, Jimenez labored through 42 tosses (though Swisher’s error did create some extra work).

“I was pressing too hard probably to get the next guy out and I just couldn’t,” Jimenez said of his second inning. “In the first inning, I felt really good. In the second inning, everything was going the other way. I threw too many pitches in that inning and after that I was kind of fatigued.”

Francona pulled the plug at 85 pitches after Jimenez allowed three straight hits to open the fourth.

“With Verlander on the mound, we were just trying to stop it right there,” Francona said. “And our guys did a pretty good job.”

Indeed, Cleveland’s bullpen only allowed one earned run over the next five innings. The Indians’ offense also rallied a bit — three runs in the fifth, and then two in the ninth (on a home run each for Jason Giambi and Drew Stubbs) — but the damage had been done.

THIRD: Verlander entered the evening with a 7.43 ERA (22 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings) in his last five turns, dating back to his May 11 meeting with Cleveland. In his past two starts against the Tribe, the righty toiled through 220 pitches and gave up nine runs (eight earned) on 16 hits in 10 innings. This time, Verlander limited the Indians to three runs on seven hits across seven frames.

“He has another gear,” Francona said. “Whatever pitches he has, you can almost multiply it, because he can pitch with his fastball at different velocities.”

HOME: Cleveland has now dropped five in a row, matching a season-worst losing streak. The team has lost five straight three times this year, including two such streaks within the past 14 games. The Indians have lost 13 of their last 17 games, dating back to May 21. They were in first with a lead of 2 1/2 games before that 17-game stretch, and now sit 3 1/2 games back of the first-place Tigers. In this recent 17-game slide, the rotation is 4-9 with a 4.69 ERA and the offense has hit .242 as a whole. Interestingly enough, the Tribe has hit .313 with runners in scoring position in that span compared to just .219 in other situations.

Francona is hardly giving up on his club, which went 18-4 before this recent tumble.

“Oviously you care when the results aren’t there,” Francona said, “but I think they trust each other and I think they believe in each other. It’s just obviously we’re all hoping for better results. This team is so special in my mind already that I always believe. And I don’t think that’s going to change. I just think we’re going to figure this out. In the meantime, sure, you hate to lose and it’s so personal. But we’ll figure it out.”

Another good Francona quote to leave you with tonight:

“You’ve got to fight through it. That’s the only way to go. I think it’s our responsibility to try to make things go our way — not hope.”

ON DECK:

Indians (30-30) at Tigers (33-26)
at 4:05 p.m. ET at Comerica Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 59

65HafnerFinal: Yankees 6, Indians 4

FIRST: Much like a good play, this Indians season has included three acts. The only problem is there are 162 games on the schedule — not 59. Cleveland needs to find a new scriptwriter.

The good side in that is that there are 100-plus games left for the Indians to make fans forget all about this ugly 16-game stretch of baseball. That’s what the club hopes to accomplish. Asked after the latest loss if he felt the Indians could compete for one of the two Wild Card playoff spots, Nick Swisher scoffed at the idea.

He wasn’t scoffing at making the playoffs. He didn’t like someone limiting the expectations. Swisher said the Indians have their sights on the division.

“Wild Card? I’m not thinking Wild Card, bro,” Swisher said. “This squad is different, man. This is a completely different team. Fifteen new faces. A completely different coaching staff. We’re going to go through our ups and downs, and we’ve got a lot of learning to do still.

“But, man, I think we’ve got so much talent in here. Maybe it’s just me that thinks that, bro. But I think everybody in this clubhouse agrees with me.”

Some Cleveland fans might scoff at all the scoffing. After all, the Indians were 30-15 and riding high on May 23 in 2011 when things began to fall apart. Last year, it was May 24 when the second-half slide was initiated. This season, May 21 is currently circled as the date when the good feelings of the first two months began to fade in a brutal slump.

It is up to the Indians to reverse the trend.

“I wouldn’t say we’re in a downward trend,” Indians starter Corey Kluber said. “I just think we’re going through a bit of a tough stretch now. I don’t think anybody is hitting the panic button. We have a long time left in the season, a long time for us to turn things around. It’s just a couple games in a bad stretch. Nobody in this clubhouse is reading any more into it than that.”

Let’s take a look at this season in three parts.

April 2-28: 8-13 record

Note: stretch runs through Game 1 doubleheader on April 28

Offense: .245/.318/.418/.736
Pitching: 4.65 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 4.1 BB/9
Rotation: 5-13, 5.72 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 4.4 BB/9
Bullpen: 3-0, 2.93 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 3.2 BB/9

April 28-May 20: 18-4

Note: stretch begins with Game 2 of doubleheader on April 28

Offense: .286/.351/.503/.854
Pitching: 3.24 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9
Rotation: 13-4, 3.24 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
Bullpen: 5-0, 3.23 ERA, 9.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9

May 21-June 5: 4-12

Offense: .238/.300/.351/.651
Pitching: 5.86 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.8 BB/9
Rotation: 4-8, 4.55 ERA, 9.0 K/9, 3.4 BB/9
Bullpen: 0-4, 8.47 ERA, 10.4 K/9, 4.7 BB/9

In the first section, it’s the rotation that was the primary culprit, though the offense had yet to really hit its stride. By the end of April, the rotation improved dramatically, the offense showed its full potential and the bullpen held steady. In the recent slump, the bullpen has been the main problem, but the rotation and offense have also lagged. Baseball is a game of ups and downs, but so far this Cleveland team has been all over the map.

SECOND: Kluber, despite having six runs (four earned) on his final pitching line, deserves some credit for the outing he gave the Indians on Wednesday. The first two runs allowed (on a Travis Hafner homer) in the first inning came after Michael Bourn’s uncharacteristic missed-catch error. In the second, Kluber admitted he hung some ill-time pitches that led to New York’s four-run outburst.

Following Brett Gardner’s three-run homer in the second, Kluber settled down and allowed two hits to the next 16 batters he faced. This was a game that likely would have slipped away from Kluber last year and led to an overworked bullpen. Instead, the starter went six, striking out seven across his final four innings.

Cleveland just couldn’t come back against lefty CC Sabathia, who turned in a complete game.

“We had to dig out of a hole, but he gave us a chance,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “That says a lot for him and his competitiveness. That’s just a pretty big hole to dig out of with CC pitching.”

THIRD: Swisher said Sabathia used an unexpected approach against the Indians in Wednesday’s game, throwing the hitters off early. The big lefty was perfect through 14 hitters before giving up a single to Mike Aviles, and Cleveland did not break through for its four runs until the sixth and seventh innings. Sabathia had nine strikeouts and one walk in the win.

“He was different today — way different,” Swisher said. “A lot of breaking balls first pitch, man. He was really spotting that up. You go into the batter’s box, and you’re used to seeing 94-95 mph, and all of a sudden you’re seeing these backdoor breaking balls coming.”

HOME: Within Cleveland’s late comeback attempt was a two-run, two-out home run from catcher Yan Gomes in the seventh inning. Over his past 13 games, Yanny Bench has hit .347 (17-for-49) with four homers, four doubles and 13 RBIs. He’s now hitting .368 (7-for-19) with three homers and six RBIs with two outs, .381 (8-for-21) with two homers and 12 RBIs with RISP, .444 (4-for-9) with one homer and four RBIs with RISP and two outs, and .667 (6-for-9) with three homers and six RBIs in at-bats ending on the first pitch.

ON DECK:

Thursday: off-day, First-Year Player Draft
Friday: Indians (30-29) at Tigers (31-25)*

*does not include Wednesday’s result

–JB

Covering the bases: Game 58

64RiveraFinal: Yankees 4, Indians 3

FIRST: Think about this for a moment. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has not blown a save against the Indians since July 14, 2002. Actually, Rivera has not issued a single walk against a Cleveland batter since that same game more than a decade ago.

Indians relievers have walked 1,942 hitters dating back to 2003. Rivera has walked zero Indians hitters in that same time period. Zero.

Where were you on July 14, 2002? I think I was waiting tables at Chili’s in Calumet City, Ill.

On Tuesday night, the Indians may very well have seen Rivera for the last time. He plans on hanging up the ol’ spikes at season’s end after a 19-year career that is worthy of a place in the Hall of Fame. He has saved each of the first two games of this series so — chances are — he won’t be out for the ninth on Wednesday afternoon. If that is indeed is it for Rivera against the Tribe, well, on behalf of Cleveland, happy retirement.

In the time since July 14, 2002, when Bill Selby hit a walk-off grand slam against Rivera, all he has done is post a 0.66 ERA (two earned runs in 27 1/3 innings) with 19 saves, 30 strikeouts and no walks against the Indians in 26 appearances.

“Mariano’s got what, 600, or 800,000 saves right now?” Nick Swisher said with a laugh.

Sure feels like it. After Tuesday’s he’s up to 21 on the year and 629 for his career. Not too bad for an old guy.

SECOND: All of the compliments aside, Rivera did get a helping hand from home-plate umpire Tony Randazzo in the final frame. After striking out Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi, Rivera’s first pitch to Mike Aviles sailed high and outside for a check-swing ball. Well, actually, no. Randazzo ruled it a fouled first strike.

Aviles argued at the plate and manager Terry Francona hustled out to make sure things didn’t get out of control. Two pitches later, Aviles flew out to right field and quickly made the turn to get back to Randazzo. As he ran by the ump, Aviles aired some grievances and was promptly ejected from a game that had already ended.

Aviles and Randazzo continued to jaw at one another as they exited the field, with Francona and third-base coach Brad Mills in the middle.

“It’s a situation where you’re down one and you have maybe the best closer in the history of baseball and the game, he doesn’t need any help,” Francona said. “Mike, you get emotional sometimes. I just thought that, at that point, Tony should’ve kept walking or apologized to Mike. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s a tough call. That’s a tough position to be put in when you’re facing Rivera.”

THIRD: Lefty Scott Kazmir gave the Indians a solid effort, but Cleveland was shut down by Yankees righty David Phelps for the second time this season, and trying to make a comeback late against New York’s late-inning arms is a tall task. Kazmir gave the Tribe six innings and survived for the most part despite struggling to command his fastball in stretches.

Kazmir ended with seven strikeouts and two walks in six innings, during which he allowed four runs on seven hits. The first run came via an RBI single from Ichiro Suzuki in the third and three more came — two hitters later — via a three-run homer from Mark Teixeira. That’s two homers in two games for Teixeira, who came off the disabled list five games ago.

“He was really good,” Francona said of Kazmir. “But he hung a changeup to the wrong guy. That spread out the game. That’s part of what they do, because he really battled. He had a tough time commanding his fastball tot he right-handed hitters, which has not been his M.O. so far. But he held his stuff the whole game. He had as good a breaking ball as we’ve seen, and he competed.

“I thought he was OK. He made a mistake to Teixeira, but I thought he held his stuff the entire game.”

HOME: Let’s take a second to appreciate a great effort from lefty Nick Hagadone, who has been in need of a confidence builder in a key moment. Over his past seven games, Hagadone has posted a 14.21 ERA, which has ballooned his season ERA to 7.20. In the seventh inning, Francona handed Hagadone the ball with one out, the bases loaded and some guy named Robinson Cano at the plate.

Hagadone induced an inning-ending doubleplay groundout off Cano’s bat, preserving Cleveland’s one-run deficit. The Indians did not come back in the end, but the lefty’s contribution should not go unnoticed.

“He was aggressive in to one of the best hitters in the game,” Francona said. “That was a big part of the game and he rose to the occasion.”

ON DECK:

Indians (30-28) at Yankees (33-25)
at 1:05 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.

–JB

Month in review: May

GomesWalkOffIt is June 4 and the Indians have lost 10 of their past 14 games. All-Stars Chris Perez (right shoulder) and Asdrubal Cabrera (right quad) are sidelined with injuries. The upcoming schedule includes a string of games against some of the league’s top teams.

There are four months to go, but this feels like a critical stretch for Cleveland.

That is what made May so important. The Indians pieced together an 18-win month in which the offense continued to produce at a solid rate and the starting pitching did its part to help rack up some victories. The Tribe pulled itself out of the division basement and tasted first place, even while battling through some uncharacteristic bullpen woes.

Indians fans are no strangers to hot starts. There was the 30-15 opening to the 2011 season and the run to first place last May. In both cases, the Tribe’s lack of depth was eventually exposed by injuries and players producing above their career norms regressed to reality. Well, the players believe this team — with more versatility and depth built into the roster — can overcome the current obstacles, and others to come.

May was a look into this team’s ability when it’s clicking on all cylinders.

Let’s take a look at the month that was.

Record: 18-12
Home: 14-5
Road: 4-7

AL Central standings as of June 4:

1. Tigers 30-25 (–)
2. Indians 30-27 (1)
3. Twins 25-29 (4.5)
4. White Sox 24-31 (6)
5. Royals 23-31 (6.5)

Offense (AL rank)

.256 average (8)
.323 on-base (8)
.420 slugging (7)
.743 OPS (8)
146 runs (3)
259 hits (7)
63 doubles (4)
5 triples (6)
31 home runs (t-7)
140 RBI (3)
95 walks (7)
256 strikeouts (t-13)
26 stolen bases (1)
99 extra-base hits (t-3)
425 total bases (t-6)

Pitching (AL rank)

18 wins (t-1)
4.40 ERA (10)
3.70 rot. ERA (2)
5.75 bullpen ERA (15)
5 saves (10)
267.2 innings (1)
261 hits (11)
136 runs (10)
131 earned runs (11)
33 home runs (8)
106 walks (13)
280 strikeouts (t-1)
.255 average (8)
1.37 WHIP (9)

NOTES: Cleveland’s 18 wins were the most for May since 2007, when the team went 19-11 in the season’s second month. The Indians have reached at least 18 wins in a month 11 times since 2000 — most recently in April 2011. … The Tribe’s pitching staff set a single-month franchise record with 280 strikeouts. The previous mark of 264 was set in July 1964 and matched in August 1967. … The Indians’ 99 extra-base hits were the most in one month by the team since July 2008. … Cleveland’s 146 runs were the most in a single month since May 2009. This marked only the second time (also in May 2012) since 2000 that the Indians had at least 26 stolen bases in a single calendar month.

Player of the month: 2B Jason Kipnis
Stats: .261/.331/.550/.880, 7 HR, 7 2B, 2 3B, 22 RBI, 29 H, 21 R, 5 SB, 12 BB, 28 games

Notes: Kipnis became the 1st Indians hitter since August 2006 (Travis Hafner) to have at least seven home runs, 16 extra-base hits, 20 runs, 20 RBIs and an .880 OPS in a single month. No Tribe second baseman has had that line in a single month since Roberto Alomar in July 1999.

Previous 2013 winners: C Carlos Santana (co-winner, April), INF Mark Reynolds (co-winner, April)

Pitcher of the month: RHP Justin Masterson
Stats: 4-1, 3.02 ERA, 41.2 IP, 44 K, 14 BB, 1.03 WHIP, .196 average, six starts

Notes: Masterson became the 1st Indians pitcher since September 2005 (CC Sabathia) to enjoy a month with at least four wins, 41.2 innings, 44 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.02 or lower. Prior to Sabathia in ’05, the previous pitcher to have a month like that for the Tribe was Bert Blyleven in September 1984.

Previous 2013 winners: Masterson (April)

Reliever of the month: RHP Cody Allen
Stats: 1.98 ERA, 13.2 IP, 1 save, 18 K, 2 BB, 0.51 WHIP, .116 average, 14 games

Notes: Allen became just the third Indians pitcher to pile up at least 18 strikeouts with no more than two walks in under 14 innings in a single month. The others are Bob Wickman (May 2001) and Sean DePaula (September 1999).

Previous 2013 winners: RHP Joe Smith (April)

Game of the month (hitter): C Yan Gomes, May 20
Stat line: 3-for-5 with 2 homers (including 3-run walk-off) and 4 RBIs in 10-8 win over Seattle

Game of the month (pitcher): Masterson, May 13
Stat line: 9 IP, 4 hits, 0 runs, 3 walks, 9 strikeouts in 1-0 win over Yankees in Game 1 of doubleheader

—————————————————————

Minor League standouts for April

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Month: INF Cord Phelps
Stats: .269/.342/.528/.869, 7 HR, 7 2B, 24 RBI, 29 H, 14 R, 26 games

Previous 2013 winners: OF Jeremy Hermida (April)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Carlos Carrasco
Stats: 2-0, 1.73 ERA, 26 IP, 29 K, 8 BB, 1.12 WHIP, .216 AVG, 5 starts

Previous 2013 winners: RHP Preston Guilmet (April)

Double-A Akron

Player of the Month: C Roberto Perez
Stats: .293/.506/.397/.903, 1 HR, 3 2B, 6 RBI, 17 H, 23 BB, 21 games

Previous 2013 winners: 1B/DH Chun Chen (April)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Jose Flores
Stats: 3-1, 1.84 ERA, 4 saves, 14.2 IP, 21 K, 3 BB, 1.02 WHIP, .222, 12 games

Previous 2013 winners: LHP T.J. House (April)

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Month: OF Luigi Rodriguez
Stats: .307/.392/.443/.835, 10 2B, 1 3B, 10 RBI, 12 R, 13 BB, 27 H, 25 games

Previous 2013 winners: SS Francisco Lindor (April)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Cody Anderson
Stats: 2-2, 2.67 ERA, 30.1 IP, 34 K, 4 BB, 1.15 WHIP, .265 AVG, five starts

Previous 2013 winners: Anderson (April)

Class A (low) Lake County

Player of the Month: OF LeVon Washington
Stats: .295/.427/.443/.869, 7 2B, 1 3B, 7 RBI, 8 SB, 14 BB, 18 H, 17 games

Previous 2013 winners: OF Logan Vick (April)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Ryan Merritt
Stats: 2-2, 2.32 ERA, 31 IP, 23 K, 9 BB, 1.03 WHIP, .209 AVG, five starts

Previous 2013 winners: RHP Michael Peoples (April)

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 57

63CabbyFinal: Yankees 7, Indians 4

The calendar has flipped to June and the Indians are in contention. Is the Tribe for real this year? Or is Cleveland going through another first-half tease similar to the past two seasons? There are four months to find out, so it’s as good a time as any to bring back Covering the Bases to this space.

FIRST: It was clear immediately that something was wrong with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in the fifth inning on Monday. Well, let’s take a step back for a second. It was clear on Wednesday that Cabrera was still dealing with his right quad issue.

We asked about it on Thursday.

“He’s been feeling it for a couple weeks, so we keep an eye on him,” Indians manager Terry Francona said at the time. “I check with him after [games] to make sure he’s OK, because we always have [Mike] Aviles who we can fire in there if we need to.”

Well, Aviles, come on down.

Cabrera chopped a pitch to Robinson Cano, thought he could leg it out and “felt a pop” in his quad while hustling up the line. Now, the two-time All-Star shortstop is heading back to Cleveland to undergo an MRI and the “Cabrera placed on 15-day Disabled List” press release is likely coming down the pike. In the meantime, Aviles will move to shortstop.

This is bad in the sense that Cabrera is arguably Cleveland’s top hitter, a sound defender and a leader on the team. The shortstop has played through nicks, bruises and stiff muscles at times in each of the past few years. Shoot, three years ago, he came back from a broken forearm probably before he should have, but that shows you how much he wants to be on that field.

The good in this is that Cleveland — in theory — shouldn’t be as exposed as it was in years’ past. Given Cabrera’s history of second-half fades, whether slump or injury induced, the Indians worked hard to get a viable backup shortstop. That’s why acquiring Aviles, who served as Boston’s regular at short last season, was so important for the Tribe this winter.

Look at the names behind Cabrera in the 2012 game logs for shortstop: Brent Lillibridge, Jason Donald, Juan Diaz, Jack Hannahan and Cord Phelps.

Things are a bit different this year. Aviles — capable of starting on other teams — moves off the bench for the Indians and the rest of the lineup stays in order.

“Mike Aviles will shine. I have no doubt about that,” Francona said. “He prepares so he can play every day, so he can handle it. We know he’s a good enough player and, physically, he’ll step right in and shine.”

It helps Cleveland’s confidence some that the club has already endured stretches without the likes of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, and the team has kept its head above water. The positional versatility built into the roster, along with the enhanced bench, has helped in that regard. No longer does this team feel one injury away from falling off the rails.

“He’s a big part of our team. He’s helped us be where we’re at,” Indians starter Justin Masterson said of Cabrera. “But what’s also great about this team is the guys we have to fill in — our bench players — in case he needs a few days or something like that, we’ve got guys who are really good replacements. When he’s able to come back, whether it be tomorrow or a couple of days, he’ll fit back right in and help lead the way for us.”

SECOND: Do you remember the final entry to Nick Swisher’s New York chapter? he hit .167 (5-for-30) in the playoffs, misplayed a ball in the outfield, received hurtful jeers from the bleacher creatures and then nearly ignored their roll call in his final game at Yankee Stadium.

Swisher would rather not go over all that again.

“Live in the now, bro,” he said before Monday’s game.

Well, it turns out that Yankees fans have forgiven Swisher for those final frustrating days. When he stepped up to the plate for the first time as a visitor, he received cheers as his name was announced. Swisher waved to the crowd from the batter’s box. In the bottom of the first, the creatures chanted “Swisher! Swisher!” It was his own personal roll call, and he waved and smiled in response.

“It was great. It was just great to be back and great to see everybody,” Swisher said after the game. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been back here. It’s awesome, man. Thanks to everybody. It was great.   This place was so great to me. Just to be able to come back, whether it’s as a visitor or anything, just being back in the stadium, it was great. Same electricity. Just awesome.”

Worth noting: Swisher wore his “Bro-hio” shirt in his first trip back to the Bronx.

THIRD: One positive within Monday’s loss was Cleveland kicking veteran lefty Andy Pettitte to the showers after only 4.2 innings. The Tribe tagged him for four runs on seven hits with three walks. On the season, the Indians are now hitting .272 (5th in the AL) with a .338 OBP (4th), .461 SLG (1st) and .798 OPS (1st) against lefties. The Tribe leads the AL in homers (26), RBI (100), runs (105) and hits (187) against left-handers. Last season? The Indians put up a .234/.312/.352/.664 slash line versus southpaws. What a difference a year makes.

HOME: Masterson headed into Monday’s outing 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his past five turns and 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA in his past four turns. Well, things did not go so well against the Yankees. The righty gave up seven runs on nine hits in 6.1 innings. Five runs came courtesy of a grand slam (Mark Teixeira in the third) and solo homer (Travis Hafner in the seventh). The other two scored on a shot up the middle from Brett Gardner in the sixth inning. On that play, only one run should have scored, but Masterson — admittedly angry over his spun slider to Gardner — cut off the throw to the plate from center fielder Michael Bourn.

“I was frustrated,” Masterson said. “And then I made an idiotic play to boot after that, which is not typically what I do. That’s just the good Lord keeping you nice and humble once you get too excited about yourself. By no means, were we very excited about ourself tonight.”

Francona wasn’t too hard on the pitcher.

“He just made a rare mistake of judgment and it probably cost us a run there,” said the manager. “He knows it. He feels worse than anybody.”

ON DECK:

Indians (30-27) at Yankees (32-25)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Yankee Stadium

–JB

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