July 2013

Covering the Bases: Game 106

730RaburnFinal: Indians 7, White Sox 4

FIRST: The Indians had the Bullpen Mafia in recent seasons. Now, Cleveland has the Bench Mob.

Tuesday’s win was another entry into this season’s growing list of heroics from the men who occupy the bench. Backup catcher Yan Gomes had two hits, including a two-run double, and utility man Ryan Raburn delivered the game’s big blow: a two-run, two-out, go-ahead pinch-hit single in the eighth.

“This is a night where maybe Chris deserves part of the win,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Francona was referring to GM Chris Antonetti, who had a brilliant offseason in terms of assembling a versatile, productive bench.

Antonetti reeled in utility man Mike Aviles and Gomes from the Blue Jays in a trade for reliever Esmil Rogers. The GM netted Raburn and veteran Jason Giambi on Minor League contracts, and they each won jobs on the big league roster during Spring Training.

What has that group done to this point?

Aviles: .265/.296/.385/.681, 6 HR, 10 2B, 29 RBI, 80 G (234 AB)
Giambi: .197/.302/.409/.711, 7 HR, 6 2B, 24 RBI, 46 G (127 AB)
Gomes: .291/.325/.520/.845, 7 HR, 9 2B, 2 3B, 26 RBI, 44 G (148 AB)
Raburn: .272/.369/.544/.914, 11 HR, 13 2B, 33 RBI, 61 G (169 AB)

For those scoring at home, that’s 31 homers, 38 doubles, 71 extra-base hits and 112 RBI in 678 at-bats by that foursome. That’d be an MVP-contending season right there. The group boasts a rate of 6.1 at-bats per RBI. To put that into perspective, if that were an American League hitter, he’d rank 14th overall, sandwiched between Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols.

None of that takes into account the defensive side of things.

Aviles has given the Indians a legitimate backup shortstop after the club cycled through five (Brent Lillibridge, Jason Donald, Juan Diaz, Jack Hannahan and Cord Phelps) in that role in 2012. Aviles can also man second and third base, and the outfield, if needed. Likewise, Raburn can hold his own at multiple infield spots and the corner outfield positions.

Gomes headed into Tuesday’s game as the Majors’ leader with a 55-percent caught-stealing rate and the Tribe’s pitching staff had a 3.88 ERA with him behind the plate.

“It’s awesome, man,” Raburn said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bench this productive. It’s great to see guys that can come up and step up and contribute. It seems like everybody off the bench has come in and helped, whether it’s playing a game or two here and there, coming off the bench for a pinch hit, and helping the ballclub.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Indians were the only team in the Majors to have five players (Aviles, Giambi, Gomes, Giambi and Lonnie Chisenhall) with at least six homers and 20 RBI in under 250 at-bats. The Padres were the only other team in baseball with as many as four players to achieve those qualifiers.

“That’s a nice way to play,” said Francona, referring to having a versatile and productive bench. “That’s a nice way to play. Our bench is very productive in a number of ways. And one of them is the way the complement each other.”

SECOND: In the third inning, a slice of baseball history took place.

Gomes settled into the batter’s box for the Indians to face Andre Rienzo of the White Sox. It marked the first time in Major League history that two players born in Brazil squared off. Gomes received an 89-mph slider, and the catcher welcomed Rienzo to The Show with a single up the middle.

Rienzo came off the mound, and motioned toward Gomes, who was smiling at first base.

“We’re both just looking at each other, laughing,” Gomes said with a smile. “He was just kind of like, ‘Come on, man. If you’re going to get a base hit, get a little harder one than that.’ But I mean, hey, a base hit’s a base hit.”

The game was broadcast in their home country on ESPN Brazil.

“It was awesome,” Gomes said. “Such a huge thing for our country. I’ve been saying this all year, and it’s just going to get better.”

In seven innings, Rienzo held the Indians to three runs (none earned) on five hits, finishing with six strikeouts and three walks. He became the first starting pitcher to go at least seven innings with no earned runs allowed in a big league debut against Cleveland since Detroit’s Andy Van Hekken on Sept. 3, 2002.

“He was impressive,” Francona said. “He threw fastballs down, up, by design. He hrew a breaking ball that was as good. He commanded it. He threw some for strikes where he had to get back into the count. He threw some that were in and out of the zone when he got ahead. He was really impressive.”

THIRD: That lefty Scott Kazmir turned in the worst performance from the rotation in the past 18 games says a lot about how strong the starting staff has been of late. Kazmir allowed a season-high nine hits in five innings, during which he was charged with four runs with three strikeouts and no walks.

With that, the rotation’s ERA has “ballooned” to 2.08 (26 earned runs in 112.2 IP) over the past 18 games, dating back to July 8.

“I don’t think he felt real good about his stuff tonight,” Francona said of Kazmir. “It was just one of
those nights where he came out and he was having a little bit of trouble getting loose. But, to his credit, he hung in there.”

So did the Tribe’s bullpen, which followed with four shutout innings to give the offense time to come back against Chicago. Right-hander Matt Albers led the way with 2.2 scoreless frames, lowering his season ERA to 2.75 for the Indians.

HOME: A key moment that could easily be overlooked took place just prior to Raburn’s momentum-swinging pinch-hit single in the eighth inning. After Carlos Santana came through with a two-out base hit, to put runners on the corners with two outs, Francona sent the fleet-footed Drew Stubbs to first base to pinch run.

While Raburn was hitting against White Sox righty Matt Lindstom, Stubbs swiped second base.

“Lindstrom’s got real good stuff,” Francona said, “but he doesn’t necessarily hold runners the best. We
have one of the best base stealers in the game. That’s just our best chance to go ahead.”

It proved to be a crucial move, considering Raburn followed with his base hit to center field. Asdrubal Cabrera scored easily from third and Stubbs, thanks to the stolen base, sprinted home ahead of the throw to push Cleveland to a 5-4 lead. Gomes then put the game away with a two-run double.

“If Raburn gets the hit and he doesn’t steal, maybe we’re still playing,” Francona said. “Who knows? It put us in a really good position.”

EXTRA INNING: Following the game, Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano had an emotional goodbye with his teammates. Pestano wasn’t traded, but he was optioned to Triple-A, according to a source. That vacates a spot on the active roster, possibly for lefty Marc Rzepczynski (acquired from the Cardinals on Tuesday) or another player coming via trade. The non-waiver Trade Deadline is 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

ON DECK:

White Sox (40-64) at Indians (58-48)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 105

729GiambiFinal: Indians 3, White Sox 2

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona knows there isn’t much else he can say to convey his appreciation and respect for what Jason Giambi brings to his team.

Francona just isn’t sure he’s got it right, yet.

“You could fill up a book,” Francona said, “because I keep trying to say how I feel about him, and I just don’t feel like I ever quite get there. That’s how valuable I feel like he is to our team.”

On Monday night, Giambi entered off the bench as a pinch-hitter for Mark Reynolds to face White Sox reliever Ramon Troncoso. The veteran lefty received a 1-1 slider that floated high in the zone, and he deposited it into the bushes beyond the center-field wall.

What followed was frenzy.

Giambi made his way around the bases, and then jumped into the pack of teammates at the plate. His jersey was tugged, his hair tousled, and Nick Swisher leapt into his arms. Francona also greeted Giambi with a bear hug, and the aging slugger thanked his manager by hoisting him into the air.

“It was fun until it hurt,” Francona said.

Swisher later drenched Giambi with a cooler filled with water.

“I might catch pneumonia,” Giambi joked. “I’m a little old to be dunked with cold water.”

If you thought Giambi was a little too old to be swatting walk-off home runs, well, you would’ve been right. In fact, he just became the oldest player in baseball history to launch a walk-off blast, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Oldest players to hit a walk-off home run
1. Jason Giambi (42 years, 202 days), 2013
2. Hank Aaron (42 years, 157 days), 1976
3. Tony Perez (42 years, 110 days), 1984

Giambi headed into his ninth-inning at-bat with a .056 (1-for-18) average over his previous seven games. In the 19 games prior to that stretch, the 42-year-old designated hitter posted a .289/.418/.622/1.040 slash line over 45 at-bats. And, while his overall season line (.194/.301/.411) isn’t that pretty, Giambi has been productive.

Consider that Giambi now has an at-bats per RBI rate of 5.17 through 124 ABs. Among Major League hitters with at least 120 at-bats this season, Giambi entered Monday’s game ranked 20th with a rate of 5.35 AB/RBI. Among American League hitters, Giambi ranked ninth.

American League leaders in AB/RBI
minimum 120 at-bats, entering Monday
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3.82, 378 at-bats
2. Chris Davis, 3.94, 382 at-bats
3. Edwin Encarnacion, 4.70, 385 at-bats
4. David Ortiz, 4.76, 319 at-bats
5. Mark DeRosa, 5.11, 138 at-bats
6. Wil Myers, 5.15, 134 at-bats
7. Mike Carp, 5.18, 145 at-bats
8. Ryan Raburn, 5.29, 164 at-bats
9. Jason Giambi, 5.35, 123 at-bats
10. Prince Fielder, 5.36, 402 at-bats

“He has a pretty big presence in the batter’s box,” Francona said. “I think people, when I get asked a lot, they look at his batting average. You look at his run production for his at-bats, it’s tremendous. And what he does, before he even steps in the batter’s box, you can’t put a price on it.”

Said Swisher: “Whether he gets one at-bat a week or he gets 10-15 at-bats a week, any time a guy like that is successful, the atmosphere is off the charts, man. We were so happy for him. That’s what we brought him here to do. The guy is still built like a Greek god. He can still hit the ball a quarter mile. We saw that tonight.

“Not only that, he’s done so much for everybody in this locker room. In a sense, he’s almost like a player coach, in a way, just because he has so much knowledge. A lot of us, we almost wish we could have the career he’s had. To have a guy like that in our locker room, and for him to hit the game-winning home run, it was electric.”

SECOND: Giambi ended the evening with an exclamation point, but until then the starting pitching was poised to steal the storyline once again.

Right-hander Zach McAllister, making his second start since coming off the disabled list due to a finger injury, gave the Tribe seven strong innings. McAllister scattered five hits and limited the White Sox to two runs, mixing in two strikeouts and one walk in a 90-pitch effort.

“He wanted to stay in,” Francona said. “I thought, just, second start back, not to push it. He gave up just the two, and that was with two outs. I thought he really threw the ball well. He used both sides of the plate. The more reps he gets, the sharper he’s going to get.”

With that outing, the Indians’ starting staff is now 8-2 (McAllister took a no-decision) with a 1.84 ERA over 107.2 innings in 17 games, dating back to July 8.

Cleveland did, however, see its impressive scoreless streak come to a close at 26 innings. After back-to-back shutouts by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, McAllister blanked Chicago for five innings before flinching in the sixth. The 26 straight shutout innings were the most for the Indians since a 31-inning run in 2008. Those represent the two longest streaks for the team over the past 14 seasons.

Herb Score, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon remain the last three Indians pitchers to piece together three consecutive shutouts, doing so in 1956.

THIRD: Fortunately for the Indians, a blown call in the eighth inning turned into a footnote rather than a critical turning point.

With one out, Alexei Ramirez reached on a fielding error by reliever Cody Allen and then, according to second-base umpire D.J. Reyburn, stole second. Replays clearly showed that second baseman Jason Kipnis received a perfect throw from catcher Carlos Santana and tagged Ramirez on the left arm before he made contact with the bag.

Kipnis was heated and Francona came out to argue the play.

The Indians retired the next two batters, rendering the call moot in the grand scheme of things.

“I don’t think he was safe,” Francona said. “That would have been a tough one to take.”

Asked what Reyburn’s explanation was, Francona didn’t have an answer.

“I wasn’t listening. I don’t know,” said the manager. “That would have been a really hard one to digest. I’d have probably ended up getting thrown out on the next pitching change.”

HOME: Within that eighth inning, Francona summoned left-hander Rich Hill from the bullpen to face slugger Adam Dunn with Ramirez on third base. Ramirez, representing the go-ahead run, advanced on a flyout to right field from Alex Rios.

Hill worked the count full before freezing Dunn with a 93-mph sinker for an inning-ending strikeout.

It was a critical out for a pitcher facing much scrutiny these days. With Wednesday’s 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline approaching, Cleveland is hunting for left-handed relief help. That has been an inconsistent aspect of the roster, and Hill is the lone lefty in the ‘pen at the moment.

“That was huge,” Francona said of Hill’s strikeout. “That’s why he’s here. Again, when he’s successful in those areas, it makes our bullpen a lot better.”

ON DECK:

White Sox (40-63) at Indians (57-48)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Indians eyeing lefty relief

The Indians continue to hunt for left-handed relief help for their bullpen.

One possible fit is Giants lefty Javier Lopez, who played under Indians manager Terry Francona during their days with the Red Sox. The 36-year-old southpaw is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, making him a likely target for Cleveland. The Indians had a scout following San Francisco earlier this month.

The Indians declined comment on potential interest in the reliever.

In 45 appearances, Lopez has posted a 1.42 ERA for the Giants. He has held left-handed hitters to a .172 average (.466 OPS) in 71 plate appearances, compared to a .281 (.712) mark in 40 plate appearances vs. right-handed batters.

Entering Monday, Cleveland’s left-handed relievers had combined for a 6.54 ERA and 1.48 WHIP on the season.

The New York Post reported that Cleveland has had talks with Colorado about lefty reliever Josh Outman, who has limited lefty hitters to a .224 average and .576 OPS, to go along with a 7.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, through 84 plate appearances this season.

The Indians may have been looking at veteran lefty Scott Downs, but the Braves acquired him from the Angels on Monday in exchange for reliever Cory Rasmus.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 104

728UbaldoFinal: Indians 6, Rangers 0

FIRST: As well as the Indians have been playing of late, they’ve essentially been stuck in neutral in terms of the standings. Cleveland just completed a three-game sweep of Texas at home for the first time since 1980. In Detroit, the Tigers finished off a brooming of the Phillies.

The Tribe had rattled off nine wins in 13 games, and has actually lost a half-game on Detroit in the American League Central race. Cleveland currently sits three games behind the Motor City on the eve of a four-game series with the cellar-dwelling White Sox.

So, as the season approaches August, let’s not ponder what happened during that month a year ago, and instead ponder whether the rolling Tribe can indeed chase down Detroit to notch a spot in the postseason.

What about the Wild Card? I say forget about that right now. Over the past 10 years, 94.6 wins on average have been required to win a Wild Card spot*. Even over the past five years, it has taken an average of 93.8 wins to make the postseason that way. Last year, when two Wild Cards were available in the AL for the first time, both clubs that made the cut won 93 games.

*This is obviously a higher number due to there only being one Wild Card in nine of the past 10 seasons. The second Wild Card reduces the average win total required to make the postseason. Over the past decade, the fifth-best team in the AL won 90.3 games on average.

Could Cleveland get in via a Wild Card? It’s not impossible, no, and the team is only a couple games back in that race at the moment. That said, the division again looks like the best route to the October stage. Over the past 10 years, the AL Central winner has won an average of 92.6 games. That average drops to 90.6 wins over the last five seasons. The AL Central winner has come under 90 victories three times in the past five years.

Looking at the coming schedule for both the Tigers and Indians, and using their home-road winning percentages against the various divisions/teams to this point, Detroit projects to finish with around 90 wins and Cleveland projects to end with about 87 wins. I’m not going to detail the entire process, but I reached those numbers with plenty of ink in the ol’ notepad, based on the clubs’ respective showings to date.

Aiming for one club projected to end around 90 wins is a more realistic goal than hoping a handful of teams in the mix for 90-plus wins collapse in unison in the Wild Card race. Right now, I just don’t see two postseason teams coming out of the Central.

It could essentially come down to how Cleveland plays against Detroit, which is 9-3 vs. the Tribe this season with seven more meetings on the schedule.

SECOND: Right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez led the charge for the Indians on Sunday, spinning eight shutout innings and holding the Rangers to two hits. His performance was just the latest in a string of strong outings by Cleveland’s rotation.

Only a few days ago, GM Chris Antonetti addressed the rotation when asked if the recent performance of the group has decreased the need to potentially find an upgrade before Wednesday’s Trade Deadline.

“To some extent,” Antonetti said. “One of the things you always have to factor in when you make a trade is: Who do you displace? Who’s position on the team does the player that you acquire, who’s spot does he take? I think when you look at the rotation, those guys have done a good job over the course of the last four or five weeks.

“So the question of which of those guys would come out of the rotation, if we acquired a starter, is not an easy question to answer.”

It’s not hard to understand Antonetti’s point.

Over the past 16 games, dating back to July 8, the Indians’ rotation has gone 8-2 with a 1.79 ERA across 100.2 innings.

“I would say that, for the most part,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “guys are attacking the strike zone better, throwing strike one. And then when we get to a 1-1 count, working ahead, not working from behind so much.”

Here’s a glance at the recent production from each staff member:

Justin Masterson
Last 3 starts: 2-0, 1.27 ERA, .141 AVG
Last 9 starts: 4-3, 3.21 ERA, .209 AVG

Ubaldo Jimenez
Last 5 starts: 2-1, 2.83 ERA, .219 AVG
Last 12 starts: 5-2, 2.93 ERA, .240 AVG

Scott Kazmir
Last 7 starts: 3-0, 1.60 ERA, .148 AVG
Last 12 starts: 4-2, 3.01 ERA, .209 AVG

Corey Kluber
Last 5 starts: 1-0, 2.67 ERA, .198 AVG
Last 14 starts: 5-3, 3.23 ERA, .246 AVG

The “weakest” part of the rotation would be right-hander Zach McAllister, but that is mostly due to the fact that he’s only made one start since his seven-week stay on the disabled list due to a finger injury. In his return on Tuesday, McAllister allowed three earned runs in a five-inning outing that was marred by poor defense. Prior to his finger issue, he went 4-3 with a 2.89 ERA and a .238 opponents’ average.

THIRD: The Indians followed up Saturday’s 1-0 win with another shutout on Sunday. Cleveland now boasts a Major League-leading 14 shutouts (11 at home) on the season. The 11 home shutouts are the most by the Indians 1968 (also 11). This was the first time that Cleveland pieced together back-to-back shutout wins since May 13-14, 2008.

“That’s a good sign,” Francona said of the shutouts. “Again, it’s something to maybe talk about when the year’s over. Hopefully, it’ll be about 30. There’s been a few games where we’ve absolutely needed them, because there’s been some 1-0 games.”

On the hill for the shutouts: Masterson (6), Jimenez (4), Kluber (2), McAllister (1), Trevor Bauer (1).

HOME: The performance of the pitching staff overshadowed a solid showing from Cleveland’s lineup, which drove Alexi Ogando’s pitch count to 92 to chase him from the game after 4.2 innings. It marked the 20th time this season that an opposing pitcher exited before or at 4.2 innings against the Indians.

Heading into Sunday’s game, only the Red Sox (28), Tigers (26) and Mariners (20) had at least 20 such games among American League clubs.

“We made Ogando work,” Francona said. “We didn’t have a whole lot to show for it for five innings, but we made him work for everything, and we had his pitch count up. They had to take him out. Sometimes, that’s the way you beat good pitchers, because his stuff is filthy.”

ON DECK:

White Sox (40-62) at Indians (56-48)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field

–JB

Antonetti talks trade market

AntonettiIndians GM Chris Antonetti sat down with reporters at Progressive Field on Friday and discussed the current landscape of the trade market. With the non-waiver Trade Deadline looming on Wednesday, Cleveland is staring at few sellers and steep asking prices.

“As we’ve looked at the 30 teams,” Antonetti said, “you can make the argument that there are 24, or maybe even 25 teams that are either buying or at least holding on to players, and only a select handful of teams that are willing to trade off Major League players.

“It’s further complicated for us that at least one, if not more, of those teams that are willing to sell players, are in our division.”

As has been well-documented, the addition of a second Wild Card in each league, along with the removal of draft-pick compensation for players headed to free agency, has altered both the numbers of sellers and the willingness of buyers to part with prospects. Antonetti said this will likely lead to continued talks about possibly pushing the Trade Deadline’s date back at some point down the road.

“We’ve talked about that a lot,” Antonetti said. “We’ve talked about it at each of the last two GM Meetings, that exact topic. So I imagine it’ll be a topic for discussion again this fall, especially now that we have two years with the new CBA rules. I anticipate it’s something we’ll talk about again in November.”

As for the Indians’ needs, Antonetti said he hasn’t ruled anything out, but the GM did cite left-handed relief as one specific area that could be improved. Heading into Friday’s game with Texas, Cleveland’s left-handed relievers had combined for a 6.54 ERA and 1.48 WHIP on the season.

“I think in the bullpen we could be a little bit more consistent,” Antonetti said. “I think that’s one area where we haven’t been as consistent maybe as we would like, especially our ability to get left-handed hitters out. That’s an area that we’ll try to improve, whether it’s internal alternatives or external alternatives.”

Cleveland was in the discussion for pitcher Matt Garza, who was traded to the Rangers by the Cubs, but the Indians were reportedly unwilling to part with third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall as part of the deal. Now, with the Tribe’s rotation sporting a MLB-leading 2.05 ERA over the past 13 games and a 3.60 ERA going back to June 11 (third-best in the AL over that span), the Indians might not be looking at rotation alternatives.

“When you look at the rotation,” Antonetti said, “those guys have done a good job over the course of the last four or five weeks. So the question of which of those guys would come out of the rotation, if we acquired a starter, is not an easy question to answer.”

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 99

722UFinal: Mariners 2, Indians 1

FIRST: You can’t put Monday’s loss in Seattle on the pitching, just like you couldn’t on Friday or Saturday in Minnesota.

Ubaldo Jimenez used his smoke-and-mirrors act to keep the Mariners in check, continuing the Tribe’s recent run of success on the hill. Big U gave up a pair of solo home runs.

That was it, and it was enough.

“It’s frustrating not being able to score any runs,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Ubaldo did a great job. The bullpen comes in and does a great job. For a team that’s been hot as a firecracker over there, for us to hold them at two runs, we’ve got to score more runs than that. We’ve got to pick up that win.”

More on the offense in a minute.

Jimenez took the loss — thanks to the solo shots from Kendrys Morales (on a hung splitter) and Mike Zunino (on an 0-2 four-seamer down the pipe) — marking the first “L” for the rotation in the past dozen games.

Dating back to July 7, the Indians rotation has gone 5-1 with a Major League-best 1.99 ERA in 72.1 innings. The group has also led the Majors during that span in opponents’ batting average (.181) and strikeouts (72). The Tribe starters have combined for a 1.06 WHIP in that time period.

Through the first four games of the second half, the rotation has given up just three earned runs in 23.2 innings.

“We’re doing a pretty good job since coming out of the break,” Jimenez said. “We’ve been giving the team a chance to be close on the scoreboard. That’s what you look for as a starting pitcher.”

In his loss to the Mariners, Jimenez gave up the two spot in 5.2 innings, ending with a Typical Ubaldo line of six strikeouts, five hits, four walks and one wild pitch. The right-hander did what he has been doing well all season, though. He limited the damage of the traffic he allowed.

Dating back to April 21, covering 17 starts for Jimenez, he has gone 7-3 with  3.61 ERA over 92.1 innings. In that span, he has posted an American League-high 47 walks and is one of 13 pitchers (among 50 qualifying starters) in the league to have more than 13 baserunners allowed per nine innings on average. He has posted a 1.45 WHIP (39th) and a rate of 4.58 walks per nine (49th) during that period.

And, yet, Jimenez has made it work.

‘The main thing is you want to minimize the mistakes,” Jimenez said.

One way Jimenez has done that this is year has been by eliminating the traffic leading up to the inevitable home runs he allows. Twelve of the 15 long balls he’s given up in 2013 have been solo homers. Unfortunately, on Monday at Safeco, two solo home runs was all Seattle needed.

SECOND: Now, about that offense…

Cleveland hoped it had found something on Sunday, when the club churned out seven runs on nine hits and had a .364 (4-for-11) showing with runners in scoring position in a win over the Twins. Monday’s offensive letdown only added to the streakiness that has defined this Tribe lineup this season.

In the three losses out of the break, the Indians have combined to score five runs with a .156 (14-for-90) team average and a .056 (1-for-18) mark with runners in scoring position. That showing has come in games started by Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia and Aaron Harang, who have gone a combined 16-21 with a 4.81 ERA this season. Not exactly a trifecta of Cy Young contenders.

“It’s no coach’s fault. No manager’s fault. No hitting coach’s fault,” Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said. “It’s just on us on the offensive side. It’s as simple as that. … We’re giving a good effort. But we feel like we’re better than this. We’re not going to panic, but we’re going to give a good run at it in the second half.

“I know in the past, they say [this tem] fell apart in the second half. We’re trying not to let that happen.”

In Monday’s loss, the Indians worked Harang’s pitch count up early in the game, but started adopting a more aggressive approach as the evening wore on. The righty needed only 11 pitches to get through his final two innings. Cleveland was trying to get something going.

“He had a couple really quick innings. He had a couple first-pitch outs,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “To be honest, when you get to that point in the game, you’re trying to score. We didn’t get him out of there, so at that point it’s not as crucial [to drive the pitch count up]. You’re just trying to get hits.”

It is in these kind of games that some mistakes become more glaring.

Consider in the eighth inning, when Bourn reached base out of gates when he was hit by a pitch from lefty Charlie Furbush. Later in the inning, with one out, Bourn bolted for second base in an stolen-base attempt. Furbush saw it coming, throwing to first base to initiate a successful pick off.

“I messed up,” Bourn said “I felt like I thought I had him read right. I didn’t. He guessed right on me and was able to pick me off. We missed some opportunities early in the game. These games, from here on out, they count. Ain’t no way around it. Sometimes you’re going to make mistakes, but we’ve got to be able to press for nine innings.

“That’s the way the second half is played. That’s how good teams get into the playoffs. They play the game within the game and every inning counts.”

THIRD: One move that did work on Monday — at least for one game — was shifting Swisher from the lineup’s cleanup spot to the second hole. He responded with two hits and his first home run since July 6 (in his first at-bat). Swisher said he feels comfortable in the No. 2 slot, where he’s spent most of his career.

“Maybe it’s a psychological thing about being in the four hole, where you feel like you have to hit home runs,” Swisher said. “You go back to that two hole, and I’ve got Michael Bourn in front of me. I’ve got [Jason Kipnis] right behind me. I’m just trying to have quality at-bats. That first at-bat, I just got a good pitch to hit and I tried to put the barrel on it.

“I don’t know if it had anything to do with moving from four to two, but either way, it felt nice just to kind of get back in the rhythm, and to get that power stroke back.”

Sample size alert, but Swisher has hit .308 (4-for-11) in his last three games. He has also hit .288 (.860 OPS) in his past 18 games after batting just .203 (.637) in his previous 49 games, dating back to April 21. Why the 49-game cut-off? Because Swisher’s batting average peaked at .310 on April 20.

HOME: Maybe, just maybe, Francona’s lineup change with Swisher will help get him going at the plate again. It certainly will also help matters if Swisher’s left shoulder — problematic all season long — is feeling as improved as the first baseman claims.

Next on Francona’s To-Fix List should be shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

With switch-hitting Swish moved into the two spot, Cabrera (also a switch hitter) flip-flopped from the two to four hole. Cabrera hasn’t spent a whole lot of time as a cleanup hitter, but it’s clear that Francona values his ability on offense and the fact that he’s one of the team’s veterans.

That said, Cabrera has hit just .143 (.449 OPS) over his past 15 games. There has been some bad luck in there (.163 average on balls in play), but the shortstop is scuffling. That low BABIP would seem to indicate that better days are ahead, and indeed Cabrera has been faring much better since digging himself in that April hole.

Over his past 62 games, including the recent 14-game funk, Cabrera has hit .271 with a .760 OPS for the Indians. That is very much in line with his career marks of .275 and .752 in those areas. On the year, though, the shortstop has career lows in average (.244) and on-base percentage (.305) at the moment.

If Francona wants to maintain the switch-hitting aspect of the four spot, Carlos Santana is always there as an option. The catcher has experience in the cleanup role and is having a solid season. Of course, one theory might be that Santana is having his strong year due to being rid of the pressures of the cleanup duties.

ON DECK:

Indians (52-47) at Mariners (47-52)
at 10:10 p.m. ET Tuesday at Safeco Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 98

721MastyFinal: Indians 7, Twins 1

FIRST: Justin Masterson worked to a 1-2 against Minnesota’s Joe Mauer in the first inning on Sunday afternoon. The Indians starter then issued a statement by blowing a 97-mph four-seamer by the bat of the sweet-swinging catcher.

The Twins were in for a rough day at the office.

“His fastball had so much explosion,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

That went for both Masterson’s sinker and his four-seamer. It took some time for the big right-hander to get control of his slider, but he had more than enough to get by. Masterson logged seven innings and held the Twins to one hit — a double from Brian Dozier that dropped just in front of the glove of a diving Drew Stubbs in center field in the seventh.

“Three inches,” Stubbs said.

Close, but no cigar. And no no-hitter.

Masterson ended the afternoon with nine outs via grounders, eight strikeouts, one hit-by-pitch (two, if you count the time in the fourth inning when Dozier swung at a ball that actually hit him) and no walks. That’s right. No walks. Even Masterson didn’t believe it.

“Did I walk anybody today?” he asked reporters.

Nope.

“Yeah!” Masterson said, grinning and pumping his fist. “I didn’t walk anybody today.”

In fact, this was Masterson’s first no-walk performance of 2013 and only the 12th such start of his career. It marked just the second time in his career that he ended a start with at least seven innings, eight strikeouts and zero walks. It was the first time in his career he allowed just one hit with more than six innings logged.

For that lone hit in the seventh, Dozier went up hacking and attacked a 91-mph, first-pitch sinker for his no-hitter-denying double.

“I don’t care if I have no hits or 100 hits,” Masterson said. “We’re still going to challenge guys. A broken bat, that’s what you want. It falls in. For me, in my mind, I get so many balls put in play, something’s going to happen. There’s going to be a hit at some time. So let’s just make sure, when it does happen, we stay in our game and make sure that it doesn’t have a trickle down effect.”

Masterson threw 76-percent of his fastballs (two-seam and four-seam combined), averaging 92.7 mph on his 47 sinkers and 95.3 mph on his 27 four-seamers. He mixed in 19 sliders, with 58-percent going for strikes and 21-percent for swings-and-misses. His lone hiccup in the first six frames was a hit-by-pitch against Aaron Hicks.

“I was just mixing and matching,” Masterson said. “The slider got a little bit better as the game went on. I was able to mix that in. Early on, I was mixing in some sinkers, some four-seamers here and there. I was trying to stay in, get away and just really keep them guessing. Being able to throw a lot of strikes is what helps.”

KipZonesSECOND: Us Tribe scribes spoke with Jason Kipnis after Saturday’s game about his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field. Prior to today’s game, we discussed it again with Francona, who said Kipnis is one of the best he’s seen put backspin on a ball hit the other way.

You can read more about the subject in Sunday’s notebook on Indians.com.

Naturally, Kipnis continued on his opposite-field tear in the win over the Twins.

“He just has that stroke where when he hits the ball with authority the other way he gets rewarded for it,” Francona said. “It’s created a ton of confidence. It should. Right now, he’s keeping everything fair and he’s hitting it with authority. That’s a good recipe for success.”

The All-Star second baseman belted a two-run home run to left field off lefty Scott Diamond in the third inning, drove a single to left field in the ninth, and had a pair of flyouts to left in the game, too. As for the homer, Diamond gave Kipnis an outside fastball and the second baseman sliced it the other way.

“It was just another fastball away,” Kipnis said. “Even more so with a lefty, I’m just trying to stay through the ball. I’m just letting it travel and putting good spin on it right now. I’m not trying to pull the ball. I’m not trying to pull off of it.

“I’ve got an approach working to left-center and a fastball over the outside of the plate looks like it’s middle-away to me. It looks good to me.”

The image included in this item is courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information Group. Click on it to see Kipnis’ averages this season on fastballs to various zones. According to that chart, Kipnis has hit .412 this season vs. fastballs up and away in the strike zone, .391 against heaters middle-away in the zone and .308 against fastballs low and away in the zone.

“I might never pull another ball again,” Kipnis said with a laugh. “But the funny part is they’re going away, away, away right now. It could get really fun if they start trying to come in. Usually if a hitter is going well, you don’t want to come into the zone on their bat. That’s when it could get really fun.”

THIRD: The Indians came through with seven runs on nine hits and ended Sunday with a 4-for-11 showing with runners in scoring position. This, after scoring four runs on nine hits with a 1-for-11 showing in the previous two games (both losses) combined.

“That’s the kind of team I think we need to be,” Francona said. “We need to keep the line moving. There’s going to be days when [Mark] Reynolds hits a three-run homer. But, when it’s not those days, we have the ability to just go from hitter to hitter, and that’s when we’re at our best.”

For the record, Reynolds hasn’t launched a three-run homer since April 20, hasn’t hit a homer at all since June 28, and has a .075/.178/.075/.253 slash line with no extra-base hits in 40 at-bats in July.

I’m getting off topic, though.

In the fifth inning, Reynolds stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and one out, and he popped out into foul territory on the first pitch. That set the stage for Michael Brantley, who has been one of the league’s top hitters in two-out situations with runners in scoring position.

Brantley came through with a bases-clearing triple that pushed the Tribe to a six-run lead.

“Michael Brantley — Mr. Clutch,” Masterson said with a smile. “Just doing his thing with runners in scoring position and two outs. He bats like .500 now within that situation.”

First off, it’s “Dr. Smooth,” Justin. Get it right.

Second, .500? Not quite.

Try .395 (17-for-43) with one homer, two doubles, two triples, 21 RBI and a 1.063 OPS.

Highest average with RISP/2 outs in American League (min. 25 at-bats)
1. Miguel Cabrera, DET, .463 (41 at-bats)
2. Nelson Cruz, TEX, .415 (41 at-bats)
3. Michael Brantley, CLE, .395 (43 at-bats)

Note: if you change the minimum to 20 at-bats, Cleveland’s Ryan Raburn leads the AL pack with a .478 average with runners in scoring position and two outs.

HOME: This was a nice bounceback victory for a team that saw a pair of solid starting pitching efforts wasted in the previous game due to shoddy defense and a lack of offense. After Saturday’s loss, Kipnis made a point to say that some players needed to start stepping up for the team if it’s going to get where it wants to by season’s end.

How did he like the team’s response on Sunday?

“I thought it was good,” Kipnis said. “It’s not really a response. I don’t think anybody really saw the quote or anything like that. I just thought there was a little more of a sense of urgency today. I thought guys came out knowing that we can’t leave here with a sweep on us.

“And we had who we wanted on the mound. We had the big guy on the mound and he’s usually a stopper for things, little losing streaks.”

Stubbs couldn’t make the catch to save the no-hitter, but the Indians came away with a much-needed win.

“I feel like we were in a great position to win a couple games the last two days,” Stubbs said. “We kind of let it slip through our fingers. To come out of here with a win on a positive note is a big thing for us.”

ON DECK:

Indians (52-46) at Mariners (46-52)
at 10:10 p.m. ET Monday at Safeco Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 97

720KluberFinal: Twins 3, Indians 2

FIRST: Before any fans bemoan the decision to pull Corey Kluber from Saturday’s game, consider the situation and circumstances presented to Indians manager Terry Francona.

  1. Kluber had fought through five innings and 93 pitches while pitching through tightness in his left hip
  2. Francona felt Kluber had started to alter his delivery, using more arm than legs while throwing
  3. Jason Kipnis gave the Indians a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth inning with a home run
  4. Lefties Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau (a combined 3-for-3 with a walk vs. Kluber) were due up

What would you do?

Francona knew what he wasn’t going to do. He wasn’t going to leave Kluber — one of the Tribe’s most pleasant surprises and key contributors to this point this season — out there and risk turning what’s believed to be a minor injury into a more severe one. Francona wants to get a “W” each game, but he also is not going to put his players in a dangerous spot in order to achieve the end goal.

“He fought through it,” Francona said. “But I thought it made it a little bit harder for him to command. He was up a little bit more than normal. It was probably a good day to be up if you’re going to be, in a ballpark that plays big. I just thought rather than push it, he had given us a lot. With who they had coming up — more just protecting Corey — I just got him out of there.”

Did Kluber try to talk Francona out of that decision?

“Yeah, I tried, but he’s stubborn,” Kluber said with a smile. “He had his mind made up, I guess.”

Kluber did not think he would need to miss any time with the injury, which he said first flared while throwing a pitch in his start against the Royals on July 12. Francona noted that, with the off-day coming up on Thursday, Cleveland could potentially push the right-hander back y a day or two, if he needs to rest his ailing leg. Of course, due to that off-day, the Indians could skip Kluber entirely and bring him back on July 30 without disrupting the rotation.

With his five shutout innings (three hits, no runs, two walks, seven strikeouts), Kluber is now 4-1 (he took a no-decision in this one) with a 2.21 ERA in his eight starts following a team loss. Over his past 13 turns for the Tribe, the right-hander has gone 5-3 with a 3.13 ERA over 77.2 innings, which include 81 strikeouts against 18 walks.

After Kluber left the game, the Twins finally made their move.

Minnesota scored three runs in the home half of the sixth, helped by a throwing error by Lonnie Chisenhall (more on that in a bit), and held on for a second straight, 3-2, win.

I feel an obligation now to update a stat that continues to live and breathe. It also spawned the creation of the #MOSON hashtag (Most Obscure Stat of the Night) by Pat McManamon of FOXSportsOhio.com.

Kluber logged 49 sinkers in his outing against the Twins, topping the magic 48 mark once again. So, for those dying for the update, Kluber now has a 2.31 ERA (17 ER, 66.1 IP, 71 K, 15 BB) in his 10 starts with 48 or more sinkers. In his five starts with 47 or fewer sinkers, Kluber has a 7.76 ERA (23 ER, 26.2 IP, 22 K, 8 BB). This, as previously noted, excludes his two relief appearances and his one rain-shortened outing.

Moving on…

SECOND: In the fourth inning, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis sliced a pitch to left field for a single, ending Kevin Correia’s run of 11 consecutive batters without a hit. In the sixth inning, Kipnis sliced a pitch into the left-field seats for a two-run home run. Have you noticed a trend this season?

“I was joking around in the cages before the game that I almost don’t even know what it’s like  to pull the ball any more,” Kipnis said with a laugh. “I almost forgot what it feels like.”

Since Kipnis got on his hot streak, which has its roots in the early days of May, he has consistently driven the ball to the opposite field with authority. Why?

“I think I’m doing a better job of staying on the ball. I’m letting it travel,” Kipnis said. “Even when I’m going opposite field, I can get too far in front. I’m letting it travel this year and it’s causing more of the success.”

Of course, Kipnis can’t do it alone. The second baseman’s home run accounted for all of the Tribe’s offensive output in its second straight loss to the Twins. The Indians ended the evening 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, making them 1-for-11 through the first two games here. Cleveland had four hits on Friday night (with starter Mike Pelfrey going) and five on Saturday (with Correia starting for the Twins).

Kipnis had a message following the latest loss.

“He wasn’t throwing anything we haven’t seen before,” Kipnis said of Correia. “We’re getting into late July right now. You can make excuses for a while, but we’re going to need some guys to start stepping up here. We’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot right now in these last two games. You can’t blame the starting pitching. You can’t blame the bullpen.

“You can’t win any games if you don’t score many runs. And I thought we had two pitchers we could score runs off. We didn’t the last two days.”

THIRD: For the second night in a row, defense played a role in sending the Tribe to the loss column.

The first blunder came with no outs and runners on the corners in the sixth inning. Lefty Rich Hill induced a grounder off the bat of Ryan Doumit, who chopped the ball to Chisenhall down the third-base line. Mauer sprinted home from third base — likely a mistake on his part — and Chisenhall charged in to glove the ball. With a double play out of the question, and Mauer running home, Chisenhall threw to the plate to try for the out.

The throw sailed wide, skipped away and allowed Doumit and Morneau to advance to second and third base, respectively. Mauer scored easily.

Francona said Chisenhall made the right play. The third baseman just botched it.

“It’s right in front of him,” Francona said. “Kind of the rule of thumb is you don’t go on that ball unless you can turn two. Obviously, we couldn’t. Our only play was going to be at first, so I thought we caught a break. He just made a poor throw.”

The next miscue came with one out, the game caught in a 2-2 tie, and runners on the corners again. Clete Thomas pulled a pitch from reliever Bryan Shaw to Kipnis, who bobbled the sharp grounder. That brief slip cost the Indians a shot at an inning-ending double play, and led to the go-ahead run crossing the plate.

Kipnis made no excuses.

“It picked up a little speed when it hit the dirt and caught me in the palm rather than the hand,” he said. “That play needs to be made.”

That said, the lack of offense makes such things more glaring.

“When you’re getting four or five hits, you’ve got to play a clean game,” Francona said. “If somebody hit a three-run homer or something, you can get by with a mistake in the field. But, the way the last two games have been, you’ve got to play clean.”

HOME: Left-hander Rich Hill has been the subject of plenty of criticism this season and it’s certainly understandable, considering his 6.75 ERA through 39 appearances. That said, the veteran lefty has pitched well for the better part of the past two months. It just is harder to notice in light of how rough his showing was for the first two months.

When Francona handed the ball to Hill with Kluber hurting and a 2-0 lead in the sixth, it made sense. Mauer and Morneau (sample size alert) were a combined 0-for-5 in their career against Hill, and lefties in general were hitting just .095 (2-for-15) off him dating back to June 5. Since that date, Hill had posted a 2.53 ERA with a .118 opponents’ average and a .368 opponents’ OPS across 16 appearances.

All of that said, leadoff walks are killers, and that’s what Hill did against Mauer to kick off the sixth. Morneau followed with a base hit to left field and the rest is history. Finding relief help is high on Cleveland’s wish list as the July 31 Trade Deadline approaches, and that includes trying to improve the left-handed relief situation. If we are going to criticize failure, however, it is only fair to also point out success.

ON DECK:

Indians (51-46) at Twins (41-53)
at 2:10 p.m. ET Sunday at Target Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 95

714KipnisFinal: Indians 6, Royals 4

FIRST: It feels like Jason Kipnis has been right in the middle of a majority of Cleveland’s offensive rallies in this first half. Things were no different on Sunday, when the Tribe’s All-Star second baseman went 2-for-2 with a pair of walks to go along with two RBI.

It was a nice send-off for Kipnis, who was packing his bags after the game for his trip to New York for his first Midsummer Classic.

“I’m getting real excited now,” Kipnis said. “I hadn’t really given it too much thought yet. Hasn’t really clicked in yet. Probably will once I land in New York, but at the same time, it’s still going to be a break for me a little bit. I’ll be able to see my family, get some friends that are going down there.

“It’s going to be such a neat experience, so I’m definitely looking forward to it.”

As the season’s first “half” rolls to a close, Kipnis heads to Citi Field sporting a .301/.383/.514 slash line to go along with .13 home runs, 23 doubles, three triples, 57 RBI, 53 runs, 45 walks and 21 stolen bases in 84 games played. With that first-half showing, Kipnis finds himself in elite company in Cleveland history.

Kipnis joins Kenny Lofton (1994) as the only Indians players since 1916 to boast at least a .300 average, 20 stolen bases and 39 extra-base hits in a first half. In ’94, Lofton hit .374 with 45 stolen bases and 41 extra-base hits in 83 games. Kipnis also joins Roberto Alomar (1999) as the only Tribe hitters since 1916 to have at least 20 stolen bases, 35 extra-base hits, 45 walks and 55 RBI. In ’99, Alomar had 21 stolen bases, 36 extra-base hits, 55 walks and 60 RBI in 86 games.

“He’s been awesome,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “That’s why he’s an All-Star. He’s done such a great job for us. He’s stepped up when we needed him, and I could not be more happy that he’s representing us in the All-Star Game.

“It seems like if he rolls, we roll. He’s kind of table-setting our lineup and it’s a lot of fun to hit behind him.”

The numbers back up Swisher’s comment, too. When Kipnis has at least one hit this season, the Indians have a 39-23 record. When Kipnis scores at least one run, Cleveland is 31-9. When the second baseman steals at least one base, the Tribe is 13-6.

SECOND: The way Indians manager Terry Francona sees it, the way his club has performed in the first half has set the team up for an exciting second half.

“I feel like we’ve played, up to this point, well enough where every game starting on Friday counts a lot,” Francona said. “That’s exciting. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. … We’re coming back, and every game we play is so meaningful, and that’s a fun way to play baseball.”

You could call this Cleveland squad Team Streak.

They opened the season with an 8-13 record, then went 18-4, followed by 15-5, 0-4 and 6-2 (or, 6-6, to roll into the break, if you’d rather view it that way). I only split the 0-4 and 6-2 stretch to show the slump and response. That recent four-game losing streak ended with a pair of routs at the hands of the Tigers, and was followed by a closed-door meeting by the players.

The Indians got back to their brand of ball before the break.

“It was nice that we could help the city of Cleveland kind of step back off the ledge after the Detroit series,” Kipnis said. “So, that’s good. No, we knew that we had this break coming up and four days to rest for a bunch of guys that could use it, both physically and mentally.”

The Tribe offense ends the first half with a .258/.330/.418 slash line with 73 stolen bases, 104 homers, 292 extra-base hits, 334 walks, 454 runs (4.8 per game), 782 strikeouts and 1,339 total bases. This is the first time since 1999 that an Indians team had a slash line at least that good to go along with at least the same marks in stolen bases, homers and walks.

The pitching staff is 51-44 with a 4.31 ERA overall. The rotation has gone 34-34 with a 4.42 ERA and the bullpen is 17-10 with a 4.10 ERA. The team’s overall rate of 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings is the best mark in a first half in team history, well ahead of the second-best rate of 7.8 in 2000. The team’s 2.21:1 strikeout-to-walk ration is the fourth-best mark in club history for a first half.

The Indians have 51 wins in a first half for only the seventh time since 1916, though it is worth noting that the team also played more games (95) than in those previous six occurrences. The team’s .537 winning percentage is the 39th-best mark in a first half for the team, and is seventh among the seasons that included at least 51 first-half wins.

It should be an entertaining and interesting second half.

“We’ve got a good team,” Kipnis said. “We got a lot of depth and a lot of guys here that I think is going to prevent [a collapse] from happening. Not necessarily guaranteeing we’re going to win games, but I think we’re going to be a lot more consistent with our schedule coming up, and I think we’re going to go out and put some good, tough AB’s out there and win some games.”

THIRD: The Indians rotation had posted a 1.81 ERA over the team’s past seven games, heading into Sunday’s first-half finale with the Royals. Ubaldo Jimenez ended that impressive run by allowing four runs on eight hits in four innings of a no-decision for the Tribe.

I recently detailed the enigmatic first half turned in by The Big U, and Sunday’s effort only added to the curious nature of his performance this season.

Jimenez entered the afternoon with a 4-1 record and a 2.88 ERA over his last nine starts, which included 45 strikeouts and 29 walks across 50 innings. With the All-Star break looming, Francona decided to turn the ballgame over to the bullpen when Jimenez reached 76 pitches. That’s the fewest he’s thrown in a start since April 21.

“Tough day,” Francona said. “We battled back, and [against James] Shields, you don’t want to give an inch. And on a normal day, you probably have to stay with him a little longer. But, because we have four days off, we knew we could empty the bullpen, and that ended up helping us win a game.”

It also allowed for the Major League debut of C.C. Lee, who turned in 1.1 shutout innings for the Indians.

“I wanted to get him in the game before the break,” Francona said. “The game was, it wasn’t one of those where it’s a blowout either way. His stuff is exceptional. He looked a little nervous, which I think is to be expected. But I thought he handled himself really well, and I know everybody was excited for him.”

HOME: Indians closer Chris Perez isn’t heading to his third straight All-Star Game, but the right-hander has pitched like an All-Star heading into the break. In 10 appearances since coming off the disabled list, Perez has posted a 0.90 ERA (1 ER/10 IP) and a 1.10 WHIP with eight strikeouts, eight hits allowed and three walks for the Tribe.

If Perez can again bring some stability to the ninth inning, that would be a godsend for a Cleveland club that has had its share of issues late in games this season.

“I think he feels good,” Francona said. “He should feel good about himself. He’s bounced back now and pitched a bunch. He’s maintained his stuff, location. He’s done really well.”

ON DECK:

American League (38-43-2) at National League (43-38-2)
84th All-Star Game on FOX at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Citi Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 94

713ChisenhallFinal: Indians 5, Royals 3

FIRST: Lonnie Chisenhall has been back with the Indians for the past month. The question right now is whether Lonnie Baseball is here to stay?

After his early-season woes at the plate, Chisenhall was sent down to Triple-A to take a deep breath (to steal manager Terry Francona’s phrasing) and find the sweet swing he displayed in the spring. Chisenhall abused Minor League pitching, got some confidence going and he’s been on a roll since rejoining Cleveland.

“I think actually the timing was probably pretty good,” Francona said. “I think he admitted that it was probably good for him to be able to take a breather and kind of get his swing together and everything.”

Chisenhall figured it was only a matter of time before he starting hitting the way he feels he can.

“Nobody wants to go down,” Chisenhall said of being sent to Triple-A. “But I knew at some point I was going to start hitting the ball. That was their decision. I did all I could to work hard and continue to have good at-bats in Triple-A, and do what I could so I could help the Major League team when I got back.”

Chisenhall did plenty of damage while wearing Cleveland’s 1902 throwback uniform on Saturday night.

The third baseman finished 2-for-4 with a pair of extra-base hits, including a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning. With two outs, Chisenhall stepped up to the plate with his previous at-bat in mind. In that meeting with Royals righty Jeremy Guthrie, Chisenhall could not do anything with the pitcher’s curve and went on to strike out.

In the sixth, Chisenhall looked for that curveball on the first pitch.

“I saw the same curveball. I took it,” said Chisenhall, referring to his at-bat in the fourth. “The at-bat before was a little bit of overshadowed now, but it was a good at-bat. I took what I saw there and I used it to my advantage. I just got a pitch over the plate and put the barrel on it.”

Over his last 19 games, all Chisenhall has done is put up a .323 (21-for-65) average to go along with three home runs, seven doubles, seven runs and 14 RBI. He has 11 strikeouts and five walks, or a 2.2: 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. In his first 28 games with the Indians, that ratio was 7.7:1. Over that span, Chisenhall hit .198 (20-for-101) with three homers, four doubles, seven runs and 11 RBI.

In his 27-game stay at Triple-A, Chisenhall hit .390 (1.132 OPS) with six homers, 16 extra-base hits, 26 RBI and a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

“Sitting down there in that eight-hole,” Francona said, “if he starts swinging it like that, that makes our batting order look a little different.”

What’s been the difference for Chisenhall now compared to the beginning of the season?

“When he’s getting balls to hit, he’s not fouling them,” Francona said. “He was fouling those balls earlier. … Sometimes, you get one good pitch to hit an at-bat. Now, he’s getting it and he’s hitting it.”

SECOND: Left-hander Scott Kazmir has pieced together five solid starts in a row for the Indians. This begs the question: has he finally turned a corner in what has been an up-and-down season?

“I think so,” Kazmir said. “I feel like my delivery is more consistent, therefore my outings have been a little more consistent. I’m just going to keep at it.”

Over his past five starts, Kazmir has gone 2-0 with a 2.32 ERA with a 0.87 WHIP, with 20 hits allowed, 25 strikeouts and seven walks in 31 innings. It is his best five-start stretch since Sept. 8-Oct. 3, 2009, when he had a 1.80 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 30 innings for the Angels.

Kazmir’s ERA over his most recent five starts could be lower, too. He exited with one out and two runners on in the seventh inning, and reliever Matt Albers allowed both runners to score. Kazmir ended with six strikeouts, three walks and 108 pitches.

“When he takes the mound, we feel like we’re going to win,” Francona said. “He’s been really good, and he looks like he’s getting stronger. That’s what’s impressive.”

THIRD: Francona made it known recently that reliever Vinnie Pestano was no longer going to be the designated eighth-inning arm. Given some of his recent struggles, Pestano was going to be eased back into that full-time role, while arms such as Cody Allen and Joe Smith help tackle the setup duties.

With the Tribe holding a 5-3 lead in the eighth on Saturday, Francona sent Pestano to the mound to try to lock things down. Francona also gave the right-hander two outs in the eighth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays. This time around, Pestano allowed two hits, but he struck out one and escaped unscathed when first baseman Carlos Santana made a potentially game-saving diving catch on a liner from Miguel Tejada.

“I thought it was a really good chance [to use Pestano],” Francona said. “Again, we had used [Smith] a bunch and Cody. I thought it was a great night for [Pestano] to pitch there. We don’t want to run from our guys. We just want to help him get hot.”

HOME: Indians closer Chris Perez is letting his arm do the talking for him these days. Since returning from the disabled list, Cleveland’s stopper has performed well, going 6-for-6 in save chances with a 1.00 ERA to go along with a 1.11 WHIP. In his nine appearances since rejoining the bullpen, Perez has given up seven hits, struck out six and walked three. He worked a one-two-three ninth on Saturday.

“He’s really staying down in the zone extremely well,” Francona said. “So, when they hit the ball, you’re not getting it in the air with much authority. He looks really good. He’s pitched, I think, six out of eight days. He’s done a really good job.”

ON DECK:

Royals (43-48) at Indians (50-44)
at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday at Progressive Field

–JB

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