Covering the Bases: Game 88

77KluberFinal: Indians 9, Tigers 6

FIRST: We’ll get to the career night for Michael Brantley, and the bullpen that he bailed out, but let’s kick off the latest CTB by taking a look at the outing turned in by Indians righty Corey Kluber.

After all, before the bullpen meltdown, and before Brantley’s second home run of the afternoon, Kluber was in line to dominate the stories and headlines in Cleveland.

Kluber pitched into the seventh inning, holding the Tigers to one Miguel Cabrera solo home run and tying a career high with 10 strikeouts. When the pitcher walked off the field with one out in the seventh, and the Indians holding a 6-1 lead, the Progressive Field crowd gave him a standing ovation.

The drama over the final few innings robbed Kluber of a well-deserved win.

“Hey, the team got a win,” Kluber said. “That’s what’s important.”

It was Kluber’s best start since June 16, when he blanked the Nationals over eight innings. In this no-decision, the pitcher was charged with two runs (one scored following his exit) on five hits in 6 1/3 innings. Early on in the outing, Kluber relied heavily on his sinker, especially early in the count, to establish the inside corner and set up situations to mix in his breaking ball and changeup.

“That was what Carlos [Santana] and I talked about beforehand,” Kluber said. “I think it was big for us during and after that first inning. They came out aggressive, but [we didn't] shy away from being aggressive just because they were.”

Case in point: Cabrera drilled a first-pitch sinker out to left for a no-doubt homer in the first inning. That didn’t deter Kluber from sticking with the plan.

“He threw a fastball in to Cabrera that was probably in off the plate, and he hit it a long way,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And to Corey’s credit, he didn’t vary from being in attack mode. Because of that, he got a lot of broken bats, he stayed ahead in the count. He was aggressive. He was really good.”

As for that Cabrera long ball, Kluber said: “I made a good pitch. I put it where I wanted to. He’s a great hitter. You just tip your cap to him and move on.”

Kluber logged 53 sinkers in the game. The right-hander has enjoyed much better success this season when similarly leaning on that pitch.

If you exclude his two relief outings, and his rain-shortened start on ay 31, Kluber has thrown 48 or more sinkers in eight starts, going 3-2 with a 2.85 ERA, 56 strikeouts and 10 walks in 53.2 innings. In the five starts in which he has thrown fewer than 48 sinkers, Kluber has gone 2-3 with a 7.76 ERA, 22 strikeouts and eight walks in 26.2 innings.

According to brooksbaseball.net, Kluber averaged 95.6 mph (topping out at 98.1 mph) with his sinker. On the season, Kluber was averaging 92.8 mph with his fastball (four-seam/two-seam) heading into Sunday’s start, according to fangraphs.com. Among American League starters with at least 70 innings, that was tied for the fifth-fastest fastball.

Highest fastball velocity among AL starters (min. 70 innings)
1. Derek Holland, Texas, 93.6
2. Max Scherzer, Detroit, 93.2
3. Yu Darvish, Texas, 93.1
4. Chris Sale, Chicago, 92.9
5. Corey Kluber, Cleveland, 92.8
5. Justin Verlander, Detroit, 92.8
5. Jason Hammel, Baltimore, 92.8

Over his past 11 starts (since his May 10 disaster in Detroit), Kluber has gone 4-3 with a 3.74 ERA over 65 innings, in which he has 66 strikeouts and 13 walks. His 9.13 strikeouts per nine innings over that span rank ninth among American League starters. Others on that list include Sale (11.68), Darvish (10.4), Scherzer (10.13), Felix Hernandez (10.07), Justin Masterson (9.73), Holland (9.37), Joe Blanton (9.26) and Verlander (9.2).

smoothSECOND: There is a reason that Michael Brantley was dubbed “Dr. Smooth” by the Plain Dealer’s Dennis Manoloff a few seasons ago. Brantley is about as stoic as they come, and calm, cool and collected under pressure.

Side note: “Dr. Smooth” appeared on the back of Brantley’s 2013 Topps baseball card and has since been used on the Progressive Field scoreboard when the left fielder comes through big.

In Sunday’s victory, Brantley came through when it mattered most. In the eighth inning, following a three-run collapse by setup man Vinnie Pestano that pulled the game into a 6-6 tie, Brantley clubbed a two-run home run to push Cleveland ahead again for good.

Brantley ended the day 3-for-4 with two homers, a double and a career-high five RBI for the Tribe.

“I think he likes hitting with men on base,” Francona said. “But he doesn’t change anything. He doesn’t try to do too much. … He doesn’t over-swing and the results [are there]. He’s got such a pretty swing. When he gets that barrel to it, it’s a gorgeous thing to watch.”

To Francona’s point, here are some of Brantley’s numbers this season in clutch scenarios:

Runners on base: .341/.381/.473/.854
ROB with 2 outs: .362/.403/.534/.938
Scoring position: .367/.405/.500/.905
RISP with 2 outs: .406/.457/.625/1.082

“There’s times when the game might dictate getting on base or driving a guy in or whatnot,” Brantley said. “But the game dictates that. I don’t dictate that. I just try to put up a good at-bat every time.”

In his 84th game of the season, Brantley has already matched a career high for a season with seven home runs. He has five homers in his past 61 at-bats after launching just two in his first 246 at-bats this season. He is also about halfway to the career high for his dad, Mickey Brantley, who belted 15 for Seattle in 1988.

“Is that right?” Michael Brantley said with a grin. “We’re doing all right.”

THIRD: There is no getting around the fact that Cleveland’s bullpen — a strength for the past few seasons — has been a glaring weakness this year. The Tribe is tied with the Orioles for the most blown saves (17) in the AL, and has given up 131 runs in Innings 7-9 this season. Only the Astros (141) had given up more runs in the final three innings among AL teams, heading into Sunday.

In the win over Detroit, Indians relievers Joe Smith and Pestano — the setup men for closer Chris Perez — combined to allow four runs on seven hits in 1.1 innings (seventh and eighth). That allowed the Tigers to go from being down, 6-1, to pulling things back into a tie.

“I know that I’ve definitely had my struggles and I’m a big part of that,” Pestano said of the bullpen’s overall issues. “A lot of the blame for a lot of the struggles, and a lot of the lack of ability to succeed in situations I’m put in, falls back on me.”

There are a couple things at play this season that have led to the issue.

Inconsistency in the starting staff is one. Cleveland has 33 games in which the starter did not record an out in the sixth inning. Only the Astros (34) have more such games in the AL. Fewer innings by the rotation leads to more innings for the bullpen, and this ‘pen has also dealt with injuries this year to key players such as Pestano and Perez.

Now, the bullpen had shown improvement recently, posting a 2.92 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP over the team’s 15-5 run from June 11-July 2. That said, the rotation also average just under six innings per start over that same stretch. Over the past five games (1-4), the ‘pen has posted a 6.85 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP. Go figure, the rotation has averaged less than five innings per game over that period. It’s all connected.

HOME: Say what you want about the late hiccups that nearly derailed this win, but the Indians showed more fight in this game than they had in the first two games against Detroit. The Tigers outscored the Tribe, 16-4, in the first two games to run their winning streak over Cleveland to seven games. Following Saturday’s loss, the Indians players held a closed-door meeting.

Francona said veteran Jason Giambi played a role.

“Any time Jason Giambi talks, it’s good,” Francona said. “Not only do they listen, but I listen to him. He’s got that kind of presence about him. I actually was talking to ‘G’ a lot during [Saturday's] game about things. I was glad he [spoke in the meeting].”

What was said?

“You’d probably be better off asking him,” said the manager. “I just think there’s a way to compete, and a way to fight back. Through all of this, all the ups and downs — and there’s been a bunch of them — we’re [2 1/2 games] back. That’s not very far.”

KIP-O-METER: downgraded to yellow. On Saturday, the day he made his first All-Star team, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis went 0-for-4 to end his 16-game hitting streak and 36-game on-base streak. On Sunday, Kipnis went 1-for-3 with a single, walk, run and stolen base. He joins Grady Sizemore (2008), Roberto Alomar (1999) and Von Hayes (1982) as the only Cleveland players with at least 20 stolen bases and 50 RBI in a first half (since 1916).

ON DECK:

Tigers (48-39) at Indians (46-42)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field

–JB

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