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

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