Covering the Bases: Game 133
FIRST: Sitting inside the visitors’ dugout on Tuesday afternoon, Indians center fielder Michael Bourn was asked how important the current nine-game stretch against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles was for Cleveland.
“Honestly?” Bourn replied. “I think it’s very important. It’ll tell what kind of team we have.”
Right now, the Indians look like a team that just isn’t ready.
Cleveland is a good team. It’s an interesting team. It just might not be a playoff team this season. When it’s all said and done, maybe the Tribe will find the resilience that has defined the team all season and make me eat my words here. That’d be just fine. Stranger things have happened.
After a three-game sweep in Atlanta, though, the Indians just don’t look ready.
August has once again been a trying month for the Tribe. No, this is nowhere close to the 5-24 disaster of a year ago, but the offensive drop-off over the past month has been jarring. It’s actually impressive that Cleveland has pulled off as many wins (12) as it has this month, considering the lineup’s team-wide problems. Tribe fans can thank the pitching staff for that.
Consider this: Cleveland’s pitching staff has posted the American League’s fourth-best ERA (3.37) for August, while holding hitters to a .669 OPS (second-best in the league). The staff also ranks fourth in the AL in strikeouts (220) and WHIP (1.30) for the month of August. Both the rotation and bullpen has more than done its part, and that included in Atlanta, where the Indians turned in a zero in 21 of 25 innings against the Braves.
“We’re making small mistakes that are unfortunately leading to close losses,” staff leader Justin Masterson said on Wednesday.
Second inning Tuesday:
Danny Salazar gives up two-run, two-out triple to Elliot Johnson in 2-0 loss.
Second inning Wednesday:
Masterson walked the pitcher and then allowed two-run single to Jordan Shafer.
Ninth inning Wednesday:
Joe Smith gives up walk-off single to Chris Johnson in 3-2 loss.
Third inning Thursday:
Ubaldo Jimenez gave up a three-run homer to Brian McCann in a 3-1 loss.
“Right now, we’re in a stretch where if you make a mistake,” Jimenez said, “you’re probably going to pay for it with the game. We’re not scoring a lot of runs. That’s part of baseball.”
Scoring three runs in 27 innings and going 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position provided little to no margin for error for Cleveland’s pitchers throughout the three-game sweep at Turner Field. Now, it’s on to Detroit, which holds a 6.5-game lead in the division and has gone 13-3 against the Indians this season.
In August, the Indians rank 15th (last) in the American League on batting average (.227), on-base percentage (.295), slugging percentage (.354), OPS (.650) and runs scored (85) through 26 games. The Mark Reynolds Effect has been this: Cleveland’s month-by-month slugging percentage this season has been .465 (April), .421 (May), .395 (June), .391 (July) and .354 (August).
It has been a one-through-nine problem, too.
August slash lines for Cleveland’s regulars (top nine in at-bats):
CF Michael Bourn: .217/.265/.283 (106 AB)
1B Nick Swisher: .223/.304/.388 (103 AB)
2B Jason Kipnis: .258/.351/.340 (97 AB)
DH Carlos Santana: .225/.349/.404 (89 AB)
LF Michael Brantley: .227/.269/.309 (97 AB)
C Yan Gomes: .281/.369/.368 (57 AB)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera: .213/.260/.337 (89 AB)
3B Mike Aviles: .254/.250/.381 (63 AB)
RF Drew Stubbs: .246/.355/.385 (65 AB)
“Unfortunately, when this team is red hot, the whole team is red hot,” Jason Giambi said. “And, unfortunately, when we’re not red hot, we don’t swing the bat. We have a tougher time manufacturing, which is kind of weird with the speed that we have and the agility players that we have. You’d think we could overcome some of that and kind of steal a few wins here and there.
“For some reason, we just don’t push it over the top. I think that’s a team coming together and learning.”
SECOND: Help is on the way. Or, at least that’s what the Indians are hoping.
Late Thursday night, MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert reported that the D-backs and Indians agreed to a deal to send outfielder Jason Kubel to Cleveland in exchange for a Minor Leaguer and cash, according to a baseball source. The Indians did not have any comment, but the deal is expected to be made official on Friday.
The 31-year-old Kubel can help out in the outfield and at designated hitter, helping lengthen the Tribe nine in theory. Through 89 games with Arizona this season, Kubel has hit just .220/.288/.324/.612 with five homers and 32 RBI, while battling a variety of leg issues. Since the All-Star break, Kubel has hit just .137 (7-for-51) with no home runs, one walk, five RBI and 21 strikeouts in 25 games. He was designated for assignment on Tuesday.
All of that said, Kubel is one season removed from posting a .253/.327/.506/.833 slash line with 30 homers, 64 extra-base hits and 90 RBI for the D-backs. Across the 2008-12 seasons, he hit .269/.337/.478/.815 with an average of 22 homers and 84 RBI per season over those five years. Cleveland can only hope that it will catch some form of the 2008-12 Kubel, and not the banged-up, subpar version that showed up this season in Arizona.
THIRD: Let’s take a moment to recognize the work of Jimenez against the Braves, because really, aside from the home run he allowed to McCann, the right-hander was again strong for the Indians. Jimenez piled up 10 strikeouts, scattered seven hits, walked none and only allowed the three runs in seven innings of work.
It marked the first time in Jimenez’s career that he struck out at least 10 batters with no walks. It was his 14th career double-digit strikeout game and the first time he’s had at least two such outings in one year since 2010 (four times). He has struck out at least eight in three straight starts for the second time this season, tying a career best (he also had two such streaks in 2010). This was the first time had had 10 strikeouts in back-to-back starts in his career.
What’s been working?
“The fastball,” Jimenez said. “I’ve been able to throw the fastball consistently around 94-95 mph and then I’ve been able to locate it wherever I want. And then I’ve been throwing good breaking balls off my fastball.”
In the second inning, Jimenez struck out B.J. Upton swinging on a 97-mph heater. The Turner Field radar gun wasn’t running hot, either. The PITCHf/x date backed it up. Jimenez’s claim about his fastball is dead on, too. Over his past two starts, he has logged 61 four-seamers, compared to thrower fewer than 20 four-seamers in four of his previous five starts. He has also reduced the volume of sinkers and relied more on sliders and a changeup the past two turns.
In Indians history, there have been 46 double-digits strikeout streaks of at least two straight games. Bob Feller holds the club record with four consecutive 10-plus strikeout games from Sept. 23, 1938-April 21, 1939. Prior to Jimenez this month, CC Sabathia was the last two accomplish the feat by turning in three 10-plus strikeout games in a row from June 15-27, 2008. Thanks to the low run support, Jimenez is the first Tribe starter to go 0-2 in back-to-back 10-strikeout games since 1976 (Dennis Eckersley).
Over his past 17 starts, dating back to May 27, Jimenez has posted a 2.98 ERA with a .240 opponents’ batting average and 8.9 K/9 over 96.2 IP. He’s gone 6-6 in that span with a 1.44 WHIP, playing damage control while dealing with low run support.
HOME: Whether the Indians do or don’t make the postseason this year, I hope Cleveland fans are able to appreciate the special season at hand. When frustrated over a tough loss, it is always good to remember that the Indians lost 94 games last season. Going from a 90-plus loss showing to contending for a postseason spot a year later is an impressive feat. Yes, Cleveland’s highest-paid players have underperformed, and there’s frustration currently residing in the clubhouse and within the fan base, but this season will still be a memorable one when it’s all said and done.
At 71-62, the Indians are on pace to finish with 86 wins, if the team’s .534 winning percentage holds true down the stretch. That would be an 18-win improvement over 2012. Excluding strike-shortened seasons, there have only been seven one-year turnarounds of at least 18 wins in Cleveland’s franchise history, which dates to 1901.
24 wins: 1985 to 1986
20 wins: 1915 to 1916
19 wins: 1991 to 1992
19 wins: 1953 to 1954
19 wins: 1928 to 1929
18 wins: 2006 to 2007
18 wins: 1925 to 1926
Maybe the Indians turn this around this weekend in Detroit and down the stretch in September. Maybe they don’t (the team looks a hitter or two short of being a legitimate contender right now). Either way, this team has been a fun one to watch and cover, and it should be an interesting stretch run in September.
NOTE: It is MLBastian Jr.’s birthday this weekend, so I will be back in Ohio and not in Detroit. Make sure to keep checking Indians.com, and following @Indians and @tribeinsider on Twitter, for updates throughout the three-game series at Comerica Park.
Indians (71-62) at Tigers (78-56)
at 7:08 p.m. ET Friday at Comerica Park