September 2013

Covering the Bases: Game 161

928KazmirFinal: Indians 5, Twins 1

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona has been saying for the past couple of weeks that his team is buckling up and trying to do everything possible to get a win. Well, buckle up, Cleveland. It has come down to Game No. 162 for your Tribe.

With one game left on the planned regular-season schedule, the Indians hold a one-game lead over the Rays and Rangers for the top Wild Card spot. Win Sunday and the Indians will host Wednesday’s Wild Card Game. Lose Sunday and, well…

… let’s run through Sunday’s Wild Card possibilities:

  1. Indians win, Rays win, Rangers win: Cleveland hosts the Wild Card Game on Wednesday and awaits the winner of a Tampa Bay-Texas tiebreaker game on Monday in Texas. This is also the scenario in the event that all three clubs lose on Sunday.
  2. Indians win, Rays win, Rangers lose: Indians host the Rays in the Wild Card Game Wednesday
  3. Indians win, Rays lose, Rangers win: Indians host the Rangers in the Wild Card Game Wednesday.
  4. Indians win, Rays lose, Rangers lose: Indians await the winner of the Monday Tampa Bay-Texas tiebreaker played in Texas.
  5. Indians lose, Rays win, Rangers win: three-way tie initiates two tiebreaker play-in games for Wednesday’s Wild Card Game. It begins with Tampa Bay at Cleveland on Monday. The loser then would play at Texas on Tuesday. The winners of the Monday and Tuesday games then play in the Wild Card Game Wednesday at the home site of the team with the better head-to-head record.
  6. Indians lose, Rays win, Rangers lose: Indians head to Tampa Bay for the Wild Card Game on Wednesday. This is due to Tampa Bay’s 4-2 record against Cleveland this season.
  7. Indians lose, Rays lose, Rangers win: Texas heads to Cleveland for Wednesday’s Wild Card Game. The Tribe owns the tiebreaker with a 5-1 record against the Rangers this year.

“We need to win tomorrow,” Indians veteran Jason Giambi said after Saturday’s victory. “That’s the biggest thing we need to do, is take care of that. I don’t like all the scenarios, how it works out. We just need to concentrate and play a great game tomorrow and go from there.”

Saturday’s win upped Cleveland’s winning streak to a season-high nine games, giving the Tribe 14 wins in its past 16 contests. The Indians are now 20-6 in September, marking the franchise’s first 20-win showing in September since 1948. Cleveland hadn’t won 20 games in any one month since 1995, when the club posted 21 in August and 20 in June.

The Indians have now turned in a 23-win improvement over last year’s 69-94 showing. That is the second-largest year-to-year win jump in the club’s 113-year history, excluding strike-shortened seasons. Cleveland could tie its record (set in 1986) with a win on Sunday. Francona is only the ninth manager since 1969 to oversee a turnaround of at least 23 wins in his first season at the helm.

The Indians are also one win shy of completing another four-game sweep, which would give the team seven such broomings this season. The last team to have at least seven series sweeps of four or more games was the 1943 Cardinals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Losing 94 games to winning 90 plus,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Man, how could you not be super stoked about that? It’s kind of one of those seasons that doesn’t come along very often. For us, obviously we don’t want to be that flash in a pan that just pops out one season.

“Just to be in the spot that we’re in right now, I’m ecstatic. I think it’s such an amazing time of year. Just to be able to be part of this crew, part of this team, and hopefully that resurrection that we’re working towards, it’s such an honor to be here.”

SECOND: If it seems like Scott Kazmir has been striking hitters out at record pace, that’s because he has been in September.

In Saturday’s outing against the Twins, who have whiffed 1,400-plus times and have already set their club record for strikeouts, Kazmir piled up 11 punchouts. That gives the Cleveland left-hander 43 strikeouts in 28 innings this month. His rate of 13.82 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest in team history for a single month (minimum three starts).

Here are the Top 10 on that list:

13.82: Scott Kazmir (Sept. 2013)
13.30: Bartolo Colon (May 2000)
12.86: Sam McDowell (April 1965)
12.74: Sam McDowell (July 1966)
11.92: Luis Tiant (Sept. 1968)
11.88: Luis Tiant (May 1967)
11.88: Danny Salazar (Sept. 2013)
11.84: Sam McDowell (May 1965)
11.74: Sonny Siebert (June 1965)
11.60: Sam McDowell (Sept. 1966)

According to baseball-reference, there have actually only been nine pitchers (min.  three starts and 20+ IP) since at least 1916 to record a K/9 rate of 13.80 or better for a single month. That list includes Randy Johnson (five times), Pedro Martinez (five), Kerry Wood (two), Nolan Ryan (one), Rich Harden (one), Brandon Morrow (one), Yovani Gallardo (one), Justin Verlander (one) and now Kazmir.

Kazmir is the first Indians pitcher in team history to have 40-plus strikeouts in fewer than 30 innings in a month.

“It’s fastball command, to start off with,” Kazmir said. “I was able to attack the strike zone and command. I feel like I keep saying this over and over, but it’s the truth. I feel like I’m going out there and getting them in swing mode and, once I get two strikes, I have quite a few pitches that I’m able to set them down with.”

Kazmir now has 162 strikeouts in 158 innings this season, giving the Indians three pitchers (Justin Masterson, 193; Ubaldo Jimenez, 181) with at least 160 strikeouts this year. That ties a club record, also set by the 2000 (Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley) and 1966 (Gary Bell, Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert) clubs.

THIRD: Twins right-hander Cole Devries headed into Saturday’s start with an 11.70 ERA this season, but he looked just fine as he breezed through the first 11 Tribe hitters without allowing a hit. In that span, De Vries struck out seven, including five in a six-batter span at one point.

Were the Indians feeling the heat?

“What was it, the third inning?” Swisher said with a laugh. “No, we weren’t stressed at that point.”

Jason Kipnis snapped Cleveland out of its funk with a two-out single in the fourth inning and then Carlos Santana absolutely crushed a 1-1 pitch from De Vries for a home run to right field. One inning later, Michael Bourn delivered a two-run triple (even though instant replay appeared to show Mike Aviles was out at the plate on the play) and Kipnis added an RBI single.

All five of Cleveland’s runs came with two outs — the Tribe ranks fifth in the Majors with 292 two-out runs this year — and the Indians are now averaging 6.9 runs over their past seven games.

“We just want to continue to keep this roll going,” Swisher said. “This is so much fun, man.”

HOME: The Indians are now a Major League-best 55-18 this season against teams with a sub-.500 records. There was plenty of talk leading up to September about the favorable schedule down the stretch, and Cleveland has taken full advantage of its slate these past few weeks. That said, the team is tired of hearing about its cushy schedule.

“Hey,” Swisher said, “why don’t I just say this as a direct quote to everybody else. No one was [complaining] about the schedule when we lost [94] games last year. That’s enough of that schedule stuff, man. For real. You still have to win the games. No one was talking about scheduling when we were going through playing the Yankees, Boston, Detroit back to back. Nobody said anything then.

“Hey, if everybody feels that way, make it an even schedule. Make everybody play everybody the same amount of times so nobody can complain about it. You would like to think that a lot of people would be excited for an organization like us. We’re kind of rejuvenated. We’ve got ourselves a new thing. If people want to hate on us for the last scheduling part, we can’t control that. We didn’t do the scheduling.

“Either way, man, I’ve heard enough of that. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to win the ballgames regardless of who you’re playing. For us, it just so happened that the last two weeks or so it kind of worked out in our favor a little bit. That still doesn’t mean anything. These guys could play spoiler tomorrow. They’ve got young guys fighting for jobs next year.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Cleveland 91-70 — (+1)
2. Texas 90-71 — (-1)
2. Tampa Bay 90-71 (-1)

ON DECK:

Indians (91-70) at Twins (66-95)
at 2:10 p.m. ET Sunday at Target Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 159

926CLEFinal: Indians 6, Twins 5

FIRST: There are to things to note from the immediate aftermath of this win that felt like a loss.

The first  is that Indians manager Terry Francona, who always goes great lengths to defend and support his players, was non-committal when it came to sticking with Chris Perez in the closer role. The second item of note is that Perez swung by the manager’s office after giving up four runs in the ninth and told Francona he doesn’t want to keep hurting the team.

“He popped his head in here after the game and was actually really good about it,” Francona said. “He was like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to cost us games, because I’m not locating.’ We’ll figure it out.”

So, the Indians plan on figuring it out.

Francona emphasized that “five or 10 minutes after the game” is not the time to make any decisions. With GM Chris Antonetti in town, though, you can bet that they’ll meet and weight their options for the ninth inning, especially with a Wild Card playoff berth within reach.

This is not a two-bad-outings situation for Perez. This, now, is two bad months. Dating back to Aug. 1, Perez has posted a 7.52 ERA to go along with a .345 opponents’ average (30-for-87) with a 1.87 WHIP in 20.1 innings. Within that span, he has allowed seven home runs, including three in his past two appearances.

On Tuesday, Jason Giambi bailed Perez out after his blown save with a pinch-hit, walk-off miracle shot against the White Sox. On Thursday at Target Field, sidearmer Joe Smith picked Perez up by striking out pinch-hitter Oswaldo Arcia to end the game, sealing Cleveland’s seventh win in a row.

There is no denying Perez’s track record. His 124 saves for Cleveland are the third-most for a pitcher in team history. He saved 39 a year ago in a 68-win season, saved 36 in 2011 and made the All-Star team in both years. Shoot, across the first four months this season, he had a 2.41 ERA and a .206 opponents’ average. There has always been a bit of drama, but Perez has always been good.

Lately, however, that has not been the case.

And now there are possible postseason games on the line.

“He felt bad,” Francona said of his chat with Perez. “It was actually very team oriented. That’s what you’re looking for. He’s having a tough time and he’s owning up to it, and he doesn’t want to cost us wins.”

So what are the Indians’ options? Smith obviously comes to mind, as does Cody Allen, though at 76 appearances, he has been worked hard to this point. The most intriguing possibility would seem to be sinkerballer Justin Masterson, who is in a relief role right now. Of course, given the recent oblique injury, it is not clear if Masterson could appear in consecutive games.

Francona was asked if, save situation or any other situation, Perez would be available to pitch on Friday.

“I don’t know that, either,” answered the manager. “We’ll see. Again, we’ll take stock like we do every day and have a lot more rational thinking. That’s the way to do things.”

SECOND: In my office at home, I have a Minnie Minoso bobblehead on a shelf above my desk. That was my mom’s favorite player, though from his White Sox days, not from his time in Cleveland. Sorry, Ma grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Nobody’s perfect.

With that in mind, what Michael Brantley has now accomplished for the Indians is pretty cool in my book. He is the first Indians batter since Minoso in 1959 to enjoy four consecutive games with at least three hits and at least one RBI. It has only been done four times in Indians history.

The Major League record (at least since 1916) is five such games in a row by Gee Walker in 1936. Going back to 1950, it has only happened 12 times.

Not since Kenny Lofton in 1995 has a Cleveland hitter churned out three-plus hits in four straight games.

“He’s staying on the ball,” Francona said of Brantley. “He’s staying through the ball. He’s using the whole ball park, and it couldn’t come at a better time.”

Brantley’s hitting a smooth .500 (20-for-40) over his past 10 games for Cleveland.

Not to be overlooked, Yan Gomes went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer and two runs scored.

THIRD: Zach McAllister gave the Indians 4.1 shutout innings, holding the Twins to six hits and ending with three strikeouts and two walks. With one out in the fifth, McAllister gave up a walk to Alex Presley and a single to Brian Dozier, convincing Francona to turn to the bullpen.

There was a little more to the move than was immediately apparent, though.

“His [left] side was kind of stiff,” Francona said. “He was having a hard time getting out all the way to extension. He was kind of dodging traffic the whole night. His heart was in the right place. I jus thought that he had given us enough and it wouldn’t be fair to him to let him give up runs.

“I just thought it was time. If I’d have been managing with my heart, I’d have left him in.”

McAllister said he was a bit surprised Francona had such a quick hook.

“A little bit,” said the pitcher. “As a starter, you definitely want a chance to get the win out there and try to stay in the game as long as you can. But it’s September now, we have a lot of guys in the bullpen and every game’s an important one. You can’t question anything. I understand why.”

Bryan Shaw has been the hot hand this month — no runs allowed in 15.1 IP with 15 strikeouts and two walks — and he continued his run against the Twins. After taking over for McAllister, Shaw needed only one pitch to induce an inning-ending double play off the bat of Ryan Doumit.

HOME: The way the game ended, it was easy to forget one pretty important fact…

… the Indians won.

“And that’s what we set out to do,” Francona said. “That got a little closer than we wanted, but we won. Any time you hear music playing, especially this time of year, [it's good]. But that was a little nerve-wracking.”

The Indians have now won 12 of 14 to improve to 18-6 in September. Cleveland also has posted a 21-win improvement from a season ago, marking the second-largest year-to-year jump in victories in franchise history. Excluding strike-shortened seasons, the club record is a 24-win jump from 1985 to ’86.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 90-69 (+1)
2. Cleveland 89-70 (–-)
3. Texas 88-71 (-1)

ON DECK:

Indians (89-70) at Twins (66-93)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Friday at Target Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 158

925SwishKipFinal: Indians 7, White Sox 2

FIRST: The next four games will decide the Indians’ fate in the American League Wild Card race.

After routing the White Sox, improving Cleveland’s record to 17-6 this month and to 17-2 against Chicago this year, the Indians packed their bags and readied for the road ahead in Minnesota. It might’ve seemed like an opportune time for manager Terry Francona to meet with his players and give a speech to rally the ol’ troops.

Nooo,” Francona said. “No, I want to stay out of the way, man. I don’t want to mess it up. They’re doing just fine. They’re doing OK.”

And what are Francona’s thoughts on the upcoming trip to the Twin Cities?

“They have a place where I always buy shirts,” replied the manager.

If that doesn’t sum up Francona’s horse-blinders approach to managing, I don’t know what will.

Here’s what we know. We know the Indians are one game behind the Rays for the AL’s top Wild Card and one game ahead of the Rangers for the second. We know that Cleveland just went 6-0 on its homestand, sweeping away the Astros and White Sox to set up a third straight meeting with a team playing for a top Draft pick next summer.

“We did what we needed to do,” Francona said.

And We know that the Indians are exactly where they want to be at this moment.

“You’ve got to be excited,” Indians veteran Jason Giambi said. “Any time that you have control of your own destiny, that’s what it’s all about. We’ve just got to go out there and play baseball. We don’t have to scoreboard watch. We don’t have to do anything but go play baseball.”

The Twins can be a pesky club, and no one should underestimate the fight in a team managed by Ron Gardenhire, but Minnesota is also playing poorly right now. Over their last 15 games overall, the Twins’ pitching staff has posted a 6.60 ERA, 1.66 WHIP and a 1.61 K/BB ratio. In the past 13 home games, the Twins’ offense has hit .245 with an average of 2.6 runs and 12.5 strikeouts per contest.

“Every team is a Major League Baseball team for a reason,” Indians left fielder Michael Brantley said. “They’re going to have good players on the other side. Our job is to be better than them that day. We took care of our business at home this time and played great in front of a great fan crowd. It was nice.

“Now we just have to go on the road and continue to do what we’re doing.”

Notes from Wednesday’s win…

  • At 88 wins, the Indians have improved by 20 wins over last season (68-94). Excluding strike-shortened years, that puts this team into a tie with the 1915-16 teams for the second-largest year-to-year win jump in the franchise’s 113-year history. The record is a 24-game improvement from 1985 to 1986.
  • With a 17-2 record against the White Sox this season, the Indians became the fifth team since 1969 to achieve 17 wins over one opponent in a single year. The others: 1974 Braves (vs. Padres), 1986 Mets (over Pirates), 2006 A’s (over Mariners), 2013 Rangers (over Astros) and your Indians.
  • Cleveland has 14 consecutive wins over the White Sox, marking a franchise record against Chicago. It’s also the first 14-game winning streak over a single opponent for the Tribe since running off 14 straight against the Kansas City A’s in 1960.
  • The Indians ended the planned regular-season schedule with 51 wins, marking the most at home since also having 51 in 2007, which was a pretty good year for the Tribe

SECOND: The Indians again benefited from the September resurgence of Nick Swisher (two-run homer in fifth) and Asdrubal Cabrera (two-run single in seventh), but it was Brantley who served as the catalyst for Cleveland’s lineup once again.

Filling in at leadoff for Michael Bourn — sidelined for the moment with a sprained right wrist — Brantley went 3-for-5 with an RBI single and a double. It marked his third consecutive three-hit game for the Indians, who have won 11 of 13.

“It’s nice, because he sprays the ball all over the field,” Francona said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a righty or a lefty. With Bourny out, he hits leadoff. You can hit him anywhere in the order. It’s nice to have him heating up.”

Brantley has hit .692 (9-for-13) in his last three games with five RBI, .588 (10-for-17) with two homers and seven RBI in his last four games and .486 (17-for-35) with eight RBI in his past nine games for the Tribe.

In each of the past three games, Brantley has actually achieved at least three hits and one RBI, which has only been accomplished by an Indians hitter in at least three straight games 20 times since 1916. The team record in that time period for consecutive games with at least three hits and an RBI is four (Minnie Minoso, 1959; Ken Keltner, 1939; Joe Vosmik, 1935).

THIRD: Rookie right-hander Danny Salazar gave the Indians a solid effort against the White Sox, limiting them to two runs on six hits in 5.1 innings. Salazar ended with eight strikeouts and one walk in the effort and finished with 89 pitches.

Salazar said it has been nice not to feel so restricted with his pitch count.

“Yeah, now I don’t look at the scoreboard,” Salazar said with a smile.

Salazar now has a rate of 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings through 10 starts this season. That is the highest-single-season rate among all Indians pitchers with at least 3 starts, dating back to 1901.

Here is the list of those with a K/9 higher than 10.00 for a single-season (min. 3 starts):

11.25: Salazar, 2013
11.03: Bob Feller, 1936
10.71: Sam McDowell, 1965
10.54: Herb Score, 1958
10.42: McDowell, 1966
10.15: Barolo Colon, 2000

“I think the mound if the most comfortable place in the world for him,” Francona said. “This kid has come a long way. I don’t think any of us hold our breath. We think this kid is part of what we’re doing. It’s fun. I think he’s done a tremendous job.

“He’s very poised. If I had his stuff, I would be, too.”

HOME: With a five-run cushion in the ninth inning, the Indians ran into the perfect opportunity for sinkerballer Justin Masterson to make his return from the strained left oblique he suffered on Sept. 2. Masterson jogged in from the bullpen and received a standing ovation and loud cheers from the crowd on hand.

“That was kind of cool,” Francona said of the fans’ response.

Masterson struck out two, allowed one hit and induced a groundout to seal the victory. He was around 93-94 mph with his fastball and logged 17 pitches, including a sharp slider.

“It was nice,” Masterson said. “I warmed up nice and came out and tried to throw 300 mph. But it worked out well.”

Masterson will continue to be utilized as a reliever, at least for the rest of the regular season.

“It kind of went to our ace getting hurt to all of a sudden having a weapon,” Francona said. “And we will use him. We just need to get him as many outings as we can that make sense, while winning and managing the game. He can be a big part of what we’re doing.”

EXTRA: The Indians drew 30,942 in the home finale to finish the season with 1,572,926 in announced attendance this season. That is a 9.8 percent decrease in attendance from 2012, even though the team currently has a 23-percent increase in wins. Let’s put any negatives aside, though, to focus on the strong turnout in these past few home games, and how much it meant to the players.

“It was great. It was amazing,” said Bourn, who has been vocal about the attendance this season. “It was amazing for the fans, amazing for us. It was something good to be a part of and we hope that it ain’t the last game here.”

Giambi, who received a much-deserved standing ovation as he stepped to the plate in the second inning, was also pleased with the turnout.

“That’s exciting,” Giambi said. “I know they’ve been watching, because I’ve walked around town and everybody has been unbelievable. I know TV ratings are through the roof. It’s exciting to have them come, it definitely is. I’ve always said, when this place gets people in it, there’s some energy.”

Francona echoed that sentiment.

“It was really kind of electric,” said the manager. “Hopefully we’ll play more games here, because I think they showed their appreciation of our team’s effort, and they seemed very excited. It’s a lot of fun when it’s like that here.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 89-69 (+1)
2. Cleveland 88-70 (–-)
3. Texas 87-71 (-1)

ON DECK:

Indians (88-70) at Twins (66-92)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 157

924GFinal: Indians 5, White Sox 4

FIRST: Do you believe in miracles?

What took place on Tuesday night at Progressive Field certainly felt like one. The stadium was as loud as its been all season in the ninth inning, when the crowd unleashed angry boos on closer Chris Perez after he gave up two home runs to give the White Sox the lead. And then, the place went absolutely crazy when Jason Giambi came to the rescue with a two-run, pinch-hit, walk-off homer.

“All this team really needs is that little heartbeat,” Giambi said. “That little, ‘We’ve got a chance.’ That’s what we’ve done so well this year.”

He ain’t kidding.

Here is the rundown on Cleveland’s 11 walk-off wins:

April 12: 1-0 win over White Sox — Nick Swisher RBI single
May 3: 7-6 (10) win over Twins — Drew Stubbs RBI double
May 17: 6-3 (10) win over Mariners — Jason Kipnis three-run homer
May 18: 5-4 win over Mariners — Mark Reynolds RBI fielder’s choice
May 20: 10-8 (10) win over Mariners — Yan Gomes three-run homer
June 14: 2-1 win over Nationals — Kipnis RBI fielder’s choice
July 26: 11-8 (11) win over Rangers — Ryan Raburn three-run homer
July 29: 3-2 win over White Sox — Giambi pinch-hit solo homer
July 31: 3-1 (10) win over White Sox — Carlos Santana solo homer
Sept. 19: 2-1 (11) win over Astros — Matt Carson RBI single
Sept. 24: 5-4 win over White Sox — Giambi pinch-hit, two-run homer

Cleveland’s 11 walk-offs match Tampa Bay for the most this season. As it happens, the Rays are one game ahead of the Tribe for the top Wild Card spot at the moment.

Some Big G facts:

  • Marked the veteran’s 10th career walk-off home run
  • Since 1950, Giambi is one of 13 players to have 10+ walk-off shots
  • Giambi is broke his Major League record for being oldest player to hit a walk-off homer
  • Prior to this season, Hank Aaron held that record (1976)
  • Giambi is the fifth Indians batter to have three pinch-hit homers in one season
  • The last Tribesman with three pinch-hit blasts was Ron Kittle in 1987
  • Giambi’s shot was the fifth pinch-hit, walk-off homer in Progressive Field history
  • Cleveland’s 70 walk-off homers at Progressive Field lead MLB since 1994

Giambi has more than 2,000 hits and 438 home runs. Where does his latest rank in his mind?

“Right now, it’s the top of the world,” Giambi said. “I don’t even think I touched the ground, to be honest with you, running around the bases. They might’ve been able to appeal, because I don’t know if I touched any of them.”

Francona has made his affection for Giambi as a leader and player no secret this season and that continued in the wake of Tuesday’s heroics.

“I think I have a man-crush on G,” the manager said with a smile. “That was pretty awesome.”

Francona has felt fortunate to have a player of Giambi’s caliber in the clubhouse, but the team’s latest emotional win showed how the aging slugger can still have an impact on the field.

“He’s always ready,” Francona said. “And that’s why he’s playing this game, because he wants to win, and he’s willing to do anything for anybody at anytime. Fortunately for us, sometimes it’s when he steps in the batter’s box. But I still say, as much as he does there, it’s probably not even remotely what he does throughout the organization. He’s been a blessing for all of us, myself included.”

With two outs and a runner on first base, Francona turned to Giambi. Michael Brantley, who had singled, swiped second base, making a well-placed base hit enough to tie the game. Forget all that. Giambi crushed a 1-1 slider from Addison Reed, tossed his bat, thrust his arms into the air and ignited a mob scene.

Indians first baseman Nick Swisher, whose locked is adjacent to Giambi’s in the clubhouse, said it was a much-needed victory for this Cleveland club that’s fighting for a playoff spot.

“That had to have been, by far, probably one of the more emotional wins that we’ve had,” Swisher said, “especially considering where we are in the running. If you lose that game, man, you never know what’s going to happen. We’re in that position right now where we’ve got to win out. We’ve got to win.

“I almost started crying when he hit that ball. It was one of the more crazy things I’ve ever seen, because he’s been such a monster part of this team. The situations he’s come up in and how clutch he’s been for us, man, it’s emotional. It really is.”

SECOND: Fans certainly informed Perez of their displeasure when he was lifted from the game with two outs in the ninth inning. The closer allowed solo shots to Dayan Viciedo and Alejandro De Aza to give Chicago a one-run lead after entering the frame with a one-run cushion of his own.

In the aftermath of the win, Giambi sought out Perez.

“I made him give me a hug,” Giambi said. “He was a little down. He was a little down and I gave him a big hug. He needed it. There’s not a worse feeling, I think, than being in that situation. I’ve been up there striking out in a big situation, so I know the feeling.

“He’s going to be a huge part of us all the way down the stretch. If we get an opportunity to play in the playoffs, we need him. So I’m just glad that he can wipe this away and start over tomorrow.”

Over his past 20 appearances, Perez has posted a 5.95 ERA (13 earned runs in 19.2 IP) with 24 strikeouts, eight walks and .321 opponents’ batting average and a 1.73 WHIP. To his credit, he has performed better in crunch time with runners on base, but the overall body of work has been shaky going back to the beginning of August.

Perez was hitting 93-95 mph with his fastball and 84 mph with his slider in his latest outing, so nothing drastic off the norm there.

Francona plans on sticking with Perez as his closer.

“We’re not going to shift gears with five games left,” Francona said.

THIRD: Ubaldo Jimenez gets lost in the shuffle tonight, but the Indians right-hander provided another strong start. This time around, Big U held the White Sox to two runs (one charged to his line after his exit) on five hits over 6.1 innings. He struck out seven, walked two and wound up with a no-decision for his effort.

“I thought his second time through the order he wasn’t quite as crisp as he’s been,” Francona said. “But to his credit, man, he’s been a good pitcher. And there’s not a whole lot to show for it on the scoreboard when he leaves the game.”

Jimenez has a 1.04 ERA in September (34.2 IP), 1.86 ERA in the second half (77.1 IP), 2.47 ERA since May 27 (131.1 IP) and 2.66 ERA since April 29 (159 IP).

HOME: A few eyebrows were raised in the seventh inning when Francona turned to right-hander Cody Allen, and not lefty Marc Rzepczynski, to face the lefty-hitting De Aza with two on and one out. De Aza slapped a pitch into left for a game-tying single, so the move appeared even more glaring in hindsight.

Until you examine the numbers, that is.

Entering the night, De Aza was hitting .304 with an .825 OPS vs. lefties compared to .252 (.697) vs. righties. It’s a small sample size, but De Aza was also 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in his career against Allen, who also had been better against lefties (.220) than righties (.246) this season. That match supported the matchup.

“De Aza has a higher batting average against left-handers,” Francona said. “And Cody has faced him a couple times and gotten strikeouts. Just, I like that matchup. And we wanted to save Zep. If we were getting in trouble, we could go to him to end an inning a few hitters later.”

Sometimes, the percentages just don’t work out in the end.

Good thing Cleveland had Giambi there to help render that situation moot.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 88-69 (+1)
2. Cleveland 87-70 (–-)
3. Texas 86-71 (-1)
4. Kansas City 83-74 (-4)
5. New York 82-75 (-5)

ON DECK:

White Sox (62-95) at Indians (87-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 156

922SmoothFinal: Indians 9, Astros 2

FIRST: Pulling off a four-game sweep is not an easy feat.

“It’s hard,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “This is a hard game.”

And, yet, Cleveland’s win over Houston on Sunday gave the club its sixth four-game sweep of the season. The Tribe broomed four-game sets with the A’s (May 6-9), Mariners (May 17-20), White Sox (June 28-30, July 29-Aug. 1, Sept. 12-15) and now the Astros.

Cleveland had been tied with the 1932 Indians for the second-most four-game sweeps in one season with five. Now, the Indians have equaled a franchise record (set in 1954) with six four-game sweeps. The last team with five such sweeps was the 1985 Yankees. The last team with six four-game sweeps in one season was, wait for it …

… the 1961 Yankees.

“Sick,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “That’s a hard thing to do. I guess, right now, with the position that we’re in, we’re not really thinking about who we’re playing or how many games a series is. We’re just trying to win ballgames.

“I think if we go out there, and we continue to keep getting this great pitching, it’s going to be a great rest of the season for us.”

Good pitching would seem to be the key for a four-game sweep. As it happens, Cleveland’s pitching staff has posted a 2.63 ERA in the 24 victories in question.

“When you pitch, you give yourself a chance,” Francona said. “Not that it starts and ends with pitching, but it definitely starts with pitching.”

There is, of course, something to be said that the teams the Indians have swept — with the exception of the A’s — have been subpar clubs. In that sense, Cleveland has taken care of business against the teams it should beat. That is easily backed up by the Tribe’s MLB-best 50-19 record against teams with sub-.500 records.

Against the Astros, the Indians did what they’re supposed to do — again.

“That’s a good way to put it,” Francona said.

SECOND: Michael Brantley’s production in clutch situations has been an ongoing storyline all season. The Indians left fielder maintained the narrative with his 3-for-4 showing in the batter’s box that ignited a big day for the offense.

There were many contributors — Michael Bourn tripled home a run, Asdrubal Cabrera scored from second with a great slide across the plate and Carlos Santana launched his 19th homer — but we’re going to focus on Dr. Smooth for this section.

“Junior, Doc, whatever you want to call him,” Swisher said, “he’s had such a tremendous year.”

Brantley’s fourth-inning single came with two on and two outs and pushed the Indians to a 2-1 lead at the time. His base hit in the sixth came with two runners on base and gave the Tribe a 4-2 advantage. His three hits gave Brantley a .333 (25-for-75) average over his past 21 games.

With his showing on Sunday, Brantley is also batting .300 with two outs, .349 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .360 with runners in scoring position and .378 with runners on first and second base (2-for-2 on Sunday).

“He’s just a plain ol’ good hitter,” Francona said. “He doesn’t try to do too much. He kind of takes what the pitcher gives him, especially off a lefty. He’ll hit the ball to left field. He stays up the middle, as we saw twice today. And then when you make a mistake, he can hammer it.

“He’s not the maybe 120-RBI guy sitting in that five-hole, but you know you’re going to get a really good at-bat out of him, following those guys in front of him. Really good protection for guys.”

Brantley said the key to hitting in such situations is to stick with the same approach.

“My approach hasn’t changed, right?” he said. “Just getting the run in for my team. That’s the goal of anybody up there in that situation. I’ve been fortunate lately to find some holes, and as long as I keep swinging at good pitches, good things are going to happen.”

How should his teammates take advantage of Brantley’s propensity for clutch hitting?

“Just load them up for Brant,” Swish said with a laugh, “but make sure there’s two outs.”

THIRD: Indians right-hander Corey Kluber gave his team 5.1 innings on Sunday and held Houston to two runs on six hits. Kluber mixed in six strikeouts, one walk and ended with 81 pitches. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was effective, and that’s all that mattered to Francona.

“I still think he’s not in mid-season form as far as his command,” Francona said. “I thought he missed some on the plate, some off. But he still competes. You saw what he gave us. I just think he’s still kind of clawing his way back.

“The good news is I think once that command comes back, then we have the guy that was pitching before, because he’s healthy as all get-out and he’s strong. We’ve just got to keep getting him reps.”

Over his last 10 starts, Kluber has gone 4-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 61 innings, in which he’s compiled 55 strikeouts, 55 hits allowed and 16 walks. That, however, includes five week stay on the disabled list due to a sprained right middle finger. Since coming back in September, Kluber is 3-0 with a 4.05 ERA for the Indians.

“I don’t know if I feel quite as good as I did before,” Kluber said. “Physically, I feel fine. Just in general out there pitching, maybe not quite there yet, but I think it’s just a matter of getting out there, getting repetition and falling back into that groove.”

Kluber did reach 131 strikeouts on the season, helping the Indians achieve a rare milestone. Cleveland now has four pitchers with at least 130 strikeouts for just the fourth time in team history, joining the 1966, 1967 and 1968 squads. The ’66 team set the standard with five.

HOME: We’ve all cracked wise a little about Francona’s September bullpen army. He has 15 relievers at his disposal, making for some long innings, and plenty of  exercise for the manager, due to all the pitching changes.

Sunday’s win showed the value of having such a deep ‘pen down the stretch.

Once the game spread from a close game to a blowout, Francona began turning to some of his September callups. The manager wound up using eight pitchers, marking the fourth time this season he’s used at least eight arms in one game. That’s the most such games in one season for the Indians, in case you were wondering.

Relievers appearing in Sunday’s game were Marc Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Matt Albers, Clay Rapada, CC Lee and Carlos Carrasco.

Here’s how it comes in handy for a team trying to keep its arms fresh, not only for a push to the playoffs, but for the potential October outing that follow. To this point this month, Cleveland’s callups have posted a 4.79 ERA, but they have eaten up 20.2 innings. That has saved some work for the seven regular relievers, who have posted a 2.18 ERA in 53.2 innings in September.

“It worked out well today,” Francona said. “Because we spread it out, we got Rapada to face a lefty, we got CC into face a righty, we got Albers a couple hitters just to keep him crisp. So, that’s a luxury that sometimes you can’t do.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 86-69 (+0.5)
2. Cleveland 86-70 (–-)
3. Texas 84-71 (1.5)
4. Kansas City 82-73 (3.5)
5. New York 82-74 (4.0)
6. Baltimore 81-74 (4.5)

ON DECK:

White Sox (61-94) at Indians (86-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 155

921KazmirFinal: Indians 4, Astros 1

FIRST: Raise your hand if you had Scott Kazmir penciled in for 150 innings and 150 strikeouts for the Indians this season? I certainly didn’t.

Even in Spring Training, when Kazmir looked strong and rightfully won a spot in the Opening Day rotation, you just weren’t sure how much he’d be able to give. Released in 2011. Indy ball in 2012. Brought into camp on a roll-of-the-dice Minor League contract.

There was no certainty, or clear where to project production. All that existed in those early spring bullpen sessions was hope.

“I remember the first day of spring,” Indians manager Terry Francona said with a smile. “Talking to [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] after [Kazmir] threw that side, after you tell him, ‘Hey, we’re not evaluating,’ and just seeing him throw and thinking, just in the back of your head, ‘Wow, if this worked. What a find.'”

Indeed, what a find it has been for Cleveland.

“Now we’re in the middle of September,” said Francona, who then checked the date on his watch. “Getting later in September, and he’s pitching good. This is exciting. Because I think, knowing Kaz, the bigger the game, he’s not going to shy away from that.”

You can point out that the Indians were playing the 104-loss Astros on Saturday, and that would perfectly fair on your part, but it was a big game for the Tribe nonetheless. Kazmir answered with seven shutout innings, in which he issued one walk, scattered four hits and struck out 10.

Some Kaz Facts:

  • Kazmir now has three double-digit strikeout games this season, marking the first time he has turned in at least three such starts in one year since 2007.
  • Kazmir spun at least seven shutout innings with at least 10 strikeouts in a game for the first time since Sept. 10, 2007.
  • No Indians lefty had accomplished that feat since CC Sabathia on June 27, 2008.
  • Kazmir’s 10 strikeouts gave him 151 on the season in 152 innings. That gives the Tribe three pitchers, along with Justin Masterson (188) and Ubaldo Jimenez (174) with at least 150 K.
  • That ties a single-season club record for the Indians, who also had three pitchers with at least 150 K in 2000 (Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley), 1966 (Gary Bell, Sam McDowell, Sonny Siebert) and 1965 (McDowell, Siebert, Luis Tiant).

Kazmir is 9-9 with a 4.14 ERA on the season, but he has gone 6-5 with a 3.15 ERA in his past 17 turns, dating back to June 21. In that recent span, the lefty has piled up 96 strikeouts against 22 walks in 97 innings. In his latest effort, he sat around 89-92 mph with his fastball and topped out at 95 mph. Or, he had essentially the same velocity he’s shown all season long.

Kazmir struck out five on fastballs, four on changeups and one on a slider. His changeup was especially effective. He logged 21 and threw 81 percent for strikes.

“I felt like my changeup had good action on it,” Kazmir said. “I was able to use it when I was ahead in the count.”

Given the nature of his comeback, is Kazmir surprised he is still holding his own this deep in the year?

“Yeah,” Kazmir said. “It’s been one of those seasons where you’re kind of bouncing back and trying to recover every single fifth day. To where I’m at right now, I feel like I’m very happy, very pleased. I’m just as strong [as earlier this season]. I don’t feel tired. It’s just a matter of recovering after throwing 100 pitches every fifth day.”

Kazmir’s teammates continue to be in awe of his comeback.

“Scotty Kaz, man, he’s absolutely doing it,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “Like I’ve said before, just from where he was last year at this point to where he is now, I mean, he was in his backyard playing catch and now he’s on the big league mound dominating baseball games.

“To be able to have that, hats off to our front office for going out and getting a guy like that and giving him another shot. Man, just so happy for all the success he’s having this year.”

SECOND: Credit Swisher for an assist for the electric atmosphere at Progressive Field on Saturday night. Swisher reached into his pocket and funded an extra fireworks night for Cleveland’s fans — complete with an Ohio-themed playlist — and 26,611 fans showed for the game against Houston.

it was hardly a sellout, but it was definitely an improvement over recent home games.

“It was really welcome,” Francona said. “I think players probably appreciate that. There was a little extra energy it seemed like there tonight. This time of year that can’t hurt anybody.”

In the previous 11 home games, the Indians — competing for a spot in the postseason — averaged 13,786 in announced attendance per contest. Twice in that span, the attendance dipped below 10,000. That included 9,794 on Sept. 9, marking the lowest September crowd in stadium history.

Needless to say, the Indians were thrilled with the numbers and the noise on Saturday.

“Coming down the stretch, we hope to see it like that every night,” Indians reliever Cody Allen said. “In the playoffs, you hope to see it a little more. I feel like when you have a crowd like that, there’s really a home-field advantage.”

“The crowd was into it right out of the gate,” said left fielder Michael Brantley. “It was fun, exciting. They were cheering from the first pitch.”

Swisher said it had an October feel to it.

Yeah,” he said with a wide grin. “Little chill in the air. Place was going nuts. It kind of seemed like every hit was like the most important thing ever. I mean, it was just so great to be out there tonight in that atmosphere, man.”

THIRD: Michael Brantley has quietly served as one of the most valuable aspects of the Indians’ batting order. He might not hit for power, but he consistently hits for a decent average and has appeared in all nine lineup spots, allowing Francona to keep the lineup virtually intact when giving guys a day off or leaning on certain matchups.

In Saturday’s win, Brantley found his power stroke in the first inning, ripping a two-run home run that gave the Tribe a quick 3-0 lead. Over his past 20 games, Brantley has hit at a .310 (22-for-71). That stretch follows the left fielder’s roughest stretch of the season: .212 (18-for-85) from Aug. 1-25.

“He actually took a nice swing the pitch before,” Francona said of Brantley’s home run. “To give us a little cushion, because the ballpark was playing big, and to get on them early [was good].”

HOME: Leadoff man Michael Bourn and Swisher (Cleveland’s No. 2 hitter) combined to get on base six times in Saturday’s win. Having Bourn, Swisher, Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera hitting better of late has been a great development for the Indians.

Francona said that is especially so for Bourn.

“When Bourny gets on base, we’re a whole different team,” Francona said. “He’s got that energy, and he’s out there bouncing around.”

Bourn went 2-for-4 and is now hitting .275 (11-for-40) with five extra-base hits and seven runs scored in his past 10 games for the Tribe. Swisher went 1-for-3 with two walks and is batting .357 (20-for-56) with five homers, 10 walks, 12 runs and 12 RBI in his past 15 games.

Talk about great timing.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 86-69 (+0.5)
2. Cleveland 85-70 (–)
3. Texas 84-70 (0.5)
4. New York 82-73 (3.0)
t-5. Baltimore 81-73 (3.5)
t-5. Kansas City 81-73 (3.5)

ON DECK:

Astros (51-104) at Indians (85-70)
at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 154

920KipnisFinal: Indians 2, Astros 1 (6.5 innings)

FIRST: Welcome to the Wild Card spot, Cleveland.

With the music blaring inside the clubhouse, and rain falling outside, there was not a single player complaining about the weather delay that arrived in the seventh inning on Friday night. Why would they complain?

When the skies opened and the tarp unrolled, the Indians had a 2-1 lead and the game was official. With the playoffs now a realistic goal, the Tribe needs as many wins as possible, and the team doesn’t care how those victories are obtained.

“Any way we can,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

“A win is a win,” said pitcher Zach McAllister.

“You can’t be mad about going home with a win,” Nick Swisher beamed.

Especially when the win in question helped the Indians leapfrog the Rangers for one of the American League’s two Wild Cards. Texas (a half-game up on the Tribe heading into Friday) lost to Kansas City, which is also very much in the hunt. As of this writing, Tampa Bay and Baltimore — two more contenders — were tied in the 14th inning. That said, the result of that game doesn’t change the Indians’ place in the standings.

Francona made it clear that the decision to call the game early came via the umpires and the league. The final call was not up to the Indians.

The TVs were tuned to the relevant games inside the clubhouse during the delay, and the Progressive Field scoreboard did a split-screen of the Texas-Kansas City and Baltimore-Tampa Bay tilts. The fans who tried to wait out the storm, while sheltered under the stadium’s overhangs, cheered loudly for the Orioles when they scored a couple late runs.

“That’s nice,” Swisher said. “It kind of feels like everybody is jumping on board right now. This is the perfect time to do it.”

There are eight games left on Cleveland’s schedule against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Cleveland has gone 13-6 in September and 10-5 since the nine-game gauntlet (3-6) against Detroit, Atlanta and Baltimore. Everyone noted that the Tribe simply needed to take care of business against the teams it should beat, and the team has done so with an 8-1 mark in recent games against the Mets, White Sox and Astros.

“This is pretty close to being playoff baseball right now,” Swisher said. “For us, we’ve got ourselves a good schedule ahead of us. Then again, These guys [Astros] are doing a good job. Look at their pitchers, man. We have a pretty good hitting offense and we haven’t really done much.”

“For us,” he added later, “as best we can, we’ve got to keep our heads out of those papers and really keep to the grindstone, because we’ve got ourselves in a great spot. Just to be able to be here, a complete turnaround from last year, it’s exciting, man. These last [eight] games are going to be great.”

SECOND: You could make an argument that the Indians didn’t win this game, but that the Astros lost it.

Houston made three errors, and one miscue that went down as a fielder’s choice officially, that led directly to Cleveland’s two runs against lefty Brett Olberholtzer. Third baseman Brandon Laird booted two plays in the second (one to allow Asdrubal Cabrera to reach and another with the bases loaded that led to the Indians’ first run).

In the fourth, first baseman Chris Carter had a shot at a double play with one out and runners on first and second. He threw into left field, and then left fielder Marc Krauss threw wildly beyond home plate, and we all heard circus music as Cleveland took a 2-1 lead.

“Obie was outstanding,” Houston manager Bo Porter said. “Even you look at the two runs they scored, both of them were unearned. If we made a couple of defensive plays, we arguably could be standing here with a 1-0 victory. He pitched that well.”

The Indians certainly felt fortunate.

“We didn’t do a whole lot with it,” Francona said. “But fortunately we did enough.”

THIRD: Francona summed up McAllister’s outing perfectly:

“Zach kind of bent, but didn’t break.”

McAllister logged five innings (plus one batter in the sixth) and, unlike Olberholtzer, was able to thank his defense after the game. Center fielder Michael Bourn made a great diving catch to open the game, Cabrera made an outstanding barehanded grab for an out in the third and second baseman Jason Kipnis and Cabrera teamed for a critical double play with the bags full and one out in the fifth.

“That fifth inning, I left a few balls up and fell behind hitters,” said McAllister, who had four hits, three strikeouts and two walks on his line. “When you do that, you’re asking for trouble. But we were able to have some great defense behind me. They made a huge double play for me. That was extremely important.”

After McAllister walked Jose Altuve on four pitches to open the sixth inning, Francona turned to his bullpen.

“There’s so many factors that go into it,” Francona said of that decision. “There’s a lot of times during the season [where] you can’t do that. But with a full bullpen, you can do that now.”

One of the factors might be that McAllister headed into Friday’s start with a .355 opponents’ batting average and a .985 opponents’ OPS in the 76-100 pitch range. His fourth pitch to Altuve, the last toss of the night for the righty, was No. 76 for McAllister.

HOME: One of Cleveland’s unsung heroes down the stretch has been right-handed reliever Bryan Shaw. After McAllister, Francona turned to lefty Marc Rzepczynski for one batter, and then had Shaw finish out the game. Thanks to the rain delay, Shaw notched his first save of the season.

Dating back to July 6, Shaw has posted a 1.95 ERA and .178 opponents’ average over 31 games (32.1 innings). The righty has a 1.33 ERA and .155 average against in 19 games (20.1 innings) going back to Aug. 12. In September, Shaw has posted a 0.00 ERA in 11 1/3 innings with nine strikeouts, no walks and a .154 opponents’ average.

“He’s topping the guns at 95, 96,” Swisher said. “It’s nice to see that, especially this late in the season. To be able to have that much juice left is impressive. He’s gone out there and has had some serious innings logged for us.”

ON DECK:

Astros (51-103) at Indians (84-70)
at 6:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 153

F919Carsoninal: Indians 2, Astros 1 (11 innings)

FIRST: His nickname is Crash Carson.

That stems from a full-throttle sprint that resulted in a painful crash into the center-field wall at The Coliseum during Matt Carson’s stint with Oakland a few years back. Search YouTube. But, you’d be fine with thinking it had its roots from Crash Davis, the career Minor Leaguer from the baseball movie, “Bull Durham.” Shoot, Carson even had a stint with the Durham Bulls.

Carson has spent a dozen years in the Minor Leagues — six of those at Triple-A — and only six percent of his 1,334 professional games have come at the big league level. There have been stops with Staten Island, Battle Creek, Tampa, Trenton, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sacramento, Durham, Rochester and, this year, Columbus.

Mixed in have been cups of coffee with the A’s, Twins and Indians.

“Man, I’ve crisscrossed the country quite a few times playing this game,” Carson said. “It’s been a good journey.”

It all led to Thursday night in Cleveland.

A perfect storm led to Carson walking to the plate with the bases loaded in the 11th inning of a tie game with Houston. In the bottom of the ninth, Indians manager Terry Francona turned to veteran Jason Giambi as a pinch hitter for Drew Stubbs. Giambi popped out to end the inning, so the manager sent Carson out to right field as a defensive replacement.

Two innings later, with Astros righty Rhiner Cruz on the mound and the bags full of Indians, Francona had the option of sending Carson to the plate, or turning to Ryan Raburn or Jason Kubel. Francona said he did not really considering pinch hitting in that situation.

“No, I really didn’t,” Francona said. “There’s a few reasons. One, he’s so good defensively. We weren’t losing. We got the pitcher’s spot coming up the next inning, and we got Raburn and Kubel, and Ray’s not running great. So, sometimes you just stay out of the way and let them play.”

Carson made good on his manager’s faith, sending a pitch from Cruz past a diving Jose Altuve for a walk-off single. As he rounded first base, and broke into a wide smile, infielder Mike Aviles embraced the long-time Minor Leaguer, who was then mobbed by his teammates.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” Carson said. “I’ve done it plenty of times going out there with other guys. To be the guy getting mobbed, it feels good.”

Carson said it was a moment he’ll never forget.

“That’s probably kind of a pinnacle for me at this point in my career,” he said. “To do it for a playoff team like we have right now, in a win that we needed, like I said, it was tops for me.”

And, considering the kind of career he’s had, experiencing the top certainly beats scraping the bottom.

In nine at-bats with Cleveland since being promoted from Triple-A, Carson has seven hits, including three in the Tribe’s recent  7-1 win over Chris Sale and the White Sox in Chicago.

“There’s been lot of low points. Lots of low points,” Carson said. “There’s going to be highs and lows. Being in the Minor Leagues as long as I have, there’s definitely been those times. As long as I’m still playing the game, it can’t be that low.”

Following the game, while doing his sit-down with reporters, Francona smiled as he heard his players — in the clubhouse across the hall — yelled and celebrated when Carson walked in the room.

“You can hear the guys in there right now,” Francona said. “Everybody’s pretty fond of him. He’s the kind of kid that, went to Triple-A the whole year, comes to Spring Training, does a great job, everybody likes him. … He’s come up and impacted the Major League team. He goes in, he plays defense, he gets hits. It’s kind of rewarding to see a good kid get rewarded like that and get a hit.”

SECOND: Ubaldo Jimenez once again set the tone for Cleveland with a strong start. The right-hander wound up with a no-decision, as did Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel for his seven innings, but held the Astros to one run on six hits in seven frames.

Big U finished with nine strikeouts and zero walks. In the first 205 games of Jimenez’s career, he never had an outing with at least nine strikeouts and no walks. He’s accomplished that feat three times in his past five starts for the Indians.

“I feel good. I feel confident every time I take the mound,” Jimenez said. “It feels great to be out there for the team, knowing that I can be the game’s difference. I can be there for the team competing. Pretty much every five days that I get on the mound, I’m going to give everything that I have for the team.”

Dating back to May 27, Jimenez has posted a 2.45 ERA across 21 games. Over his past 10 starts, the righty has a 1.77 ERA to go along with 80 strikeouts and 23 walks in 71 innings.

“We’re leaning on him,” Francona said. “And I think he’s enjoying it. Every five days, he’s answering the bell. He’s consistent with his stuff, and that’s past encouraging. That’s exciting.”

THIRD: There are a few things I could go over here. Catcher Yan Gome’s arm: throwing out Altuve on a stolen-base attempt in the third inning or picking pinch-runner Jake Elmore off second base in the 10th. Chris Perez’s ninth inning: bases loaded with one out before striking out the next two to escape unscathed.

“Everybody might be nervous, except for [Perez],” Francona said with a chuckle.

Or, there was Nick Swisher’s bat: four hits to tie a season-high and career-high. Given that performance, it was a little surprising that Francona turned to rookie Jose Ramirez as a pinch runner for Swisher at second base with two on and one out in the eighth inning. Houston reliever Kevin Chapman struck out Carlos Santana and Gomes to stop the Tribe’s rally in its tracks.

As a result, Cleveland lost the designated hitter, because Santana (the DH) had to move to first base with Swisher pulled from the game.

What was Francona’s thinking?

“We needed to try to win there,” Francona explained. “[Swisher] had gotten all of his hits right-handed, and they were done with their left-handed pitchers. … We had enough guys on the bench where we could … In the normal course of a year, you probably can’t do that. But when you have extra guys, you feel a little bit better about doing it.”

What was Swisher’s reaction to the decision to use a pinch runner there?

“‘Man, you better score!’ That’s what I was thinking,” Swisher said. “Jose, man, he can fly. A situation like that, he’s got way more speed than me. All we’re doing is looking for a base hit, trying to win that game.”

HOME: In a recent meeting with his teammates, Giambi stressed the importance of putting egos and personal stats aside in these final games. Right now, doing something, big or small, to help win a game is more important than polishing up the ol’ season stat line. That means, it doesn’t matter who plays the role of hero.

Everyone on the roster has a chance to come up big. That is the kind of environment Francona has tried to create.

“I think it’s a fun way to play,” Francona said. “when everybody in that room knows that they’ve got a chance to be in the game. Sometimes in the American League, you throw nine guys out there and you play. Our guys know that when they show up, they all have a chance to get in and help us win.”

Carson saw that from afar before joining the Tribe for its stretch run.

“Being down in the Minor Leagues,” Carson said, “watching these guys play, every day it was a different hero. I certainly wasn’t the only hero tonight. You saw how Ubaldo threw and our bullpen threw. Those guys, you’ve got to tip your hat to those guys. They were getting it done as well.”

Cleveland has had 10 walk-off wins this season, with nine players coming through with the game-winning hit.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

t-1. Tampa Bay 83-69 (–)
t-1. Texas 83-69 (–-)
3. Cleveland 83-70 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 81-71 (2.0)
5. Kansas City 80-72 (3.0)
6. New York 80-73 (3.5)

ON DECK:

Astros (51-102) at Indians (83-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 152

918KCCLEFinal: Royals 7, Indians 2

FIRST: The Indians head home a half-game back of the American League’s second Wild Card spot with 10 games left against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Cleveland clearly has the edge among the Wild Card contenders when it comes to the remaining schedule.

Right? Well, no, it’s not that simple.

On the surface, yes, the Indians do have the easiest slate left in terms of their opponents’ overall winning percentage this season. Take a look:

Remaining Opponents’ 2013 Combined Winning Percentage

.387 (Indians)
.450 (Yankees)
.459 (Royals)
.474 (Rangers)
.516 (Rays)
.536 (Orioles)

Here’s the thing, though. Each of the contending teams are playing at varying levels this month compared to their overall showing, and the same can be said for each team’s upcoming opponents. So the better question is: which team is playing the best right now, and which team’s remaining opponents have gone the coldest?

To try to answer that question, I added up the overall winning percentage and the September winning percentage for each opponents of the six American League Wild Card candidates. I did the same for each of the clubs in the Wild Card chase.

For instance, the Indians’ opponents have a .387 winning percentage overall, but a .346 winning percentage in September. The Tribe’s upcoming foes are actually even colder right now than their overall showing. Add it up, and you get .733. Doing the same for the Indians, you get 1.186 (.539 overall and .647 in September). The Indians are hotter right now compared to their showing all season long. The difference then between the opponents and the Indians would be -.453.

If you do that for each team, it should give a pretty good indication not only of the strength or weakness of the coming schedule, but how each Wild Card team’s recent performance compares to that of its upcoming opponents. Follow me? A negative number is good — since I’m comparing the opponents to the contending team — and a positive number is bad (I’m looking at you Texas).

Let’s call it the True Strength of Schedule as of Sept. 18:

1. Royals (-.479)
2. Indians (-.453)
3. Rays (-.074)
4. Yankees (-.062)
5. Orioles (-.046)
6. Rangers (+.294)

Opponents’ September showing compared to overall showing:

+.077 (Rangers)
+.035 (Yankees)
+.006 (Orioles)
-.041 (Indians)
-.085 (Rays)
-.224 (Royals)

What that means is that Kansas City’s opponents have gone the coldest this month, and Texas’ upcoming opponents have heated up the most. Needless to say, Texas should consider itself fortunate to hold a half-game lead for the second Wild Card spot, because the Rangers have gone ice cold this month and their remaining slate includes a group of teams playing better than they have for most of the year.

Kansas City just took two out of three against Cleveland, improving to 11-6 in September and pulling within 2.5 games of a Wild Card berth. The Royals’ remaining opponents’ .235 winning percentage this month is brutal, putting KC in a great position to continue  a push up the standings. The Indians at least have the advantage of a two-game lead on the Royals.

Could this series at Kauffman Stadium have actually been a preview of the 2013 Wild Card game?

SECOND: The momentum of Wednesday’s game shifted in Kansas City’s favor in the fifth inning, when the Royals wound up with an extremely unconventional double steal that led to their fourth run of the night.

With one out, Alex Gordon on first base and Alcides Escobar on third, Indians righty Danny Salazar fired a pitch to Emilio Bonifacio. Gordon sprinted for second on the play.

“We put a hit-and-run on with Boni and Boni missed the sign,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So we had some scampering around.”

Tribe catcher Yan Gomes came out of his crouch and pump faked, looked toward third for a split second, and then decided to throw through to second base after all. What followed was a 2-6-3-4-3-5-2 exchange that ended with Escobar sliding across home plate safely.

Where did the breakdown occur?

Cleveland first put Gordon in a run-down between first and second base, while Escobar crept down the third-base line. First baseman Nick Swisher eventually decided Escobar had advanced enough, so he fired the ball to third baseman Mike Aviles, who in turn snapped it to Gomes at the plate.

“I thought we handled it perfect,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “To that point, I thought they did a good job.”

After receiving the ball from Aviles, though, Gomes took a look toward Gordon.

“I kind of peeked to see if Gordon was going to third,” Gomes said.

That’s when Escobar made an athletic, game-changing maneuver. Kansas City’s shortstop dropped to the dirt, avoiding a tag attempt from Gomes, who fell after the swing and miss. Escobar then scrambled to his feet before diving head-first across the plate.

“Esky, wow. What a move,” Gordon said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Gomes felt awful that it did.

“It was a pretty disappointing play on my part,” Gomes said. “It kind of turned out to be a pretty [big] momentum play for them, so it was kind of tough to swallow.”

THIRD: Salazar had averaged fewer than five innings per outing over his past six turns while working with his 70-80 pitch limit. The rookie right-hander said Wednesday that he was told the restriction was lifted for this start against the Royals and he responded by giving his team six admirable innings.

Salazar also finished with just 82 pitches, working more efficiently than in previous starts.

Unfortunately, Salazar was a little fastball-happy in the first inning, helping Kansas City push three early runs across. The right-hander settled down, but the damage was done.

“I thought early on he was obviously pretty amped up,” Francona said. “A couple of the at-bats, he got where he was over-throwing a little bit. As he settled into the game, and started using all his pitches, he was really good. But they got three in the first.

“Some of those guys, you can’t throw the ball past. You have to locate a little bit.”

HOME: Once again, Bruce Chen proved to be a nemesis for the Indians. The Royals lefty logged five-plus innings, allowing two runs and ending with just one strikeout. It was hardly overpowering — it never is with Chen — but he now has a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings against the Tribe this season.

“He does what he does, man,” Francona said. “He goes up, down, in, out. Nothing’s the same speed. Different arm angles. He kind of gives you fits. He just really knows how to pitch. He kind of takes the sting out of your bat.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 83-68 (+1)
2. Texas 82-69 (–-)
3. Cleveland 82-70 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 81-70 (1.0)
t-5. New York 80-72 (2.5)
t-5. Kansas City 80-72 (2.5)

ON DECK:

Astros (51-101) at Indians (82-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 151

917BournFinal: Indians 5, Royals 3

FIRST: With less than dozen games left on the schedule, there is not much a player can do — good or bad — to have a great impact on his final season statistical line. The numbers are what they are right now.

What matters now is doing anything and everything possible to try to find the win column.

“You have to pull a rabbit out of the hat and find a way,” Nick Swisher said.

For Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Bourn, that also means finding a way to turn the page on what has been — in the overall sense — down years statistically for each of them. And over the past few weeks, that trio has stepped up to help inject some life into a Cleveland offense that labored mightily through August.

Swish, Cabby and Bourny — as they’re called within the clubhouse — came up big again Tuesday.

Bourn powered the offense with a run-scoring triple in the seventh inning and a leadoff home run in the ninth. Cabrera came through with an RBI double that glanced off the glove of left fielder Alex Gordon in the eighth inning. Swisher delivered a sacrifice fly to pull the game into a 3-3 tie in the seventh.

The season-long slumps, for the moment, are in the rear-view mirror.

“We’ve just stayed behind each other. That’s about it,” Bourn said. “Individual stats, for the most part, they are what they are at this point of the year. That doesn’t really mean anything to anyone anymore — for real. We’re just trying to play to get to the playoffs. That’s all we can do.

“Each day, whoever comes up with the hit, whoever comes up with the defensive plays, whatever it is, we’re all behind each other. We’re just rooting for each other every time somebody goes up to bat. That’s all it is. We’re not worried about all that other stuff anymore.”

Bourn added that 42-year-old veteran Jason Giambi spoke to the team recently about that very topic.

“We listen when he talks,” Bourn said. “He’s been around for a long time — 19 years. It’s the truth. You’re not playing for yourself now. It is an individual game at times — we know that. It’s not that anymore. It’s not about the individual anymore. You do what you can to try to get that win.”

Over the past seven games, Bourn has hit .310 (9-for-29 with a homer, double, two triples, five RBI and six runs scored, after hitting .203 with a .565 OPS in his previous 45 games. Cabrera has hit .278 (10-for-36) with five homers and 12 RBI in his past 11 games, after hitting .199 (.555) in his previous 57 games. Swisher has hit .326 (14-for-43) with five homers and 12 RBI in his last 11 games, after hitting .215 (.642) in his previous 80 games.

“It’s like Tito told us in Spring Training,” Swisher said, “bad teams pick each other apart and good teams pick each other up.”

SECOND: The Indians were tasked with taking on 22-year-old rookie Yordano (no, I will not call him Ace) Ventura on Tuesday night. The hard-throwing right-hander was starting in place of injured lefty Danny Duffy and making his Major League debut.

I’ve heard plenty from fans — via Twitter, e-mail, etc; — about Cleveland’s inability to handle pitchers making their debut. It turns out it is more of a very recent trend, if you can even call it that, more than anything else.

Including Ventura, five starting pitchers have made their big league debut against the Indians over the 2012-13 seasons, posting a 2.79 ERA as a group. Dating back to 2009, the nine starters who made their debut vs. Cleveland combined for a 3.83 ERA. That ERA spikes to 4.52 if you combine the past 15 starting debuts against the Tribe.

Prior to facing Ventura, Indians manager Terry Francona noted that pitches almost always have the advantage in a first-appearance situation. The Royals righty certainly appeared to have the edge on Tuesday, scattering five hits and holding the Indians to one run over 5 2/3 innings.

What made him so effective?

“Other than the fact that he was throwing 100 mph?” Swisher said with a laugh. “You’ve never seen the guy. You get scouting reports, but those aren’t always right. So, yeah, we’ve just got to get ready for that next time. He really went out and did a good job. He obviously had a plus fastball. he was using his cutter a lot more than we expected. I felt like he was just setting up shop on my knuckles all day.”

Bourn was asked if Ventura reminded him of any other pitchers.

“Neftali Feliz for some reason. I don’t know why,” Bourn said. “He just looked like him out there to me. Just the way his delivery is, that’s how he reminded me of him. He’s good, man. He’s got some good stuff. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be around for a while for their organization, so we better get used to facing him.”

THIRD: Swisher called Tuesday’s tilt a “must-win” game and Francona certainly managed like it.

Indians starter Corey Kluber was at 79 pitches with two outs in the fifth inning when Francona emerged from the visitors’ dugout and turned to his bullpen. The right-hander had been spotty with his command to that point and Francona wanted to stop the bleeding.

And, with 15 relievers in the bullpen thanks to September’s expanded rosters, Francona had the luxury to go that route.

“You can’t do that in the middle of the season,” Francona said. “We used a bunch of our roster tonight and it helped us win.”

Rich Hill, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Cody Allen, Joe Smith and Chris Perez combined for 4.1 shutout innings, keeping Kansas City to three runs. That provided Cleveland’s lineup time to mount a rally against a strong Royals bullpen.

“Every last one of their dudes throws hard. Every last one of them,” Bourn said of the KC ‘pen. “You’ve got to be ready and try to do what you can against them. That doesn’t happen too often against them, but we were able to do it tonight.”

That helped lay the groundwork for a great comeback road win for the Tribe.

“Tonight was one of the more gratifying wins I’ve been a part of,” Francona said.

HOME: That’s where the Indians are headed on Wednesday. Back home for the final six regular-season games at Progressive Field this year. The Indians will arrive in Ohio with its first winning season since 2007 secured, and still very much in the thick of the wide-open Wild Card race in the American League.

Looking around Kauffman Stadium, the Indians saw and felt a playoff-type environment. The crowd was fired up for every pitch, on its feet for critical moments throughout the night, and providing an energy that the Tribe hopes to experience back in front of its local fans.

“I liked it, man,” Bourn said of the crowd in Kansas City on Tuesday. “It was a good atmosphere. Kansas City’s fans came out and supported their team. We’re just hoping for the same when we get back to Cleveland. We’ve only got one more homestand for the whole year, so we would like that.

“It’s our last week and a half. We just want somebody to be behind us to help push us to that playoff spot. When you play in that atmosphere, you like it. It gets your blood flowing. It felt like a playoff atmosphere — it did. They came out and supported their team. Hats off to their fans. They’re behind them. We want the same thing.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE
1. Texas 82-68 (–)
2. Tampa Bay 82-68 (–)
3. Cleveland 82-69 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 80-70 (2.0)
t-5. New York 79-72 (3.5)
t-5. Kansas City 79-72 (3.5)

ON DECK:

Indians (82-69) at Royals (79-71)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium

–JB

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