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

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