Covering the Bases: Game 156
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)
White Sox (61-94) at Indians (86-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Progressive Field