Covering the Bases: March 2

Bauer3Final: Indians 6, Mariners 3

FIRST: During Trevor Bauer’s first live batting practice session of the spring, the onlookers standing behind the batting cage unknowingly created a buffer zone. Usually, teammates and coaches lean on the cage. In this case, there was about a one- or two-foot gap between the cage and everyone watching Bauer throw.

That right there summed up the kind of control problems we’ve all seen from Bauer since he joined the Indians.

As Bauer worked through the session, one by one, people started moving closer. His command came and went that day, and the same was true for the next BP round and his first Cactus League appearance. On Sunday, something seemed to click.

“That’s by far the best he’s thrown,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Bauer’s outing against the Mariners. “He looked like he had conviction with his fastball and worked ahead. He threw some fastballs down and then he spun his breaking ball off of it. That was really exciting.”

But he gave up a monstrous home run to Dustin Ackley.

“There’s a big ‘but’ there,” Francona said. “That’s where Spring Training is wonderful. He fell behind, he paid for it, but it’s Spring Training.”

The homer by Ackley was majestic. It carried deep to center field and struck the green backdrop about halfway up the wall. Bauer knew it was a goner as soon as it hit the bat, but the pitcher did something he doesn’t normally do. He turned to watch.

“The only question was was, ‘Would it go over the batter’s eye?'” Bauer said. “I originally wasn’t going to watch it, but then I was like, ‘That might go over. That might be impressive.’ So I turned around. He hit it and it was like, ‘Ah, well. Give me a new ball.'”

The home run aside, Bauer was encouraged by his performance. Over the past year, he’s worked hard on retooling his mechanics and regaining a comfort level with the changes. That kind of comfort tends to come before command, and Bauer said the command only comes when there is trust in the mechanics.

“The ball was going over the plate, which was nice,” Bauer said. “I’m weird, though. When I try to command the ball, I don’t command it very well. So, I kind of have to go out there and just let it rip and trust that it will go over the plate. That’s why, when I didn’t really trust my delivery [last season], it was tough to throw strikes. That trust factor wasn’t there.”

On Sunday, the trust factor returned for Bauer’s two innings, in which he struck out two and walked none. It was a positive development for the Indians, who are giving Bauer a chance to compete against Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Aaron Harang for the lone vacancy in the rotation Harang also pitched Sunday (Francona called it another “crisp” performance), giving the Tribe two innings with one run allowed.

SECOND: As is the case every spring, some young players have come through with some highlight-reel moments so far. Carlos Moncrief had his great catch in the opener. On Thursday, 2012 first-rounder Tyler Naquin launched a home run. In Sunday’s win, top prospect, Francisco Lindor, came through with a three-run blast that pushed the Indians to a win.

It was a homer that probably had Tribe fans daydreaming about his future at shortstop.

“It was a good swing. It’s exciting for us to see that,” Francona said. “We get a kick out of that every day when one of our young kids does something. It just makes the games more fun. I know we talk about it all the time, but we love when our young guys play. It’s fun to watch them have some success, even if it’s just Spring Training.”

This is when I remind you that, no, Lindor won’t be stealing Asdrubal Cabrera’s job as the starting shortstop this spring. Lindor will open the year at either Double-A or Triple-A, considering he only played a few weeks at Double-A in the second half last year before being shut down with a back injury. Lindor is very much on Cleveland’s radar, but his development path points to a late-2014 or 2015 MLB debut.

Be patient, folks.

THIRD: On Sunday morning, Francona was asked what the Indians would be watching while evaluating Carlos Santana at third base.

“You try to watch and see what he reacts to, everything, even balls that aren’t hit to him,” Francona said prior to Sunday’s game. “Is he moving? Is he reacting to a play? Is he reacting to the bat? So far, he seems to be just fine. I know in winter ball, all the reports were that he didn’t look out of position.”

Francona then dropped the jinx on Santana with this gem: “His arm is probably as good as anybody’s in the league. He’s shed all the gear and he still has that arm strength. It’s pretty impressive.”

Naturally, Santana received his first grounder of the spring later in the day and it was his arm that did some damage to the play.

Corey Hart chopped a pitch to the left side of the infield, where Santana moved in front of the ball and waited to corral it. The ball took a little longer to get to Santana than it looked like it would off the bat, and the catcher-turned-third baseman appeared to fumble his grip as he made the transfer. Santana’s throw to first baseman Nick Swisher sailed high, and Swisher’s leaping grab-and-tag attempt didn’t work. Hart was safe, and Santana collected his first E-5 of 2014.

“I think coming out of his glove, he just didn’t have it and he took another shuffle,” said Francona, who then smirked.  “Right after I was just talking about his arm…”

HOME: Indians outfielder Michael Brantley collected three hits in Sunday’s victory. That’s old hat for Brantley in Sping Training. He hit .354 in 18 spring games last year and has a .317/.378/.444 slash line in 92 career preseason games. Francona said it doesn’t seem to take Brantley much time to get his swing ready for a season, because the left fielder’s approach is so simplistic.

“Hitting is hard, but his mechanics are so simple,” Francona said. “I think he probably gets ready quicker more than other guys, because his swing, he can repeat it so often. There’s not a lot of moving parts. He did the same thing last year.”

Brantley’s swing has also helped him develop into one of the game’s top contact hitters, which might help explain his solid career marks in “clutch” scenarios. All he does is put the ball in play. Last season, Brantley ranked first in the American League and fifth in baseball with a 90.1-percent contact rate. In 2012, Brantley ranked third in the AL and fourth overall in baseball with a 91.5-percent contact rate.

That is one reason why Francona enjoys bouncing Brantley throughout a lineup. He’s a great protection hitter no matter where he’s slotted in.

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Anecdote of the Day

redselephant

During the media’s daily sit-down with Indians manager Terry Francona, a muted television behind him was tuned into Sportscenter. ESPN was running a special on the late Marge Schott, the former owner of the Reds who passed away 10 years ago Sunday. A reporter motioned to the TV after the question-and-answer session and asked if Francona was there during Schott’s days in Cincy. “I sure was,” Francona said with a laugh. “I rode that elephant at the team party. If you weren’t really good, you had to ride the elephant. If you weren’t good enough to tell her no, you had to ride the elephant.” At the annual Reds’ rally, the animal-loving Schott would have an elephant on hand from the Cincinnati Zoo. Asked how he got on top of the beast, Francona laughed and said he didn’t know. There may have been drinking involved.

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Poll results

In my previous post, I offered 25 nicknames for current Tribe players that were agreed upon by Indians writers here in Arizona. I asked you to vote for your favorite. As of this writing, 267 ballots were cast (only one permitted per voter) and the runaway winner was “Dr. Smooth” (Brantley) with 75 votes (28.09%). That moniker was coined by Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It gained steam over the past couple years, in which it made an appearance on the back of one of Brantley’s Topps baseball cards and was also turned into a scoreboard graphic at Progressive Field. Brantley has a shirt that says “Dr. Smooth” across the chest and he’s said he loves the nickname. So, like it or not, Dr. Smooth is here to stay.

Top 5 current Indians player nicknames (via fan vote)
1. Dr. Smooth (Brantley), 75
2. Scrabble (Marc Rzepczynski), 25
3. Dirtbag (Jason Kipnis), 23
4. Nasty Masty (Justin Masterson), 17
5. Yanny Bench (Yan Gomes), 16

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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