Covering the Bases: March 3

Pestano3Final: Indians 6, Rangers 5

FIRST: It is never wise to read too much into any singular spring outing, especially one that only consists of seven pitches. That said, what Vinnie Pestano did in his Cactus League debut can certainly be classified as encouraging.

“They were out there hacking, Pestano said. “I didn’t really get into a rhythm, but I’m not going to complain. That’s the cleanest inning I’ve had in about 16 months.”

By now, if you’re a Tribe fan, you’re probably familiar with Pestano’s story.

Pestano went from the 20th round in 2006 (Tommy John surgery in college damaged his Draft stock) to one of baseball’s elite setup men in the 2011-12 seasons with the Indians. Last year, an elbow issue flared in the spring, came up again in the summer and the right-hander endured a turbulent campaign that  led to crushed confidence and a trip back to Triple-A.

Over the offseason, Pestano gave himself a mental vacation and pushed his normal throwing program back by about a week. That’s why he didn’t appear in a Spring Training game until Monday afternoon in Surprise. What Pestano did not do over the winter was take things easy. He showed up to camp slimmer and extremely motivated to regain his footing in the bullpen.

Pestano lost about 10 pounds and said he “traded” about five pounds of bad weight for good weight. He’s down to 206 pounds after hovering around 215-220 over the past few seasons. I’ll have Pestano walk you through his unique explanation of why he decided to shed some weight.

“The past few offseasons,” Pestano said, “it’s always been about, ‘What’s one thing I can do to really focus on the offseason and try to get better?’ Last year, it was a lot of legs, trying to get my legs stronger. Before that, it was trying to get my upper body stronger. Going into this offseason, when I told myself I was going to take a lot of time off, it was kind of like a car that had a different color door on, and a different spoiler, and it’s got a bunch of patchwork on it.

“And, the next thing you know, it’s just a [crappy] looking car. And so I was like, ‘Do I want to do that? Do I want to keep adding parts on the car? Or, do I want to just strip the car and try to start new? So I stripped the car.”

So, what is he now?

“I’m still a car,” Pestano said with a slight laugh. “I’m still a car with a lot of city miles on it. Same engine. Same foundation. Just better parts.”

Cleveland has never questioned Pestano’s engine. The pitcher is definitely driven, sometimes to the point of taking poor outings a bit too hard. That personality trait only added to the problems that kept piling up throughout last season. After his mental cleanse, and physical transformation, over the winter, Pestano has come into camp saying all the right things.

What Cleveland needs to see now is the pitcher doing all the right things on the mound.

Indians manager Terry Francona liked what he saw from Pestano on Monday.

“Seven pitches. He got in on a lefty,” Francona said. “I think Vinnie felt good about it. It’s something to build off, for sure.”

Pestano’s first pitch induced a flyout to short off the bat of Roughned Odor. Two pitches later, Pestano gloved a chopper from Leonys Martin and tossed it to first base for a groundout. Former Indian Shin-Soo Choo saw four pitches, but went on to ground out to short.

“I’m not going to get excited about a seven-pitch inning in March,” Pestano said. “But it was good. I was able to go out there and locate for the most part. The ball had good action — the type of action I wanted and the type of action I was looking for last year. Having that back, it’s natural, it’s comfortable and we’ll just kind of keep it consistent from here on out.”

SECOND: Francona loves having versatile players on his bench and, if Cleveland breaks camp without a true backup catcher in the fold, that could open up a spot for someone like Elliot Johnson to make the club. The Indians know Johnson can bounce all around the field, but he doesn’t have a consistent track record of hitting at the big league level.

That makes this an important spring for Johnson, who can switch hit and offer a pinch-hitter, pinch runner or defensive replacement off the bench. If he impresses the Tribe, and the club carries only Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana as its catchers, Johnson might have a path to the Opening Day roster.

In Monday’s win, Johnson collected three hits, including a two-run triple. He already has a home run this spring, too. Two other non-roster bench candidates, outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan, flashed some of what they can do as well. Francoeur had two hits and threw out a runner at the plate,  and Morgan drew two walks and stole a base.

“In Spring Training, there’s a balance,” Francona said. “Guys have to get ready for a season, but the non-roster guys, this is kind of like the regular season for them. So we try to be respectful and make sure we give them their at-bats and they’re doing the things we thought they could do. Elliot Johnson can move around the field. He can run. Francoeur gets a couple hits today. I hope they all do great and we have really tough decisions.”

THIRD: The fifth starter competition continued on Monday with right-hander Carlos Carrasco logging two innings for the Tribe. Carrasco allowed one run on three hits and ended with one strikeout and one walk. Francona said he was impressed with the right-hander’s outing… when he worked ahead in the count.

“[He was] good,” Francona said. “A couple hitters he fell behind and that’s where, when he works ahead, his stuff is [good]. Like today, his first inning was electric. He’s got the breaking ball and the changeup to go with it. He just needs to keep pumping it to where he works ahead. That’s where he’s going to have success.”

HOME: One pitcher Francona doesn’t sound too concerned about is right-hander Corey Kluber, who has a spot reserved for him in the rotation. Kluber got the start for Cleveland and turned in two innings, limiting the Rangers to one unearned run on one hit with one strikeout and no walks.

“I think Klubes looks good,” Francona said. “He’s strong. He’s on track. It’s just a matter of getting him built up for the season. I think Klubes is going to be just fine.”

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Anecdote of the Day

During our daily briefing with Francona, we were discussing the importance of having a strong bench. With players sch as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, Francona can find spots to rest regulars without feeling like he’s losing much at the plate or in the field. The manager said that’s one reason he thinks Cleveland had such a great record in day games (34-20) last season. And then Francona told this story about his first season managing the Phillies in 1997: “I know when I was in Philadelphia my first year, I used to catch some grief about not playing the ‘A’ team on Sundays, because they had this ticket plan. And our record that year, we lost [94] games, but our record on Sundays was better than .500. I used to try to tell them, ‘Hey, this is the only day we win.’ But that didn’t fly. My point was, the guys played and they had energy. We actually played pretty well.”

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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