Covering the Bases: Game 19

SwishSquirrelWe are exactly three weeks into the season and the Indians hold a 9-10 record. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, the defense has been disappointing and a handful of key hitters have been slow out of the gates. There have been some positives, but the Tribe certainly hasn’t found its stride, yet. It seems like a good time to start Covering the Bases again.

Final: Indians 4, Royals 3

FIRST: After the Indians dropped six of eight early last September, Justin Masterson headed into the outfield at Progressive Field during batting practice with a live chicken in tow. It wore a small cape with Cleveland’s block “C” and the team named him “Cody.”

After the visit by the Rally Chicken, the Indians won 19 of 24 games and made the playoffs.

Coincidence? Well, yes. Coincidence.

In the second inning of Monday’s game against the Royals, though, a squirrel showed up on the field in Cleveland. It ran around the outfield and then sprinted into the infield, causing a brief delay. At one point, first baseman Nick Swisher tried to catch it with his glove as the critter ran out to right field.

Marc Rzepczynski, who was in the Cardinals’ bullpen during the famous appearance of the Rally Squirrel in the 2011 Fall Classic, just so happens to be in the Tribe’s bullpen now.

“They won the World Series,” Indians setup man Cody Allen said with a smirk. “I know it’s April, but …”

OK, let’s not get carried away, but the squirrel did provide some entertainment for a home crowd that has been hoping for a spark — any kind of spark — for this year’s Tribe. For a little more than an inning, the squirrel gave them just that, to the point that the fans booed when the fleet-footed guest was surrounded and forced into the Cleveland bullpen in center field.

Indians closer John Axford sounded disappointed that he never got a look at the little guy.

“I guess he just took off,” Axford said. “Hopefully he’ll be back tomorrow so I’ll get to say hi.”

SECOND: Now that we’ve got the super important stuff out of the way…

Indians right-hander Zach McAllister gave his team another solid outing, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits in six innings. the right-hander struck out just two, but walked only one in the win. Over his last three starts, McAllister has posted a 1.37 ERA, giving up three earned runs with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 19 2/3 innings.

Given the inconsistency early on from Cleveland’s rotation, Indians manager Terry Francona has been happy to have McAllister slotted in every five games.

That’s a nice feeling,” Francona said. “I mean, this is a young kid still that I think is enjoying the responsibility and the challenges of getting better. He came into camp and he was throwing the ball so well, and he had that downward plane on his fastball. Then he kind of lost it a little bit toward the end of spring, and he’s kind of recovered through hard work and with [pitching coach Mickey Callaway].

“He feels good about himself, and he should. If you’re around Zach for five minutes, he desperately wants to be so good.”

On Monday, though, a problem that has plagued the Indians arose again. After the Indians took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, McAllister coughed up three runs in the top of the fifth. Over the past nine games, Cleveland has scored in 25 innings and has allowed at least one run 15 times in the next half-inning.

“Any time they give us runs, you want to have a shut-down inning,” McAllister said. “To give up three there was pretty frustrating for myself, especially in a game like that where runs are at a premium. To not get that shut-down inning was frustrating for me. Our guys picked me up again.”

Francona does not buy into trends, but he does feel that shut-down innings are of the utmost importance.

“I just don’t buy the trends. I think every game is different,” Francona said. “I agree, though, that when you score, the next inning is really important, the shut-down inning. And we certainly need to do better.”

THIRD: The Indians made three errors on Monday night, upping the team’s total to 19 errors on the young season. Heading into the day, Oakland led the American League with 20 errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall made two errors and McAllister was charged with another. The pitcher’s came on a throw to first after fielding a bunt, helping fuel the Royals’ rally in the fifth.

“I would say it’s different probably every night,” Francona said of the errors. “I do know that we’re probably the type of team that, obviously, the cleaner we play, the better it enhances our chances of winning. We put ourselves in kind of a predicament tonight with some miscues, but I think we’re a better defensive team than we’ve shown, and I think it’ll show. We’ve just had some missteps early, for sure.”

HOME: I know, I know. You want something a little more uplifting to end on. How about the early showing for Michael Brantley?

Over his past six games, he’s launched four home runs, knocked in nine runs and hit at a .292 (7-for-24) clip. Before the game, Francona said Brantley’s lower half looks stronger this season and, because of that, the outfielder looks to have the potential to up his slugging percentage. Brantley then went out and belted a two-run homer off Jeremy Guthrie in the fourth.

Jason Kipnis came through with a two-run homer of his own in the sixth inning to put the Indians ahead for good. Over his past four games, he’s hit .385 (5-for-13) with the home run, two RBIs, three walks and four runs scored.

It was Swisher who set up the Kipnis home run with a double to the wall in left-center field. That was Swisher’s second double in as many at-bats — practically to the same spot. Since an 0-for-12 slump, Swisher has hit .333 (5-for-15) with the two doubles, plus one RBI, one run, one walk and one sac fly for the Tribe.

That’s kind of one of the first games where we’ve really kind of had the middle lineup do what we know we can,” Swisher said. “Maybe it’s bringing Big G {Jason Giambi] back to the lineup and having a presence like that again or, I don’t know what it is. It just kind of felt like we put the emphasis on today and that’s it.

“We might not be where we want to be as of right now, but if we take each day for the day, we’re going to do great, man.”

Now, the Indians will hope that Carlos Santana begins showing signs of life at the plate, too. For Monday’s game, Santana received a mental break from Francona. Expect him to be back in the lineup for Tuesday’s tilt against Kansas City.

On deck:

Royals (9-9) at Indians (9-10)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field

–JB

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