Covering the Bases: Game 32
FIRST: John Axford had pitched in the previous two games. On Sunday, the Indians closer blew a save by coughing up three runs on a home run to White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo.
Closers must have short memories, so a quick turnaround can often be the cure for a rough stretch. Indians manager Terry Francona felt the 10th inning on Monday was a good opportunity to get Axford back on the mound.
“We don’t want to hurt guys,” Francona said, “but I actually wanted to get him back in there. I thought it’d be good for him.”
Axford was appreciative of his manager’s trust, too.
“That’s something you want and that’s something that I want,” Axford said. “I want to go out there the next day, the next game, and get the job done. Erase the slate. Get a clean slate and erase what happened the day before. Unfortunately, second pitch, it didn’t work out.”
The second pitch to Eduardo Escobar, who entered the evening with three career home runs in 377 plate appearances, was a misplaced, 91-mph fastball. Escobar yanked it to right field, where it sailed over the wall and clanked into the seats for a leadoff home run. That gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead, which was a mountain of an advantage over the Tribe on this night.
Prior to the game, Axford worked with pitching coach Mickey Callaway on a mechanical adjustment they recently spotted. The lanky right-hander had been bending over a little too much in his motion, and it was affecting his curveball. The home runs to Viciedo and Escobar, however, came on fastballs.
“It’s something that’s happened to me before in the past,” Axford said of the identified mechanical flaw. “I tend to lean maybe a little bit too much. It will affect my breaking pitches. So, I corrected it tonight. My ball was just still cutting, just like it kind of was [on Sunday].
“The fastball just wasn’t staying straight. Tonight, I did it a few times as well, and on that home run.”
As Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel pointed after the game, Axford’s home run rate has been much higher in recent years — especially to this point this season — than it was in his prime as Milwaukee’s closer. Over the 2012-14 seasons, Axford has allowed homers at a rate of 1.4 homers per nine innings in 147.1 frames. Across the 2009-11 campaigns, his rate was just 0.3 homers per nine innings in 139.1 innings pitched.
Over his past two outings, Axford’s ERA has ballooned from 2.31 to 4.85 for the Tribe. Still, he’s saved nine games in 11 opportunities.
Axford said all he can do now is once again have a short memory.
“I’ll just head home,” Axford said, “and, not to sound redundant or cliche, but it’s the same as last night. I’m just going to kind of sit back and think about it this evening, go through some things and make sure I’m ready to go tomorrow with a clear head.”
SECOND: The late meltdown by Axford, but more importantly, the offense, overshadowed another outstanding evening for an Indians starter. We’ll get to the lineup in a minute. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the work that Zach McAllister did for Cleveland on Monday night.
McAllister went 6.2 innings, holding the Twins to no runs on five hits and ending the game with eight strikeouts (tying a career best) and one walk on 114 pitches. Minnesota also went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position against the big right-hander.
“Zach pitched so well,” Francona said. “He pitched with his fastball and he worked ahead. He pitched out of a couple jams. He was so good. That’s two in a row. That’s about as good as they’re going to pitch. There certainly isn’t much wiggle room right now. But I still like the way our guys pitched.”
Francona was referring to Corey Kluber’s effort against the White Sox on Sunday. The righty held Chicago to one Jose Abreu home run over eight innings, finishing with 13 strikeouts. That makes one earned run allowed with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 14.2 innings over the past two games. The Indians’ rotation actually has a 0.41 ERA over the last three games and a 1.33 ERA through four games on the homestand (33 strikeouts in 27 innings).
“After the first couple games of the year, probably two weeks into it,” McAllister said. “I think we’ve really been on a pretty good roll and have been pretty consistent. Especially these last three games, it’s been pretty fun to watch and be a part of.”
Well, minus the ending the past two games, of course.
“It’s unbelievable,” Axford said. “It’s a shame that my performances in the back end the last two days has kind of taken precedent over a great hitting performance by George [Kottaras on Sunday] and two outstanding starting pitching performances from Kluber and Mac.
“Hopefully, everyone knows that those guys are doing their best and working hard and doing fantastic for us. We’ll piece it all together as a club soon and pulling out some wins.”
THIRD: On the other side, Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson held the Indians to two hits in seven shutout innings, though he had just one strikeout to go along with his three walks. Cleveland ended with three hits, never had a runner beyond second base and finished 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.
Francona made no excuses for his hitters.
“We got in some hitter’s counts. We hit some balls hard,” said the manager. “We just are fairly inconsistent right now. Even in hitters counts, we’re not getting really good swings. I think when it’s team-wide, everybody is trying to do [too much]. It’s a good quality, but we have to fight through it together and keep the line moving. Right now, we’re not doing that.
“I think every night’s different — whoever’s pitching. Tonight was a good night to pitch. The ball wasn’t going anywhere. It was cold. We need more consistency, because in this game, you are going to lineout, and there are guys that make really good plays. That happens.”
HOME: The Indians clearly need to get their offense going. Nick Swisher (.197), Carlos Santana (.150) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.211) have been disappointments to this point, even if their career track records indicate a turnaround. Michael Bourn (left hamstring) is banged up, while Jason Kipnis (right oblique) and Jason Giambi (right calf) are on the 15-day DL. Francona could switch up the lineup, but there are no true No. 3 or No. 4 hitters at the moment.
What about in the Minors? WTAM’s Nick Camino tweeted late Monday night that he heard that 23-year-old first-base prospect Jesus Aguilar could be coming up soon. We’ll see. Through 28 games at Triple-A, the right-handed Aguilar has hit .340 with seven homers, 13 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs. He can play first and DH, but he also has no big league experience. What Cleveland really needs is its lineup regulars to swiftly revert to their normal level of production.
Twins (15-15) at Indians (13-19)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday at Progressive Field