Covering the Bases: May 9-11

511MorganSeries: Indians 2, Rays 1

FIRST: Little by little, Nyjer Morgan is allowing Tony Plush to make appearances. You know T.P. is there when Morgan scrunches his face, lets out a growl or begins to almost use a different voice.

Plush isn’t quite back from vacation just yet, but he’s certainly checking in from time to time.

There was no doubt T. Plush was on hand at Tropicana Field on Sunday. He arrived in the eighth inning, when Morgan drilled a pitch from Brandon Gomes over the wall in right field for a leadoff home run. It was Morgan’s first homer in the big leagues since July 30, 2012.

As he left the box, Morgan stared at his blast, held his bat out high and gave it a little flip as it cleared the fence. Plush then ran the bases, one hand tucked close to his body as he made his way around second. He gave an excited high five to third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh and then, as he crossed the plate, Plush quickly flashed his signature “T” with his hands.

It was so fast, we asked if that’s what he did just to be certain.

“I threw up the ‘T,'” said Morgan, whose face contorted as he cocked his head to the side and raise the pitch of his voice. “Threw up the ‘T.’ Just a little one. I kind of short-armed it.”

Plush began laughing.

“Because, you know, that was kind of a Japanese bat flip,” he added, growling, laughing some more. “Yeah, yeah, that Japanese bat flip.”

We’re all laughing now, as Plush now lowered the pitch of his voice to a slow exaggerated tone.

“I was thinking I might end up wearing one. Haah. Haah. Haah. Haaah.”

Whoever it was on the field, he went 3-for-4 with a pair of bunt singles and the home run. Through 14 games this season, all Tony Wahoo has done is turn in a .341/.429/.439 slash line with the homer, one double, six RBIs, three stolen bases, eight runs and more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) in 41 at-bats.

Morgan didn’t play on Friday or Saturday, and his playing time has been sparse since Michael Bourn returned again from injury. On Sunday, Indians manager Terry Francona really wanted to get him into the game. Michael Brantley served as the DH for the day, Bourn manned center and Plush played left.

“He always plays with energy,” Francona said. “He gets kind of the swinging bunt for a run and then he hits the home run. He made a running catch in left field. We were kind of looking for a way to get him in there today, and I’m glad we did.”

The swinging bunt came on an excuse-me swing against Rays righty Chris Archer in the second inning. The ball wound up being perfectly placed down the third-base line, where it rolled to a stop as Asdrubal Cabrera scored. Morgan then bunted for a single again in the sixth, reaching with a head-first slide, but only being deemed safe after a quick instant-replay review.

“I knew I was safe,” Morgan said.

Morgan then moved to second on a balk by reliever Brad Boxberger, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sac fly from Mike Aviles. Morgan said, in his mind, there was no doubt that his abilities as a baserunner influenced that chain of events.

“That’s what I do,” Morgan said. “I’m a threat no matter how you take it. If I’m on first, Mikey’s behind me, they’re going to leave a fastball up for him. My job, even if I’m not base stealing, I can still be a threat just by being out there. I know my game and I know myself. And I know that I’m a dangerous weapon.”

SECOND: In Friday’s win, John Axford labored through a 31-pitch inning that turned in what should’ve been an easy 6-2 win into a nailbiter. Cody Allen cleaned things up, sealing a 6-3 win and prompting the Indians to make a change in the ninth for now.

On Saturday, Axford was informed that he will not be closing games out for the time being. Cleveland wants him to work out some mechanical kinks and find some consistency with his command before resuming that role. In the meantime, Allen, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw will all hold the fort down for the Tribe.

“We’re all 100-percent confident that he can do it,” said Allen, referring to Axford being the closer. “He’s has over 100 saves in his career for a reason. We’re all confident that he’s going to get there. Maybe just a little rest, a little side work and we’ll get him back to where he needs to be. And we’ll be back to being a better ‘pen.”

On Sunday, Francona used his four-headed closing monster for the first time.

Situationally, it was easy to see how it works. Atchison and Rzepczynski handled the seventh and Zep stayed in for the eighth. When a leadoff walk and botched grounder (Rzepczynski made a throwing error on a would-be, inning-ending double play) threatened the game and put runners on base, Francona turned to Allen to bail the team out. Allen was uncharacteristically wild, but he escaped nonetheless with Cleveland clinging to a one-run lead. Shaw then entered and picked up the save with a clean ninth.

It wasn’t pretty, but in theory, it was aligned in a way that made sense.

Ax is going to be fine,” Rzepczynski said. “He’ll get back to where he needs to be and he’ll get right back in that role eventually. The other four guys, I think just depending on the lineup and depending on who’s available, they’re just just going to go out there and do their job no matter what inning, sixth, seventh, eighth ninth, it doesn’t really matter.

“For me, I look at the lefties and see where they’re hitting. … The other three guys did their job today. Like Tito said, we’ll piece together the ninth or piece together to get to the ninth and whoever is available will go out there and do their job.”

Hopefully with a little less stress next time for Cleveland’s sake.

THIRD: Overall, the Tribe’s rotation went 2-1 with a 4.76 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in the series against the Rays. Not great, but the numbers are skewed by Zach McAllister’s outing on Saturday, when he gave up five runs in 4.1 innings. Corey Kluber (Friday) and Josh Tomlin (Sunday) combined to allow four runs in 12.2 innings with a combined 11 strikeouts (full disclosure: nine via Kluber) and no walks.

For Tomlin, Sunday was his second win in a row since officially completing his return to the rotation after Tommy John surgery. Asked what was working for him in Sunday’s start (six innings, two runs), Tomlin laughed.

“The defense was, to be honest with you,” he said.

Tomlin didn’t have his best stuff — evidenced by the 102 pitches he threw — but he survived and limited the damage.

“The thing that he’s got is he’s going to go out there and battle,” Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. “You know exactly what you’re getting out of him. I don’t think he’s necessarily fooling anybody, but he’s pitching unbelievable, man. He’s going in and out and his fastball plays up, because he’s mixing in his offspeed pretty well.”

HOME: Wielding a pink bat for Mother’s Day, Gomes belted a leadoff homer for the Indians in the sixth inning on Sunday. Combined with Morgan’s blast, that gave Cleveland its fifth multi-homer game in 10 games in May. The Indians had only three multi-homer games in 28 games in March/April.

The Indians have launched 12 homers in May’s 10 games, with five in the last three games and eight in the last five games. In March/April, Cleveland had just 19 games in an anemic month for the offense.

In this series, the Indians scored a combined 12 runs on 23 hits in the two wins. Saturday’s one-run, three-hit showing against lefty Erik Bedard was brutal, but Tampa Bay also put up seven runs and wound up with a blowout. It was the kind of loss that, in David Murphy’s words, players “won’t lose sleep over,” because clunkers like that happen from time to time in a long season. Accept it and move on.

It is worth noting that the Indians have scored 47 runs in 10 games in May for an average of 4.7 per game. In March/April, Cleveland averaged 2.8 runs per game (106 in 28 games). So far in May, the Indians have also turned in a .259/.333/.466 slash line, compared to a .232/.313/.354 line in the first month. Currently, Cleveland’s .779 OPS for May ranks third in the American League.

FUN FACT: When Gomes (Yan) singled off Gomes (Brandon) on Friday, I simply had to know if any other Gomes had recorded a hit off another Gomes in baseball history. As it happens, Yan Gomes is the only Gomes in Major League history to have a hit off another Gomes. He’s gone 2-for-3. Jonny Gomes has no hits off Brandon Gomes, and Wayne Gomes never faced another Gomes in his career. So, there you have it. We can all sleep easy tonight with that knowledge in hand.

I’m still waiting for the day that Hannahan faces Hanrahan. Hey, a sportswriter can dream, can’t he?

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY… to all the great moms out there. I don’t know where I’d be without my awesome wife, Kelly, who is loving and caring and so understanding. I leave for weeks at a time with this job and she’s back home taking care of our two kiddos. Shoot, when I’m home, I just get in the way! And there is not a day that goes by when I do not think about my own mom, Patti. She passed away when I was young, but I was a momma’s boy long enough to now cherish every moment I had with her. Ma had a passion for baseball (Sorry, Tribe fans, she rooted for the White S0x) and my love of the game was fueled by hers when I was a kid. Mom’s can play catch, too, and mine did plenty of times with me. If it weren’t for my mom, I know I wouldn’t be working in baseball. I actually don’t know what I’d be doing. I owe her a lot.

Links:

On deck:

Indians (18-20) at Blue Jays (18-20)*
at 7:07 p.m. ET Tuesday at Rogers Centre

*Toronto plays on Monday

–JB

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