Covering the Bases: Game 73

140619SwishFinal: Indians 5, Angels 3 (10 innings)

FIRST: Nick Swisher was having a bad day. Before he even got to the ballpark on Thursday, Swish was one of the many people (yours truly, included) stuck in the awful traffic jam I-90 coming from Cleveland’s West side. That threw the normal morning routine out of whack.

Then, Swisher struck out in the second inning, fourth inning and sixth inning against Angels lefty C.J. Wilson, even though the first baseman/designated hitter had a .314 average off the pitcher going into the day. After the strikeout in the sixth, the Progressive Field faithful aired some frustration, sending some boos Swisher’s way as he headed back to the bench.

“Hey, that’s what happens being a baseball player,” Swisher said. “Sometimes that’s going to happen. You’ve just got to keep going out there fighting, grinding, scrapping and just know that good things are going to happen.”

In the ninth inning, Swisher finally made solid contact. He drilled a pitch from Angels sidearmer and former Indians setup man Joe Smith to dead center field. On another day, maybe the ball would’ve carried. On Thursday, a strong wind knocked it down and Swisher flew out.

“Right into the teeth of the wind,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Naturally, the baseball gods saw fit to have Swisher step to the plate with the bases loaded, two outs and the Angels holding a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the 10th inning. Entering the at-bat, he wasn’t just 0-for-4 on the day, but 2-for-24 with 10 strikeouts and no walks for the Tribe since coming off the disabled list.

Naturally, Swisher launched a grand slam.

“I feel like I hit the ball off Smitty better and that ball didn’t go nowhere,” Swisher said with a laugh. “I was just trying to hit it on a line somewhere. Either way, I faced [Ernesto] Frieri the night before and saw him. That time, he had a heavy dose of sliders. In that at-bat, he came right at me with fastballs. I was just happy to get the head on that one.

“I’ve never hit a walk-off grand slam before. Man, I’m a little giddy right now!”

As was written on Sunday, Cleveland can only hope that Swisher’s home run is a sign that he’s beginning to turn things around. It’s been a troubling start for the veteran, especially in terms of power production. He currently has a .200/.292/.329 slash line, compared to .252/.356/.456 line for his career.

“As long as he’s healthy, which he is, he’ll get [his hits],” Francona said. “He started out this way last year. The average might be a little lower because of his slow start, but he’ll still impact us offensively. There’s guys, when their baseball card’s that long and they’re not hurt, they’ll hit.”

Since coming off the DL, the strikeout-to-walk ratio is certainly concerning, but his strikeout rate (one per 3.7 at-bats) is only slightly below his career rate (4.0). His walk rate (12.1%) is below his career norm (13.2%), but it’s in line with his showing across 2012-13. What’s really alarming is the drop-off in power. His in-play percentage (62%) is above his career rate (60%), as is his line-drive percentage (32% to 21%).

That said, the hits that are falling aren’t homers (1.7 HR% compared to 4.0% for his career) or extra-base hits (6.7% compared to 9.1% for his career). Part of the problem can be found in his BaBIP (.248 compared to .289 for his career) and foul-ball rate (29.3% compared to 25.8% for his career). Based on all of that, it looks like Swish has been fouling off a chunk of pitches he used to drive.

“I’m just starting to get back and start to get back into the rhythm of the game a little more,” Swisher said of his recent performance since coming off the DL. “Every day that I come back and play, I feel like I’m getting more in the game. … [In the 10th inning], I wasn’t going up there taking any pitches. I was ready to go from pitch one. That might be the mentality I need to start taking.”

SECOND: There was some history made by Swisher with his game-winner. It marked the first walk-off grand slam in extra innings in Progressive Field history. It is only the third such homer by a Cleveland hitter since at least 1955. Don Dillard had a walk-off slam in extra against the Tigers on July 4, 1962 and Carlos Martinez achieved the feat on Sept. 6, 1992 against the Mariners.

Cleveland’s walk-off grand slams (since at least 1955)

Today: Swisher off Frieri (LAA) in 10th
July 7, 2011: Travis Hafner off Luis Perez (TOR) in 9th
April 29, 2011: Carlos Santana off Joaquin Benoit (DET) in 9th
July 28, 2002: Jim Thome off Juan Acevedo (DET) in 9th
July 14, 2002: Bill Selby off Mariano Rivera (NYY) in 9th
May 23, 1999: Omar Vizquel off Todd Jones (DET) in 9th
May 3, 1998: Sandy Alomar Jr. off Roberto Hernandez (TB) in 9th
July 31, 1996: Albert Belle off Bill Risley (TOR) in 9th
July 18, 1995: Albert Belle off Lee Smith (CAL) in 9th
Sept. 6, 1992: Carlos Martinez off Mike Schooler (SEA) in 12th
Sept. 9, 1979: Bobby Bonds off Tom Buskey (TOR) in 9th
April 22, 1973: Ron Lolich off Sonny Siebert (BOS) in 9th
July 4, 1962: Don Dillard off Jerry Casale (DET) in 13th
Aug. 10, 1955: Ralph Kiner off Al Aber (DET) in 9th

Said Santana: “That was the most emotion I’ve had in my life. Grand slam. It’s the best in baseball. That was my favorite moment. I only have one in my career. If I have a chance, I want to do it again, because it’s the best.”

THIRD: The Indians nearly lost this one in the top of the 10th inning, when Albert Pujols broke open a 1-1 tie with a two-run single through the right side of the infield. With that chopper, Pujols beat Cleveland’s pull-oriented shift. Under a normal defensive alignment, second baseman Jason Kipnis would’ve easily gobbled up the grounder.

“I think we’d do the same thing again,” Francona said, “It’s just hard to watch that ball go through.”

With two outs, Atchison allowed a single to Kole Calhoun and a double to Mike Trout to put runners on second and third base for Pujols. Caught in a 1-1 tie, Cleveland could’ve had opted to walk Pujols and let lefty Kyle Crockett face Josh Hamilton.

“As much as we think Crockett commands,” Francona said, “I just thought it made more sense to let Atch pitch and approach like the count’s 0-2.”

As for the shift, hey, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The information shows that it tend to work more often than not.

“I thought Atch actually pitched him tremendous,” Francona said. “Give Pujols credit. He’s pretty smart, too, besides being good. You’ve got to take something away, and he beat us with it. Fortunately, we end up coming back and win the game. “

HOME: Indians starter Justin Masterson fought his command again — half of his first 70 pitches were balls — but the sinkerballer hung in there for seven innings. He allowed four hits, walked three, hit a batter, threw a wild pitch (leading to a run) and logged 116 pitches, but he hung in there.

This is where we can tip the ol’ cap to Cleveland’s defense.

In the fourth inning, Howie Kendrick sent a low line drive into right field with no outs and runners on first and second base. Right fielder Ryan Raburn made a nice leaning-almost-falling grab on the ball for an out and made a head’s up throw to second to double up Hamilton. All of a sudden, a none-out jam is a two-out situation for Masterson, who then got the groundout he needed to escape.

“The line drive to right was knuckling,” Francona said. “[That play] was huge.”

In the fifth, David Freese led off with a single off Masterson. Hank Conger followed with a sharply-hit grounder to Santana at first base. Santana made a quick grab of the ball, stepped on first base and fired to second to complete a double play. Masterson then got a flyout to escape that inning.

“Carlos really helped a lot,” Francona said.

“My friends did a really good job out there,” Masterson said.

Tigers (37-32) at Indians (37-36)
at 7:05  p.m. ET  Friday at Progressive Field

–JB

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