Covering the Bases: July 18-20

TomlinHere are four takeaways following the Indians’ series win over the Tigers this weekend. Cleveland dropped Sunday’s finale, 5-1, but claimed three out of four games, including the Tribe’s first doubleheader sweep in Detroit since 1966.

FIRST: Quick, give me your Indians rotation in order from top to bottom. As we sit here today, I’d list Corey Kluber first, followed by Trevor Bauer and then a couple coin flips.

Kluber and Bauer, pray for a rain shower?

Rookie lefty T.J House is arguably Cleveland’s third-most reliable starter at the moment. I think there is no doubt that the Indians will be targeting a top-tier arm as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches. The rotation has simply been too volatile to this point for a club hoping to contend.

In Sunday’s loss to the Tigers, right-hander Josh Tomlin exited after 4.1 middling innings. He wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t that good. Tomlin assessed the outing himself as “not sharp” and was kicking himself over a couple mistakes that were magnified due to a lack of run support. Really, though, this was a continued downward trend for Tomlin.

Tomlin flashed his potential — and his peak — during the June 28 near-perfecto in Seattle. That said, in five of his past six outings (the exception being the brilliant shutout against the Mariners, the righty has given up at least four runs, posting a 7.86 ERA in 26.1 innings in that sample. He’s allowed as many hits as the number on his back (43) in that span with seven homers surrendered.

Home runs have always been a part of Tomlin’s career due to the fact that he pounds the strike zone, sometimes, to a fault. His rate of 1.5 homers per nine innings in 2014 is only a touch above his 1.4 career rate. This season, though, he’s allowed 1.8 runs on average per home run. In 2012, when Tomlin struggled and eventually needed elbow surgery, he averaged 1.9 runs per home run allowed. In his best season in 2011, Tomlin’s 24 homers yielded netted only 34 runs (or 1.4 runs per long ball).

“It’s limiting the guys that get on base,” Tomlin said. “It’s the two-run, three-run shots that really irritate me. Home runs in general irritate me, don’t get me wrong, but me being around the plate as much as I am, that stuff’s going to happen every now and then. I still have to do a better job of limiting those home runs. I think I’m averaging a home run a game and that’s not OK. That’s not right.”

This brings us back to the current state of the rotation. Here is what we know in terms of who will start in the coming days:

Monday at Twins: House will be recalled from Minors
Tuesday at Twins: Danny Salazar will be recalled from Minors
Wednesday at Twins: Bauer on normal rest
Thursday at Twins: Kluber on normal rest
Friday at Royals: Zach McAllister (recalled from Minors) or Justin Masterson (activated from DL)
Saturday at Royals: House, Tomlin, McAllister, Masterson are options
Sunday at Royals: House, Tomlin, Salazar, McAllister, Masterson are options
Monday: Off-day

Masterson is scheduled to do a Minor League rehab start for Triple-A Columbus on Sunday night. Following that outing, when Cleveland makes its Friday starter known, things will be more clear for Saturday and/or Sunday. What is apparent is that the Indians have multiple directions they could go next weekend. They could option someone back down, give a guy extra rest, take their time with Masterson, keep House or McAllister going on regular rest in the Minors, etc;

“We’re really not sure who might be our five all the time,” Francona said before Sunday’s game. “But I don’t think we don’t feel like we can win with whoever is pitching. … I know [players] don’t like coming up and going down, but it makes our roster bigger and it helps us.”

Kluber is the clear-cut No. 1 on this staff right now. In his last outing, he pitched into the ninth and racked up his fourth start of the season with at least 10 strikeouts and no more than one walk (tying a single-season club record for such starts). Over his last five, Kluber has a 1.96 ERA with 38 strikeouts and six walks in 36.2 IP. Since the start of May, he’s 8-3 with a 2.53 ERA in 103.1 IP.

Bauer has been a pleasant surprise, looking like the Tribe’s second-best starter at the moment. The young righty has a 3.13 ERA in his last five starts across 31.2 IP. House has turned in a 3.57 ERA in his last four starts after having a 5.48 ERA in his first four starts this season. McAllister has turned in a 2.92 ERA in 12.1 IP in his last two turns, following a six-start stretch in which he went 0-4 with a 9.51 ERA. Salazar hasn’t pitched for the Indians since going 1-4 with a 5.53 ERA in his first eight starts of the season.

In the Detroit series, Bauer, Kluber and McAllister (up from Triple-A for one game) all performed admirably in guiding the Tribe to three wins.

A year ago, Cleveland went with a six-man rotation for stretches over the final two months and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar approach this time around. If the Indians do not add a front-line starter — even if they do — the club has a few options it can cycle in and out of the rotation to help with the depth. The biggest key will be finding a way to get Masterson (an All-Star a year ago) back on track and eating innings.

SECOND: The Indians have had a habit this season of saving their offense until late in the game. Heading into Sunday’s game, Cleveland ranked first in the Major Leagues with a .410 slugging percentage and .728 OPS in Innings 7-9. That trend was present throughout the series in Detroit.

On Sunday, the Tribe’s lone run came courtesy of a seventh-inning home run from catcher Yan Gomes. In the four games combined, Cleveland hit .377 (20-for-53) with four home runs, seven doubles and 16 runs scored in Innings 7-9. In Innings 1-6, the Indians hit a combined .214 (18-for-84) with two homers, three doubles and five runs scored.

THIRD: There were a few offensive positives throughout the series. All-Star Michael Brantley had a four-hit game on Friday night and seven hits in the series. Chris Dickerson belted two homers off Max Scherzer in Game 2 on Saturday. Nick Swisher had four RBIs in the series and Carlos Santana delivered a critical three-run double Saturday night. Ryan Raburn came up with a key hit in the seven-run seventh on Friday.

Perhaps the most encouraging development, though, was the continued turnaround from second baseman Jason Kipnis. He finished 5-for-15 in the four games with two homers (in consecutive at-bats Friday night after a homerless drought of 218 plate appearances), three runs, four walks and six RBIs. In July, Kipnis has hit at a .303 clip through 66 at-bats across 16 games.

HOME: The biggest takeaway from this series is the fact that the American League Central is still within reach for the Indians. By taking three of four, Cleveland pulled within 5.5 games of Detroit in the standings. That’s still a big gap, and Kansas City is right on the Tribe’s heels, but the Indians are hardly out of this thing. Cleveland needs more from some key players on offense and the team certainly needs to shore up the shaky state of its starting staff. If the Tribe can do that, September could be fun for Indians fans.

For us, we feel good about where we are right now, especially coming out of this set,” Swisher said. “Coming into this road trip right after the break, this is a huge road trip. It’s kind of crazy to say that games mean a lot here in July, but this road trip for us is crucial. … You’re playing all division guys. On a road trip like this, we have to play well.

“We did a great job here. It’s a good start for us in the right direction. We want to just continue to keep that going.”

On deck:

Indians (50-48) at Twins (44-53)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Monday at Target Field

NOTE: I will not be making the trip to Minnesota. Continue to check for updates and give a follow to @Indians on Twitter. I will pick up the coverage in Kansas City for the four-game series later this week, beginning Thursday.


1 Comment

Without seeing Salazar, I’d have to go Kluber, Bauer, House, McAllister, Tomlin, but I’m not happy about it.

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