Covering the Bases: Game 141

CarrascoFinal: Indians 2, White Sox 0

FIRST: Maybe it’s time to stop wondering when Cookie is going to crumble. Maybe what has been taking place on the mound is legitimate. Maybe a corner has finally been turned.

Years of inconsistency have conditioned Cleveland fans to anticipate a meltdown from pitcher Carlos Carrasco. Six starts into his latest return to the rotation, the big righty has finally looked like the kind of the front-line starter envisioned for several seasons by the Indians.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s been so nice,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “You put a guy in the rotation and you certainly hope for the best, but my goodness. He looks so strong.”

What’s interesting about Carrasco’s turnaround — one that now includes Sunday’s dominant showing against the White Sox — is that he has adopted the aggressive mentality talked so much about over the past offseason. Going from the bullpen to the rotation isn’t new for Carrasco. The righty spent time in the bullpen last year and then transitioned back to starting in time for Opening Day this season.

We heard about how aggressive he was out of the ‘pen, how he stopped overthinking and over-planning like he was prone to doing as a starter. And then, when he went back to starting, the same old problems arose. So, what’s been the difference? Why has Carrasco been able to embrace a reliever’s mind-set now, when he wasn’t able to do so out of the gates in April?

“That’s a great point,” said Carrasco, pondering that concept for a moment. “I figured it out after, why I couldn’t do it in the beginning of the season. They sent me to the bullpen and my mentality is way different right now.”

Let’s dive a little deeper into it than that by first looking at his season in three parts…

April 15-25 (four starts): 6.95 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .286 AVG
In 22 IP: 24 H, 18 R (17 ER), 23 K, 9 BB, 61% strikes

April 30-Aug 5 (26 games): 2.30 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, .217 AVG
In 43 IP: 34 H, 11 R (11 ER), 39 K, 9 BB, 67% strikes

Aug. 10-Sept. 7 (six starts): 0.70 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .179 AVG
In 38.2 IP: 25 H, 3 R (3 ER), 42 K, 4 BB, 71% strikes

On the surface, you immediately see an increased strike rate. What you can’t see in that basic breakdown is the change in pitch usage over the course of the season for Carrasco. What the righty’s done over his past six starts is nearly double the percentage of sliders thrown (compared to his April stint in the rotation), dramatically cut down on curves and shift his fastball usage to include more sinkers.

During his first four starts in April, Carrasco was throwing his two-seamer only 2.4% of the time. That held steady through his stint in the bullpen, but has jumped to over 11% since returning to the rotation. In Sunday’s outing (8.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K), Carrasco threw 18.4% sinkers. His four-seamer usage was down to 35% (compared to 54.3% as a starter in April).

Along with that change in repertoire, Carrasco has stashed his curve in his back pocket. He used that particular offspeed pitch 16.6% of the time in his first four starts, decreased the usage to 9.8% out of the bullpen and had used it only 5.9% of the time in his last five starts, entering Sunday. Against Chicago, Carrasco used the curve twice out of 103 pitches (0.2%).

The diminished use of the curve has led to a heightened reliance on what has developed into a wipeout slider. Back in 2011, when Carrasco has his best full season with Cleveland, he used the slider slightly more (12.6%) than his curve (11.6%). He was at 12.3% with the slider in his four April starts, but increased the rate to 22% out of the bullpen and then 23% in his rotation return, entering Sunday. The White Sox saw the slider 28.2% of the time in his latest effort.

It also helps that Carrasco’s average fastball velocity has climbed to 96-97 mph in August and September, compared to 94.8 mph in April. In that regard, Carrasco has maintained bullpen velocity incredibly well over his recent starts (I’m sure the lighter season-long workload has helped). Carrasco has also tightened up his pregame routine and now pitches out of the stretch, as he did in the ‘pen.

“He just looks like he’s getting stronger,” Francona said. “And today, his ball had so much good movement on his fastball, especially to the righties, down under their barrel. And then he’s able to spin that breaking ball. That was really impressive.”

SECOND: What does good pitching do for a team?

“It makes everything look better,” Francona said.

Here were are, documenting a series sweep over the White Sox after the Indians scored seven whole runs as an offense. The continued success of Cleveland’s pitching staff pushed the anemic lineup to the background for another day, and that has been a theme throughout this second half for the Indians.

In the 32 games after Aug. 1, when the Indians scored 12 runs in a romp over the Rangers, Cleveland has averaged 3.3 runs per game. Over that same span, the Tribe’s pitching staff has turned in a 2.65 ERA. That’s not a large margin for error for the pitchers, but the staff has made it work more often than not in keeping Cleveland afloat in the playoff picture.

In the three-game set against the White Sox, starting pitchers T.J. House, Corey Kluber and Carrasco combined to go 2-0 with a 0.36 ERA, striking out 23, scattering 16 hits, allowing two runs (only one earned) and issuing no walks in 24.2 innings.

Asked if good pitching can be contagious, Francona said: “Well, I hope so. I think we’re going to need it. It’s been allowing us every day to have a chance to win. I think we scored seven runs this series, but we’re coming away feeling pretty good. It’s taken a little bit of a burden off the bullpen. You can just show up and you feel like you have a chance to win. That’s what we need.”

THIRD: Cleveland’s first run came in the opening inning, when Michael Bourn sent a pitch from Chicago’s Scott Carroll over the head of center fielder Adam Eaton for a leadoff triple. Two batters later, Michael Brantley made good on that hit with one of his own, delivering a single to center to extend his hitting steak to 11 games.

The triple was Bourn’s American League-leading 10th of the season. What’s remarkable about that is the fact that Bourn has only played 87 games this season due to his hamstring issues. The last Indians hitter to have at least 10 three-base hits in a season was Grady Sizemore in 2006, but the last to do so in fewer than 100 games was Ed Morgan in 1929 (10 in 93 games).

HOME: Francona does not typically give in to broad-stroaks questions about a series, especially if the question involves looking back or looking ahead. The manager prefers to keep the horse blinders on, focusing on each game as a singular task. That said, Francona strayed from his usual approach when asked how important this sweep was for the team, considering Cleveland dropped three of four in a tough series against the Tigers earlier this week.

“We’re running out of months. Not days, but months,” Francona said. “So, we need to make up some ground. I don’t know if you can go into a series thinking about a sweep, because I don’t think that’s a very productive way to play, but now that it’s over, it certainly helps. Now, it makes tomorrow that much bigger.”

On deck:

Angels (87-55) at Indians (74-67)
at 1:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field


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