Covering the Bases: Game 14

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers

Some notes and quotes from Friday’s 2-1 win over the Tigers.

FIRST: Friday started out like any other road trip to Detroit. I hopped in the car with a couple of other Tribe scribes, put on some classic rap and made the two-hour trek along the Lake Erie coast to Michigan.

We stopped at Mercury Burger Bar for lunch — a must-do, along with Slows BBQ across the street, if you’re in the Motor City — and then made our way to Comerica Park. We settled into the press box, waited for the clubhouse to open and then headed downstairs to check out the day’s lineup.

Let’s see…

Carlos Santana leading off. Jason Kipnis batting second. Francisco Lindor third.

Wait. What? Carlos Santana leading off?

Indians manager Terry Francona has toyed with the idea of Santana as a leadoff hitter for years. He has brought it up at the annual Town Hall Meeting for season-ticket holders in each of the past two winters. He’s mentioned it with reporters multiple times. This spring, Francona even went as far as using Santana as the leadoff man for a handful of Cactus League games.

Never, though, had Francona tried it out in a real game. This concept has been floating around in his head for a long time, though. It boiled to the surface this spring to the point that Francona even had the analytics department run some numbers to see if it was something worth experimenting with at some point.

“He was so thoughtful in trying to get different perspectives on it,” Indians GM Mike Chernoff said. “Ultimately, the lineup is completely his choice. I think in some ways, it’s a great idea.”

The idea stems from Santana’s on-base ability. Yes, he had a .244 career batting average heading into Friday, but the switch-hitter also had a .364 OBP. Santana has drawn 90-plus walks in each of the 2011-15 seasons, with 100-plus in each of the ’14-15 tours. His career rate of 4.3 pitches per plate appearance puts him near the top of baseball in that category each season. He wears pitchers out and has good power, too.

Now, I know Santana has his detractors. So, before we go any further, let’s refer to the Carlos Santana Narrative Buster™ (created by August Fagerstrom of Fangraphs.com):

CSNB

OK, are you done reading? Let’s get back on topic.

Said Francona: “I’ve seen Carlos now, this is the fourth year. He’s the one guy one our team [that] walks 100 times a year. Even when he’s struggling, he walks. So he should been base, which is probably the single most important thing in your leadoff hitter.”

There is a line of thinking out there that says leadoff hitters need to be fast. Now, Santana isn’t a burner, but he did steal 11 bases last year and has rated as an above-average baserunner this season and a year ago (1.3 BsR, per Fangraphs in ’15). Even with that in mind, Francona feels that on-base ability trumps speed when it comes to being a No. 1 hitter.

“By far,” Francona said. “Speed’s really good when you get on base. I’d rather have a guy get on base at a .400 clip and be slow than get on about 25 percent of the time and run like [heck]. If you’re running back to the dugout fast, that’s no good.”

So, how did Santana do in his leadoff debut?

In his first at-bat, he watched five pitches before pulling a fastball from Justin Verlander over the wall in right for a leadoff home run. He became the first Indians hitter since June 28, 1984 (Joe Carter) to hit a leadoff shot in his first career plate appearance in the No. 1 spot.

In his second at-bat, Santana watched four pitches, worked to a 3-1 count and then slashed a fastball to the left-center field gap for a double off Verlander. He saw seven pitches in his next two PAs (flyout and groundout), meaning he averaged 4.5 P/PA on the night.

After the homer, Santana said first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. made a joke about him becoming the next Rickey Henderson.

“It was something funny,” Santana said with a smile.

Francona isn’t sure when Santana might be the leadoff man again. The manager said Friday’s event was mostly circumstantial. The manager wanted to give Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez a day off from starting, so there was a hole to fill at the top. Francona also liked that Santana had six career homers off Verlander. Make it seven now.

“I thought he did a good job,” Francona said. “He hit a home run his first at-bat. That was probably about as well as you could draw it up. But, if he was hitting fourth tonight, he might’ve done the same thing and there might’ve been somebody on base.”

SECOND: Had it not been for the Santana development, Josh Tomlin would have been the big storyline.

Over 6.2 innings, Tomlin allowed only one run on four hits, finishing with four strikeouts and one walk. The right-hander focused on mixing in his changeup, curve and cutter to help off-set his four-seam fastball and sinker.

“I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes,” Tomlin said, “and was able to mix it up enough to keep them off-balance and get quick outs.”

Since he returned to the Indians rotation last season, following shoulder surgery, Tomlin has been on a great run. Over 77.1 innings, the righty has fashioned a 2.79 ERA to go along with a 0.83 WHIP fro the Tribe. That includes a pair of strong starts out of the gates to start this season.

Are the last two outings carryover from last year?

“I hope so. I’m not really sure,” Tomlin said. “I’m just kind of seeing the scouting report and going from there and following [catcher Yan Gomes]. Yan does an unbelievable job preparing for a game. Listening to him back there has been helpful.”

THIRD: The lone run that Tomlin did allow came in the sixth, when Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton delivered consecutive two-out hits. That pulled the game into a 1-1 tie and no one was hitting Verlander other than Santana.

Through six innings, Cleveland hitters not named Santana were 1-for-18 against Verlander.

That changed in the top of the seventh, when Marlon Byrd smacked a first-pitch home run to right field.

“I just jumped on the first fastball he threw me,” Byrd said. “It’s big. They tied it up and then to go right back up like that, it let Tomlin settle in and didn’t put any pressure on him. We were keeping the pressure on the other team instead.”

Byrd, who was a late signing during Spring Training, said he is finally starting to feel like he’s catching up to the rest of the batters.

“I’m getting there. I’m getting there,” Byrd said. “It’s starting to feel like I’ve got the Spring-Training legs out of me and the swing is there.”

HOME: It has been far from smooth sailing for setup man Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen so far this month. That made Friday’s seven-up, seven-down showing from McAllister, Shaw and Allen very encouraging for Cleveland.

McAllister struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia to end the seventh with runners on first and second. Shaw retired the side in the eighth and Allen, who went 1.2 innings and logged 30 pitches in Thursday’s loss, which included a three-run homer yielded by the closer, set down Miguel Cabrera and the Martinez Men (Victor and J.D.) in the ninth.

V-Mart hit a rocket to right field, where Kipnis was playing in the grass in a perfect defensive shift. The liner had an exit velocity of 109.5 mph (per Statcast), but the second baseman barely had to move to make the catch. Allen then induced a flyout from J.D. to collect the save and seal the win.

“Those guys have a bit of a track record now,” Tomlin said of Shaw and Allen. “They’re going to be fine. We have the utmost confidence in them when they come in the game. And you see them coming in and the way they’re throwing the ball tonight, it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Allen wouldn’t argue with that.

“It’s good to get back out there and experience some success,” he said. “It can snowball in either direction. You try to bounce back as well as you can and get something going, get some momentum and the ball rolling in the right direction.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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