Covering the Bases: Game 25
Some notes and quotes from Thursday’s 9-4 win over Detroit.
FIRST: Since Terry Francona has been in Cleveland as manager, he has stressed maintaining a day-to-day mentality. There is no game more important than the one in front of you, so it doesn’t make sense to get wrapped up in streaks or trends or particular opponents.
The Tigers are a rival of the Indians, but in Francona’s mind, the only rivalry that matters is the one happening on the field on that given day. And, he’s right. The Indians don’t get credit for two wins when they beat Detroit. A win is a win, and they all count the same.
That said, the Tigers have owned the Tribe since Francona took over to the tune of a 37-19 record across the 2013-15 seasons. That kind of dominance can create a mental road block for a team — the type of intimidation that can disrupt that day-to-day, pitch-to-pitch focus.
“I think if you look at the last couple years,” Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer said, “our record in the first half of the season against them especially, it feels like every time we play them we get just bludgeoned. Not just beat, but beat bad.”
So far this year, Cleveland has reversed course in a big way. Through six games against Detroit, the Indians are 6-0 with scores of 2-1, 10-1, 6-3, 7-3, 4-0 and now 9-4. The Indians have out-scored the Tigers, 38-12, in that span. They have 97 total bases to Detroit’s 50.
That kind of dominance in the other direction for once can provide a mental lift.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” Bauer said.
Against Detroit’s pitching, Cleveland hit .307/.372/.473.
Against Cleveland’s pitching, Detroit hit .181/.225/.259.
The Indians’ staff posted a 2.00 ERA with a 0.83 WHIP, 55 strikeouts and 10 walks in 54 innings.
Never one to stray from his philosophies, Francona still wasn’t ready to buy into the idea (at least publicly) that beating the Tigers gives his team any kind of mental boost.
“I don’t know. If there is, good. I don’t know if we needed it,” Francona said. “When we play them, our focus is them. Now, we need to move on, because Kansas City is probably already here. But, I also do think we need to play better in our division and Detroit’s the one team that’s really had their way.
“There’s a long way to go in this year, but we’ve done a good job so far.”
SECOND: Welcome back, Dr. Smooth.
Michael Brantley has been back for a little more than a week, but Smooth returned in Thursday’s win. After a 4-for-24 showing in his first seven games off the disabled list, Brantley went 4-for-5 with three RBIs, a double and one run scored.
“That looked a lot like him tonight,” Francona said.
If you take a close look at Brantley’s five at-bats, it did indeed look more like the player the Tribe has grown accustomed to seeing in recent years. He saw 23 pitches, swung at nine and did not miss on any of those cuts. He fouled off four and put the other five in play. On top of that, Brantley used the whole field. He had a single to each field, a double down the right-field line and a flyout to center.
“When he’s himself, that’s why he hits .300, because he uses the entire field,” Francona said. “Even when guys make pitches, he still has the ability. You saw the one. He hit the two-strike pitch to left field and then, you try to come in, and he can pull it down the line.”
In the seven games prior to Thursday, Brantley wasn’t having that kind of success with his swing. Take a look at the above chart. Over the ’13-15 seasons, Brantley led MLB with a 91.7-percent contact rate. He was down to an uncharacteristically-low 84.8 percent in his first seven games. His swinging-strike rate was more than double his career norm, he was fouling off more pitches than usual and he was 30-percent below his contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone.
Those are some dramatic differences and the hope would be that the diminished rates were a product of timing, rather than an indication that his right shoulder wasn’t where it needed to be health-wise. Well, on Thursday night, Brantley turned in the kind of game that looked on par with his standout seasons the past few years.
“Of course it’s going to take some time,” Brantley said. “I wasn’t expecting to come in and play guns blazing or anything like that. They’re Major League pitchers. They’re good. There are going to be some adjustment periods that you’re going to have to go through when you don’t get the normal reps that I normally do in spring.
“You can’t duplicate Major League pitching down in the Minor Leagues, but you can duplicate reps. It’s going to take a little bit of time, but we’re stepping in the right direction.”
THIRD: Beyond what he did in the batter’s box, it was also encouraging to see Brantley make a running, lunging, tumbling catch at a crucial point in the contest.
With a runner on second and two outs in the sixth, when the Indians were clinging to a 5-3 lead, Nick Castellanos sent a pitch from Jeff Manship to deep left field. According to Statcast, the ball rocketed off Castellanos’ bat at 102.8 mph. When it left the bat, it was projected to land 64 feet to Brantley’s right.
Manship thought it was going to go even farther.
“I honestly thought it was a home run right when he hit it,” Manship said. “I don’t know if you can go back and watch the tape. I pretty much put my head down right away. I hung a slider right there.”
Of course, we all know that Jeff Manship, The Greatest Reliever Who Ever Was or Ever Will Be, does not give up home runs. And, on this particular play, Brantley used a 92-percent route efficiency, and a top speed of 17.4 mph, to track down the ball.
That left him three feet shy of the projected distance, though. Brantley made up that ground by reaching out and snagging the ball on a dead sprint.
“That’s a huge part of the game,” Bauer said. “If that falls, it’s 5-4, guy on second and they’ve got momentum. And, who knows how it goes from there? But, Brantley makes that play and we come out and we added some insurance runs later on.”
Manship said it’s great to have Brantley back, and looking like he’s returning to his usual form.
“It’s uplifting for us,” said the reliever, “especially when he’s swinging like he can. Everybody knows he’s going to get back to it. I think today was the day for him, it seemed, where he got his groove. Now, we’ll see what he does. He should be good from here on out.”
HOME: Bauer was effective for 5.2 innings, limiting Detroit to three runs on a Castellanos’ homer in the fourth. The four-run lead that Cleveland’s lineup spotted the starter in the first inning went a long way for him.
After Tigers rook Michael Fulmer struck out Rajai Davis to open the first inning, the Indians went single (Jason Kipnis), single (Francisco Lindor), single (Brantley), home run (Mike Napoli), double (Carlos Santana), walk (Juan Uribe). Just like that, Cleveland had a four-run lead.
Fulmer’s strikeout of Davis prompted a comment from Francona to bench coach Brad Mills in the dugout.
“I went to Millsy,” Francona recalled, “and I said, ‘Man, this kid looks like he’s going to be tough on right-handers.'”
Four batters later, Napoli deposited a pitch 413 feet away in the left-field bleachers.
“And then, bam!” Francona said. “That was kind of big-boy territory there. He got on that one pretty good.”
Stay tuned for more…