Covering the Bases: Game 141

kluberSome notes and quotes on Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Twins

FIRST: It is no coincidence that the bullpen days that have happened this month have come a day ahead of one of Corey Kluber’s scheduled starts.

Indians manager Terry Francona is always focused on the game at hand with a horse-blinder mentality, but he definitely keeps Kluber’s consistent endurance in mind when mapping out the pitching staff. Need to make 14 pitching changes in a span of 16 innings? No problem. Kluber’s got your back.

“The way he’s ready every five days,” Francona said, “it is a good feeling.”

On Friday night, Danny Salazar left after four innings due to injury. On Saturday, Mike Clevinger was only permitted to work four innings, and then Cleveland used nine relievers in a 12-inning marathon. After the game, while discussing the situation, catcher Chris Gimenez laughed.

“We’ve got the right guy on the mound,” said Gimenez, referring to having Kluber on deck for Sunday’s matinee in Minnesota. “Hopefully, he can go nine innings and we won’t have to worry about it.”

Kluber went seven and logged 114 pitches. He struck out 10, walked two and scattered four hits. The Twins’ only run came after Jose Ramirez made a throwing error with two outs in the fourth. That forced Kluber to throw five more pitches in the inning, which included an RBI single from Byron Buxton.

His effort was sufficient in not just getting the win, but avoiding much work for the relief corps. Righty Cody Anderson handled the final two innings with ease. Francona never had to even consider getting any of his main relievers up.

“Miller, Cody, Shaw didn’t pick up a ball,” Francona said. “That’s a bonus.”

In the wake of the past couple games, and the issues in the rotation, Kluber has been immensely valuable to Cleveland this season. Carlos Carrasco missed time with injury. Trevor Bauer began in the bullpen. Salazar has experienced arm issues throughout the year. Anderson lost his job, so did Tomlin. Clevinger is just getting his feet wet.

Through all of that, Kluber has won 16 games, punched out 208 batters and logged 197 .2 innings with three weeks go to.

“Man, it’s a good feeling knowing that your ace is going to pick us up,” Indians catcher Roberto Perez said. “I’ve said it before, every time he steps on the mound, he gives you 100 percent. He’s always ready to go from the first pitch. That’s what he was doing today.”

Remember when Kluber was 4-6 with a 4.15 ERA at the end of May? He’s gone 12-3 with a 2.40 ERA, .198 opponents’ average, 0.99 WHIP, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 124 innings (18 starts) since. Remember when he laid an egg against Toronto on July 3? Kluber has gone 8-1 with a 2.04 ERA, .206 opponents’ average, 1.03 WHIP, 10.1 K/9 and a 3.9 K/BB in 83.2 innings (12 starts) since.

That showing has put Kluber in the hunt for a second career Cy Young Award.

As of this writing, here are Kluber’s ranks among AL starters:

1st in fWAR (5.1)
1st in FIP (3.01)
3rd in K (208)
3rd in AVG (.211)
t-3rd in IP (197.2)
t-3rd in W (16)
4th in ERA (3.05)
4th in HR/9 (0.87)
4th in K/9 (9.47)
4th in K% (26.5)
4th in WHIP (1.04)
t-4th in K-BB% (20.0)

SECOND: There has been a push-and-pull going on between Tyler Naquin and opposing pitchers as the season has progressed.

As the summer has worn on, and Naquin’s OPS has remained over .900, the left-handed hitter has been increasingly fed more fastballs. Teams have also focused more on attacking him with heaters up in the strike zone. It’s a weak area for Naquin, who thrives against offspeed pitches, especially to the lower third of the zone.

zoneUsing the zone profile to the left, Naquin saw 28-percent fastballs in April and 25.8 percent in May to Zones 1, 2, 3, 11 and 12. That rate jumped to 35.1 in June and held pretty steady through July (31.1) and August (32.2). In September, it has spiked again, this time to 42.6 percent for Naquin. It’s easy to see why, too. Over the past three months, specifically, he’s hit .065 (2-for-31) on those pitches.

Francona has been using Naquin mostly against right-handed pitching this season, but the outfielder got a chance to stay in agianst lefty Pat Dean in the third, when the reliever took over for Twins’ rook Jose Berrios. Dean doesn’t feature an overpowering fastball by any means, but you can see by the pitch map that he didn’t pitch to Naquin’s weakness effectively.

naquin

Pitch No. 4 was a slider. No. 10 was the only elevated fastball and Dean missed by a long shot. Throughout the 12-pitch battle, Naquin fouled off seven pitches and eventually came out on top when Dean went with a slider over the outside corner. The result was a single up the middle, scoring a run to give the Tribe a 5-0 lead.

“He had one really good at-bat,” Francona said. “That’s good for him.”

On the day, Naquin reached base four times and — thanks largely to that third-inning at-bat — he saw 29 pitches in five plate appearances (5.9 P/PA). That’s a solid day at the office for Naquin, who had a pair of walks and two singles in the victory.

THIRD: Naquin’s hit provided some important insurance for Cleveland, but it wasn’t the biggest blow of the game.

That moment arrived in the second inning, when Carlos Santana absolutely drilled a pitch from Berrios out to right field. The baseball cleared the right-field stands, bounced into the concourse, and eventually rolled to a stop at U.S. Bank Stadium on the other side of downtown.

(OK, I’m exaggerating a little.)

According to Statcast, Santana’s 31st homer of the season went 447 feet (that’s it?) and had an exit velocity of 105 mph. More important than the metrics was the timing. His blast came on the heels of one of the worst at-bats of the Indians season.

Abe Almonte led off with a single, Naquin drew a walk and then Perez moved them each up 90 feet with a sacrifice bunt. So far, so good. That gave utility man Michael Martinez — filling in for second baseman Jason Kipnis in this one — a chance to come through with runners in scoring position.

On a 1-1 pitch, Martinez caught everyone in the stadium by surprise when he quickly squared up and attempted a drag bunt. Berrios fired a fastball outside and Martinez popped the pitch up, right back to the pitcher. Martinez was on his own in that decision to bunt.

“It’s actually a nice idea,” Francona said. “Bad execution.”

Santana bailed Martinez out, gave the Tribe a 3-0 lead and Kluber cruised.

“I felt great, especially in that moment,” Santana said. “I know the team, they need me. That’s why I’m here. With two outs, runners in scoring position, I tried to get a hit and get some runs for the game. That’s what I was concentrating on there.”

HOME: Back on Aug. 28, the Indians wrapped up a 2-5 swing through Oakland and Texas. Cleveland scored one or zero runs in six of those games, and watched its lead atop the American League Central tick down to 4.5 games.

As Bauer quipped recently: “We were dead. The season was over, right?”

Some fans began to worry. The Indians did not.

“That wasn’t a good road trip for us. I think everybody knew that,” Kluber said. “It was just a matter of getting back to the things that we do to be successful. That’s situational stuff on offense and limiting big innings on the other side. When we can do those things, I think we’ve had a fair amount of success.”

Over the past two weeks since that trip, all the Indians have done is post a 10-3 record. In the process, the Tribe now has a seven-game lead over the second-place Tigers once again. To put that in perspective, if Cleveland were to drop off some and play .500 ball (10-10) the rest of the way, Detroit would need to go 17-3 to pull into a tie.

Can Cleveland sniff the champagne?

“I don’t think we’re to the point of worrying about that yet,” Kluber said. “We’re still trying to take it a day at a time and hopefully not get ahead of ourselves. I think that, if we do start getting ahead of ourselves, then that kind of opens the door for dangerous things to happen.

“We’re just trying to keep going a game at a time. That’s what’s gotten us to this point so far, and I think we know that’s going to be the best way to approach it from here on out.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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