Covering the Bases: Game 147
FIRST: There are many reasons behind the Indians targeting Mike Napoli over the winter. The most obvious of reasons would be what has played out on the field. He has provided the kind of right-handed power that had been lacking around these parts for years.
The other side of Napoli is what takes place behind the scenes. Sitting a locker down from Jason Kipnis to talk hitting. Embracing the “Party at Napoli’s” movement, because it’s not only fun, but it has generated money for charity. And then there is just his daily preparation and, as a result, his leadership by example.
“He’s got a presence about him,” Indians ace Corey Kluber said. “Obviously, he’s been a part of a lot of winning teams and I think that’s probably not a coincidence.”
That was another reason Cleveland wanted Napoli in the fold. He has played in 51 postseason games. He has been to two World Series. He won a ring with Boston in 2013. Napoli knows what it takes to not only get through a long season, but deal with the pressure of a playoff chase, and the October stage.
The Indians have several core leaders in the clubhouse, and plenty of those players were a part of the 2013 Wild Card club. But, there is still value in a veteran voice. Jason Giambi provided that in the past. Now, not only do Napoli and Rajai Davis help along those lines, they have been able to produce on the field on top of it.
“It’s been a fun year,” Napoli said. “Going through free agency last year, I envisioned this, with the pitching staff and being able to come here and play for a winning team. I’ve been fortunate to be on a lot of winning teams. And, looking at places where I want to go, I want to go where I think we’ll be able to win.”
The Indians have backed that up. With their win over Detroit on Friday, the Tribe improved to 12-1 against a Tigers team that went 37-19 against the Indians over the previous three years combined. The Indians now have a seven-game lead over Detroit in the division and have sliced their magic number to nine.
“I definitely saw that with the pitching staff,” Napoli said. “And coming here, trying to get everyone to come together as a team, it has definitely worked out.”
SECOND: Everyone has grown accustomed to seeing Napoli clear the 19-foot wall in left field. I mean, just take a look at where his home runs have gone at Progressive Field this season:
In the first inning against the Tigers, though, Napoli put one over the wall without actually hitting the baseball, well, over the wall.
With one out and a pair of runners in scoring position, Napoli hit a towering fly ball to deep left. Per Statcast, the baseball flew off Napoli’s bat at a 49-degree angle and had a 95-mph exit velocity. Prior to Friday, there had been precisely zero hits in the Majors on balls in play featuring that combination of metrics.
Napoli broke that drought.
Tigers left fielder Justin Upton ran to his right, trying to track the ball, but he threw his arms out to motion that he couldn’t see it. As Upton slowed to a stop, the ball bounced behind him, striking the warning track and shooting up and over Progressive Field’s Mini Monster.
“At first, I thought he was deking the runners,” Napoli said. “But, I know at that time of night, fly balls, as infielders you’re just trying to point it out. You know it was a fortunate break for us. I’ll take it. I was just trying to get it to the outfield so we could score that run.”
Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis scored on the play, putting the Indians up by two runs. Two more runs scored on a Napoli deep fly in the fifth, though this time the slugger cleared the wall easily. His shot to left one-hopped through the gates and out of the stadium.
Napoli now has 34 home runs and 98 RBIs, which are both career highs.
“When he connects, it goes a long ways,” Kluber said.
THIRD: There has been so much focus on the offensive black hole that has existed among Cleveland’s catchers this season. And, the criticism is understandable, considering the Indians’ 44 wRC+ ranked last in the Majors, heading into Friday.
Slowly, and more steadily of late, Roberto Perez has improved that production.
“We’ve seen him hit,” Napoli said. “He had that injury coming back and struggled, but his BP has been looking better every day. We talk hitting, but you could see his confidence growing day by day. We’re not worried about him. He’s done a good job behind the plate with the pitchers and when he starts hitting it’s a bonus.”
In an 11-run, 14-hit showing by an offense, there are obviously contributions up and down the local nine. Besides Napoli, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez all delivered RBIs for Cleveland, too. Perez also chipped in two RBIs, including one on a sac fly and one on a base hit.
On the evening, Perez was 1-for-2 with a sac bunt, sac fly and one run scored.
Over his past 20 games, Perez has turned in a .296/.339/.500 slash line for the Indians. That solid stretch has followed his abysmal showing over his first 30 games, when he had a .096/.244/.137 slash. The catcher was rushed back from a rehab when Yan Gomes injured his shoulder, and it was clear early on that it would take a larger sample at-bats for Perez to right his offensive season. He’s taken steps in that direction over the past few weeks.
“It’s good for me, especially coming off surgery,” Perez said. “The last 20 games or so, I’ve been better and more comfortable. I take pride at what I do behind the plate. I really want to help this pitching staff. But, tonight was a great team win.”
HOME: Kluber’s latest entry to his Cy Young candidacy included seven solid innings against the Tigers. He didn’t get a quality start, as Upton belted a pair of homers, which knocked in a collective four runs.
“His line’s not going to indicate [how well he pitched],” Francona said. “He threw two pitches to Upton. … Other than that, he did a really good job through the meat of the order.”
Through 30 starts, Kluber is now 17-9 with a 3.12 ERA, 215 strikeouts and 54 walks in 204.2 innings.
Kluber struck out seven, scattered five hits and walked three in the win. While Upton burned the right-hander twice, the Nos. 1-5 hitters (Ian Kinsler, Cameron Maybin, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez) went a combined 1-for-17 off him.
“I think that it all starts with Kinsler,” Kluber said. “He’s the tablesetter for them. Obviously, he’s a very good player and when he’s going well, it makes the lineup that much more dangerous. So, obviously, with every lineup, getting the leadoff hitter out is an emphasis. Maybe a little bit more so with them.”
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