Covering the Bases: Game 148

ramirezSome notes and quotes from Saturday’s 1-0, 10-inning win over Detroit

FIRST: The Indians have been forced to overcome a lot this year, and the baseball gods are testing the Tribe’s mettle once again.

Michael Brantley has been a spectator for more of this season. But, Jose Ramirez has emerged as one of baseball’s best hitters in clutch situations. Marlon Byrd got slapped with a 162-game suspension. Tyler Naquin then seized that roster spot and emerged as a Rookie of the Year contender. Yan Gomes went down. Roberto Perez and Chris Gimenez have handled the pitching staff well in his place.

Now? Carlos Carrasco (non-displaced fracture in his right hand) joins Danny Salazar (right forearm injury) on the sideline. Both right-handers are done for the regular season, and likely out for the playoffs, barring the combination of incredible recoveries and a deep postseason run.

“We lost some pretty key pieces already,” Indians starter Josh Tomlin said. “To lose a guy like [Carrasco], it hurts. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an unbelievable pitcher. For us, we’ve just got to step up and try to keep winning games and see what happens.”

Less than a week ago, Salazar was given a timetable of three to four weeks, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he could pitch late in the postseason. As for Carrasco, Cleveland hasn’t announced an expected timetable to return, but his injury is similar to the one sustained this week by Gomes. The catcher is out six to eight weeks.

“It hurts,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of losing Carrasco. “It will make this more challenging, what we’re trying to do. When we do it, it will feel all that much better. It’s another challenge, but we feel like we’ll figure it out.”

So, how will the Indians go about figuring it out?

Well, Cleveland is down to starters Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Tomlin for the remainder of the regular season. Bauer is pitching Sunday. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway noted that the upcoming series against Kansas City will feature Tomlin (Tuesday), Kluber (Wednesday) and Clevinger (Thursday) in the wake of the Carrasco injury.

“Those will be our four starters,” Callaway said. “And then, somebody else will be in there, which will probably be more like a bullpen day.”

Those bullpen days will be required on Saturday at home against the White Sox and then again on Sept. 29 on the road against the Tigers. Working in Cleveland’s favor is the fact that it now has an eight-game lead on Detroit in the division. With the Central crown in their sights, the Indians can potentially weather this late-season storm.

It is the postseason that sudden looks more daunting, given the loss of two talented and overpowering arms in Salazar and Carrasco. The good news here, of course, is that teams do not need five starters in the postseason. And, in the American League Division Series, Cleveland could get away with a three-man rotation of Kluber, Bauer and one of Tomlin or Clevinger.

“We have to make sure that these guys are all prepared to do whatever job they’re going to do when it comes to the postseason,” Callaway said. “The good thing is Kluber and Bauer can probably pitch every fourth day, or whenever you need them to. Bauer’s arm never hurts and Kluber’s just a beast. That helps.

“But, we’re going to prepare guys for the postseason and, if we get in, we’ll go from there.”

SECOND: After Tomlin went through his August struggles, and the calendar flipped to September, allowing for a larger bullpen under the expanded-roster rules, Cleveland employed the bullpen-day approach.

The Indians did so again on Saturday night, but unexpectedly.

Two pitches into the game, Ian Kinsler sent a 101-mph liner off Carrasco’s right hand. The pitcher was in obviously pain and, as the infielders gathered around the starter near the mound, it became clear to them that he wouldn’t be able to continue.

“You had a feeling,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “We knew right away he was coming out, even though he was on the mound for a little while. You saw a little bruising and swelling in his pinky, where I think it got him. You could tell he was in a lot of pain.”

“I thought it hit him on the hip,” added shortstop Francisco Lindor. “And then I got up to the mound. His hand is swollen. I was like, ‘Oh.’ I immediately knew he wasn’t going to pitch. I don’t care how strong you are, how tough you are, if it hits you in the hand you throw with, it’s going to be tough.”

That’s when Francona made the call to bullpen coach Jason Bere.

“I called J.B. down there and said, ‘Tell them to put their seat belts on,'” Francona said, “‘because they’re all going to pitch, and we’re going to win.'”

Francona then went through Jeff Manship, Kyle Crockett, Cody Anderson, Zach McAllister, Perci Garner, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen and Andrew Miller the rest of the way. They combined for 10 shutout innings, and helped Cleveland set an MLB record. Until Saturday, no team in baseball history had used nine pitches in a shutout.

“Oh my gosh,” Callaway said. “It was unbelievable.”

The group had to be that good, too.

Tigers ace Justin Verlander was on top of his game, and held Cleveland without a hit until Kipnis’ leadoff single in the sixth. That was the lone hit surrendered by Verlander, who walked four in a seven-inning gem. The AL Cy Young candidate struck out seven and then watched Detroit’s bullpen blank the Tribe until the 10th.

“Carrasco aside, that was a fun game to be a part of,” Francona said. “There was so much good baseball going on, so much good pitching. Guys just continuing to put up zeros. Our bullpen, Verlander, there was a lot of good pitching going on.”

THIRD: The biggest escape of the evening for the Tribe came with the rookie Garner on the mound and the meat of the Tigers’ lineup due up.

The inning began with with Garner hitting Jose Iglesias with a pitch. Then, Iglesias stole second and moved to third on a groundout to short by Kinsler. None of the eight relievers got a save in this one, but you can go ahead and give one to Kipnis for what happened next.

With the infield in, Cameron Maybin sent a floater to  shallow right. Kipnis’ instincts as a former outfielder kicked in on this play, during which he covered 77 feet with a route efficiency of 98 percent, per Statcast.

Kipnis made a running, over-the-shoulder, basket catch, avoided right fielder Abraham Almonte, and then quickly turned and fired the ball back into the infield to keep Iglesias at third base.

“That’s the downside of playing in sometimes, those bloops that can drop,” Kipnis said. “I knew it was going to be in no-man’s land and I didn’t want to alligator arm it, so I reached out. There was one out, so my guess was, as a runner, he was probably off the bag a little bit, halfway.

“So, I knew we had a good chance to hold them and, once I caught it, I just wanted to turn and get it in.”

In a 1-0 win, it was a critical play for Cleveland. From there, Garner issued an intentional walk to Miguel Cabrera, and then finished off the inning with a strikeout against Victor Martinez. It was an impressive display by the Indians rookie reliever.

“Oh, man,” Francona said. “We left him in and the best outcome that could happen [did]. This kid, one inning of work, probably grew a lot by being in that situation. So, instead of running from the young guys sometimes, give them a chance and they come through.”

HOME: A one-run game would not be complete with a classic battle of wits. During the bottom of the ninth inning, Francona and Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus flexed their managerial muscles with two outs and the game in the balance.

First, Tyler Naquin delivered a two-out single off Detroit righty Bruce Rondon. That prompted Francona to send Rajai Davis to first base as a pinch-runner. With Almonte batting, Davis stole his 39th base of the season. Now, with first base open and the No. 9 spot on-deck, Ausmus had Rondon intentionally walk Almonte.

This is where the chess match really got interesting.

Francona sent Lonnie Chisenhall (currently batting a lower abdominal issue) to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Perez. That convinced Ausmus to call lefty Justin Wilson from the bullpen. But, wait! Now Francona called Chisenhall (.640 OPS against LHP) back to the dugout and sent Brandon Guyer (1.027 OPS vs. LHP) in as a pinch-hitter for Chisenhall.

Francona got Ausmus with an old-fashioned phantom pinch-hitter.

“I guess I was hopeful [Ausmus would bring in a lefty],” Francona said. “But, Lonnie could hit. I wouldn’t have sent him up there on gambling. But, yeah, we were OK with Guyer hitting there.”

Davis and Almonte then pulled off a double steal, making the pinch-running move pay off even more for the Tribe. In the process, Davis became the first Indians player since 1999 to swipe 40 bags in a season.

Alas, the inning ended with Guyer grounding out to third base, stranding two runners. In terms of strategy, Francona won this one. He tilted the percentages further in Cleveland’s favor. Detroit still executed and won the in-game battle.

EXTRAS: Someone had to flinch eventually. On this night, after all that was working against the Indians, it was the Tigers who finally slipped up.

Carlos Santana led off with a walk, but was erased at second on a 2-6 fielder’s choice bunt from Kipnis. With Lindor batting, Kipnis then moved up to second on a wild pitch before stealing third base. That thievery of third put Cleveland on the path to its 10th walk-off win of the year.

“It changes the whole inning,” Francona said.

With one out and Kipnis on third, Ausmus had Wilson issue back-to-back intentional walks to Lindor and Mike Napoli. Now, Cleveland has the bases loaded and the guy they love having in the batter’s box in such situations. What’s the confidence level for the Indians with Ramirez batting with runners in scoring position?

“Pretty high,” Napoli said. “He’s been doing it all year. He’s a guy that gets that key hit. He gets hot with runners in scoring position. He makes contact. He’s a tough out. In that situation, you feel pretty good, even him getting down in the count. I felt like he was going to put the ball in play somewhere.”

Ramirez fell behind, 0-2, but guess what? He is leading the Majors with a .321 (34-for-106) average after being in an 0-2 count this year. On top of that, he entered the night batting .354 with RISP and .385 with the bases loaded.

Ramirez fought back to an even count and then singled to center to set off the celebration.

“I just tried to put the ball in play,” Ramirez said through a translator. “That’s the first thing you have to worry about it. He’s a good pitcher, he has good movement on it. I tried to put the ball in play and thankfully it went well.”

Oh, and it was Ramirez’s birthday, too.

“Man, I feel so happy,” he said. “I told my mom that I dedicated this game to her. And thanks to God it went really well and I was able to dedicate a good game to her.”

It was a great ending to what began as a daunting day for Cleveland.

“I was very proud of the way the team responded today,” Kipnis said. “Word made it back to us about what happened with Carrasco. You can let something like that linger. You can let something like that deflate a team. You have Verlander on the mound, their ace. It’s Detroit.

“There are a lot of excuses that could have come into play, but I thought everyone did a great job. It starts with the bullpen. They probably weren’t expecting to pitch too much and all of them did their job and stepped up. We showed a lot of resiliency today. I just love the way we competed and fought.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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