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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

Covering the Bases: Game 13

CanoPic

Some notes and quotes from the Indians’ 10-7 loss to the Mariners on Thursday.

FIRST: It’s so easy to say a manager left a pitcher in one batter too long when the last pitch thrown results in a home run.

On Thursday, following a three-run home run off the bat of Robinson Cano in the 10th inning, you could slip into that common line of thinking. It was closer Cody Allen’s second inning of work. It was the eighth batter he had faced. The ball that soared into the bushes beyond the wall in center represented Allen’s 30th pitch.

Or maybe, as Allen told us, it was simply, “A bad pitch to a good hitter.”

Let’s see. Here’s where the pitch went:

CanoPitch

And, here’s Cano’s slugging percentage on four-seam fastballs that have been tracked in his career by PITCHf/x:

CanoMap

Confirmed. It was a bad pitch to a good hitter.

Now, yes, the home run was a problem. The bigger issue, as Allen also pointed out, was that he issued a pair of walks in the 10th inning before the blast. Steve Clevenger drew a leadoff walk and, even more damaging, Franklin Gutierrez watched a full-count fastball sail low for a two-out free pass with Cano on-deck.

“I just completely botched it,” Allen said.

Still, the matchup with Cano was favorable on the surface. In his career against Cleveland’s closer — SAMPLE SIZE ALERT! — Seattle’s second baseman was 0-for-7. More relevant is the fact that Allen had held lefties to a .189 average in his career before this ill-fated meeting.

Indians manager Terry Francona could have intentionally walked Cano to load the bases, but that would’ve have summoned slugger Nelson Cruz to the plate. Bryan Shaw, who has had mixed results to this point this season, was warming in the bullpen, but Allen vs. Shaw was the matchup Francona preferred.

“Cody’s really good, but he’s better against lefties,” Francona said. “There may come a day where it’s like second and third or something [where you’d intentionally walk him], but no, he’s actually better against lefties. That was the first time Cano ever got a hit. I know Cano is good — so is Cruz.”

When pitching coach Mickey Callaway headed to the mound after Allen’s second walk, it was simply to give the closer a few extra seconds to gather himself.

“We weren’t talking about trying to pitch around him or anything like that,” Allen said. “Obviously, Cano is a very good hitter. He’s dangerous. You don’t want to load the bases for Cruz.”

To use Allen’s phrasing, he just botched the 93-mph fastball to Cano.

SECOND: Seattle’s game-deciding push in extras effectively erased the work of Cleveland’s offense.

Down 5-0, Rajai Davis belted a three-run homer in the fifth. Down 7-3, Cleveland scratched out two runs in the sixth and Mike Napoli delivered a two-run, game-tying, pinch-hit blast in the eighth inning.

While the Indians are 6-7 on the season, I will say this: We’ve seen some in-game fight that was lacking last season, especially in the first half.

“Our offense has done a heck of a job,” Allen said. “We’ve gotten some big hits. Napoli has hit a few huge homers for us. Just to keep fighting right there, that’s something that’s going to pay dividends for us down the road.”

Napoli agreed.

“We’re not going to give up. We know we’ve got a good team,” Napoli said. “We know we’ve got a good offense. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the game, we’re going to go up there, give good at-bats and try to scrap away.

“We’re just trying to get on that roll. Right now, we’re putting some things together and then we back off a little bit. But, it’s the first 13 games. You’d like to play better, but we’re at .500. We’re just going to continue to try to get better.”

THIRD: About that Napoli home run…

Francona informed the first baseman on Wednesday that he was going to be out of the starting lineup for Thursday’s noon game. Carlos Santana started at first and Marlon Byrd got the nod as the designated hitter. Before and during Thursday’s game, though, Napoli did what he could to stay sharp and ready.

“I knew I wasn’t playing today,” Napoli said. “But I came in, did my work and I actually did extra hitting. You watch the game and, I’ve been around for a while, so I know the routine of when you’re not in there, staying loose. I go and hit twice during the game and just watch and see situations.

“It’s never a day off. You might have the opportunity to come in the game late. It’s all about preparation and being ready.”

That kind of preparation and focus is the the stuff Francona loves to see.

“It’s kind of fun,” Francona said, “to watch a guy that’s not playing, sit there for eight innings, and be locked in and then go do what he did. That’s pretty impressive.”

What Napoli did was work into a 2-0 count against Mariners reliever Joaquin Benoit. Then, the slugger drilled a pitch 109.4-mph off the bat to left field, where it sailed into the bleachers. You’ve got to feel for the fan in the poncho who tried to catch it with his bare hand. That’ll sting for a few days.

The blast pulled the game into a 7-7 tie.

“At the moment, it was an exciting moment,” Napoli said. “It’s something that, when you’re on the bench, you think about all game and try to hopefully get that opportunity. But, it doesn’t really mean anything coming away with a loss.”

HOME: If a game is caught in a 7-7 deadlock and heading to extra innings, something didn’t go right. On this afternoon, Cleveland received a second straight subpar outing from righty Cody Anderson.

“If I would have done my job,” Anderson said, “we’d be walking away with a win.”

Anderson gave up five runs on nine hits in 3.2 innings. That makes it 10 runs surrendered on 18 hits in 8.1 innings over his past two starts combined. In the second inning, Anderson gave up a two-run homer to Seattle’s backup catcher, Steve Clevenger. He smacked a 2-1 changeup out to right field, marking the first homer allowed by Anderson on a changeup this season.

“[I’ve been] just leaving my changeup middle-in to those lefties,” Anderson said. “When I get it to the right location, they keep hitting it down the line a little bit. I’ve just got to keep it down and get it where I need it to be.”

“He didn’t walk anybody,” Francona said. “But he pitched behind in the count and he was up, not by design, necessarily. He made some of the guys down in the order probably more dangerous than they need to be. I thought coming out of the chute, though, he was letting go of the ball good, just still up more than it needs to be.”

Those calling for Trevor Bauer to be moved back to the rotation, well, he pitched in relief and turned in a busy pitching line, too. Bauer gave up two runs on three hits with two walks, two punchouts and a hit-by-pitch in two innings.

EXTRAS: Francisco Lindor raised some eyebrows in the ninth inning, when he tried to steal second base with two outs and Carlos Santana sitting in a 1-0 count. One swing wins the game for Cleveland. Instead, one caught-stealing ended the inning. Francona challenged the call, but it was confirmed via replay as an out. The manager defended Lindor’s decision-making after the loss.

“It was a pretty good slide step first-pitch [by reliever Tony Zych],” Francona said. “And then he picked his leg up. … I think it’s a little bit a muddy track, but no, that was a good time to go.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 12

Salazar

Some notes and quotes from the Indians’ 2-1 loss to the Mariners on Wednesday.

FIRST: Out of the chute, Danny Salazar has been the best starter in Cleveland’s rotation. Before the seventh inning on Wednesday, the righty had actually registered at least one strikeout in every frame he worked in this season.

But, I tweeted about that streak, so it ended. My bad.

As I’ve said numerous times to this point in these posts, it’s WAY too early to draw any conclusions about what is or is not working for any player (pitcher or batter). But, we can start looking for things to monitor. So, I went looking to see what, if anything, Salazar has done differently to this point this season.

Has he altered his pitch usage?

SalazarUse

That’d be a no.

In fact, it’s pretty incredible how close his pitch distribution has been so far this season.

So, let’s check out his pitch velocity…

SalazarVelo

OK, then. That’s pretty consistent so far compared to 2015, too.

Maybe we should ask the man himself…

Hey, Danny, what’s been working for you early on this year?

“Being aggressive,” Salazar said. “Not slowing down with any pitch, and just being aggressive with every single pitch.”

Now, this is interesting, and perhaps it was just a here-is-a-baseball-cliche response, because it’s hard to find much evidence to support that statement from Salazar. He’s actually thrown fewer strikes so far compared to 2015. And, his velocity isn’t any higher than a year ago. It’s actually a skosh from last year.

Statistically speaking, it actually looks like the hitters are the ones who have been more aggressive against Salazar. Heading into Wednesday’s start, batters were swinging at 76.7 percent of pitches in the strike zone (up from 69.3 percent in ’15). Salazar has exploited this, inducing a 16.8-percent swinging-strike rate (up from 11.8 percent in ’15).

So, maybe it’s a mentality, which we can’t really quantify. His response reminds me of Carlos Carrasco in the final two months of 2014. Then-bullpen coach Kevin Cash stressed going all-out with every pitch, attacking the hitters aggressively and not taking his foot off the gas. If Salazar is trying to adopt that mental approach, that’s not a bad thing.

On Wednesday night, the righty was charged with two runs over seven innings, in which he struck out seven, walked three and allowed three hits. That’s usually going to net a win. On the year, Salazar has a 1.47 ERA with 23 strikeouts, nine walks and a .129 (8-for-62) opponents’ average. That’s good, and the Indians can only hope it lasts.

“When you start backing [starts] up, and talking about consistency, that’s a good feeling,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I don’t see any reason why that should change. He’s working hard, his routines are good, he’s going to be OK.”

SECOND: The reason for Salazar’s unfortunate trip to the loss column? Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker. He went six innings, struck out six, walked none and allowed only one unearned run. Walker is only the fifth righty Cleveland has seen in 12 games, so maybe there was some rust for the Tribe.

Then again, Walker has done well against the Indians in his young career. He has given up just one earned run in 20 innings in his career against Cleveland.

“He’s got velocity, off-speed, athletic,” Francona said. “He’s good. He’s kind of how we feel about Danny. I’m sure that’s the same way they feel about him.”

THIRD: The Indians also made a handful of mistakes that cost them under the low-scoring circumstances.

In the third inning, Juan Uribe led off with a double, but was quickly caught too far off the base on a comeback to the mound from Tyler Naquin. Walker caught Uribe in a rundown and erased the runner before only allowing a Jason Kipnis sac fly.

Later in the eighth inning, Naquin led off with a single with the Indians trailing by one run. Jose Ramirez then attempted a sacrifice bunt — Francona said that decision came from the dugout — but chopped it right back to the mound. Joaquin Benoit gloved it and nabbed Naquin at second base. Kipnis flew out. Francisco Lindor grounded out. And that was that.

In this case, I didn’t have an issue with the bunt strategy, but the execution was poor and cost Cleveland.

“He ended up getting to second in the inning on a wild pitch,” said Francona, referring to Ramirez. “But, you know, in a game like that, you need to do every little thing, because we were having such a tough time.”

HOME: That brings us to the seventh inning. With two outs, Uribe drew a walk against Joel Peralta. Francona made a sound decision calling upon Rajai Davis to come off the bench as a pinch-runner. Unfortunately, Davis got fooled by Peralta on an 0-1 pick-off throw to first base. Davis shifted to his right and he was dead in the water. Another rundown ensued and the Mariners got the tag on Davis for a crucial out.

“Those things [happen] when you’re trying to be aggressive, which he was,” Francona said. “Peralta kind of gave him a good [move] — kind of dropped his head. The idea was he was going to be aggressive. I know it probably doesn’t look great, but the idea was for him to be aggressive there.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 11

NapSome notes and quotes from the Indians’ 3-2 win over the Mariners on Tuesday.

FIRST: Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill and Mike Napoli were in the batting cage on the field at Progressive Field a few hours before Tuesday’s game. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo was feeding them pitches through a pitching machine, rather than throwing.

This wasn’t just a case of a coach trying to save his arm. The machine was sending pitches that broke inside on the right-handed hitters. They were sliders, as seen from a left-handed pitcher. Left-handed pitchers have been featured in surplus against Cleveland of late.

Seattle’s starter for Tuesday, Wade Miley, represented the seventh lefty starter seen by the Indians in their first 11 games. Last year, there were times where it seemed like teams purposely altered their rotations to throw lefties at the Tribe. Out of the gates this year, this feels more like a schedule-based fluke.

Manager Terry Francona sees it that way, too.

“I felt like last year, teams were trying to manipulate their rotations so we could face some lefties,” Francona said. “This year, we’re actually positioned a little bit different, where we’re OK. It’s just the luck of the draw. I haven’t seen anybody move their rotation or anything.

“And with [Michael] Brantley and [Lonnie] Chisenhall out, we have righties in their place.
It’s about the most I’ve ever seen, though. That’s for sure.”

So far, the Indians have faced David Price, John Danks, Chris Sale, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly, Steven Matz and Miley.

Cleveland tweaked its roster over the winter to hopefully improve production against lefties, but it hadn’t really worked out too well leading up to Tuesday. Right-handed hitters Marlon Byrd, Collin Cowgill, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe, for example, were a combined 5-for-58 (.086) against lefties through the Tribe’s first 10 games.

Well, things got better on Tuesday. The Indians went a combined 9-for-17 against Miley, whose first four walks of the season all came in his fourth and final inning. Two came with the bases loaded to put the Indians up 3-0. In the third, Francisco Lindor and Mike Napoli, who have both done well vs. southpaws, had back-to-back two-out doubles to put the Indians on the board.

After Miley left, M’s lefty Mike Montgomery logged 2 2/3 innings in relief.

Here is how Cleveland’s lineup fared against the left-handers on Tuesday:

Davis: 1-for-3, single, walk, RBI (4-for-25 on the year)
Kipnis: 1-for-4, infield single (5-for-26)
Lindor: 3-for-3, 2 singles, double, walk, RBI (11-for-24)
Napoli: 1-for-3, double, walk (6-for-21)
Santana: 0-for-3 (2-for-21)
Gomes: 1-for-3, single (7-for-21)
Byrd: 2-for-3, 2 singles (3-for-17)
Uribe: 1-for-3, single, walk (2-for-18)
Cowgill: 0-for-2, walk (0-for-9)

Napoli was asked what it has been like to see so many lefties out of the chute.

“It’s nice for me,” he said with a laugh. “But, yeah, it’s a little odd. You really don’t run into a streak like that. It is what it is. We’re going to see some righties and that’ll be good for our left-handed hitters.”

SECOND: The Indians flashed some strong defense on Tuesday night. More specifically, Lindor and Napoli each turned in a highlight-reel play.

Lindor’s gem came in the fifth, when Nori Aoki slapped a pitch from Carlos Carrasco into the hole. The young shortstop glided over, made a backhanded grab and did a jump throw to first base that brought flashbacks of Derek Jeter in his prime.

“That’s a tough play, especially with a speedy guy,” Napoli said. “But, he knew the runner, he knew what he had to do. His exchange was really quick and he made a nice play. He’s capable of doing that kind of stuff. It’s nice seeing it.”

Napoli’s play came in the sixth, when Robinson Cano sent a sharp grounder up the first-base line. Napoli quickly shifted to his left and made a diving snag, recovering swiftly enough to flip the ball to Carrasco at first base for the out.

“You don’t see that play too often in the hole any more,” Francona said of Lindor’s play. “And Nap has been good and continues to be. When you look at him, I’m not sure you realize how good he can move. He’s into the game and it’s been fun to watch.”

THIRD: Carrasco’s outing was not spectacular, but it was a solid performance, especially under the circumstances. He rolled his ankle upon reaching first base, while covering the bag on a play in the third inning. Carrasco stayed in the game, logged 6 1/3 innings and held Seattle to one Kyle Seager solo home run. Carrasco struck out five, walked three and scattered four hits.

(And, really, we should’ve expected that. Seager is now hitting .418 in his career at Progressive Field. And he was in an 0-for-17 slump. So, he was due.)

“[He was] good,” Francona said of Carrasco. “He kind of turned his ankle a little bit. I know it was hard for him to push off, but he continued to pitch and, besides the one pitch to Seager, he kept them off the score board. He did a really good job.”

HOME: There was plenty of groaning across social media when Francona (as he said he would) stuck with Bryan Shaw as his eighth-inning setup man on Tuesday night. And, besides a one-out double to Cano, Shaw looked sharp. He struck out one and got through the eighth unscathed, setting up the save for closer Cody Allen.

It was a great bounceback outing for Shaw, who gave up four runs in two-thirds of an inning on Saturday and five runs in two-thirds of an inning on April 9.

“Nobody’s worried about him,” Allen said of Shaw. “He’s as consistent as they come. I was in the same spot last year. It just seems, for those two outings, every time they hit the ball, they got a hit. He fell behind some guys and got hurt, but he’s as consistent as they come. His stuff is really good. It’s not like his velo is way down or anything like that. He’s
in a good spot.

“I think early in the season and then late in the season stuff gets really magnified. A full body of work is what makes guys good. And Shaw’s been really good ever since he’s got to the big leagues. I don’t think anybody is worrying about it.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 10

KluberSome notes and quotes from the Indians’ 6-0 loss to the Mets on Sunday.

FIRST: Let’s first get something out of the way: Corey Kluber was not entirely at fault for what took place at Progressive Field on Sunday.

Was Kluber at his best? Hardly. But, per usual, he had a lack of run support. And, per the unusual, the sun played an unfortunate role in ballooning his season ERA. Naturally, after rain delays, postponements and snowstorms, a sunny cloudless sky cost Cleveland a few crucial runs against New York.

“It was unfortunate that it had to turn out this way for him,” Indians center fielder Rajai Davis said of Kluber. “But this is the game of baseball, and sometimes we don’t have control over these things.”

OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, should there be some level of concern over how Kluber is pitching so far this year? Maybe. Three starts isn’t really enough to draw much of a conclusion, but it’s enough to give you things to monitor as the season progresses.

Three starts in, Kluber has displayed diminished velocity, which both he and manager Terry Francona downplayed after the loss.

“There’s maybe a couple things,” Francona said. “One, I think there’s times when mechanically he might swing open a little bit. You’d be much better to talk to [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] and Klubes about that, because I’m not very good about that. But I also think confidence plays a big part in it.

“We’ve all seen him, as he gets into a game, he gets on a roll, it seems like it creeps up. He still has the ability, when he gets going, you saw how many bats he missed. He just made some mistakes early and they made him pay for it. I’ve always felt, though, watching him pitch, as he gets going into a game his velocity can really start to creep up.”

Kluber didn’t go into much detail, other than to say: “I feel fine, so it’s probably just a little mechanical adjustment.”

KluberVelo

Kluber velocity 2014-16, entering Sunday (via brooksbaseball.net)

On Sunday, Kluber’s four-seamer (91.5 mph on average) and sinker (91.9) were both down against the Mets. Perhaps not coincidentally, New York went 7-for-15 against the right-hander’s fastballs in the win. The velo on Kluber’s curve (82.5) and cutter (88.2) were also down. As the game wore on, Kluber became more effective, and had the most success with his curve (0-for-7 with five of Kluber’s eight strikeouts).

Kluber averaged 93.6 mph in April of 2014 and posted a near-identical 93.7 average in April 2015. He’s down a little more than 1 mph so far this month.

I’m no scout, but the biggest issue that I see here is that Kluber, when he was at his peak during his 2014 Cy Young season, worked in three very distinct velocity tiers. The curve (called a slider in the above chart) came in around 82-84, the cutter came in around 88-91 and the fastball (four-seam or sinker) came in around 94-96. Combined with the movement on the three pitches, it can be a devastating arsenal that keeps hitters guessing and off-balance.

So far this season, all of Kluber’s pitches are down a touch, but what seemed most glaring on Sunday was the fact that his cutter was in same velo range as his other fastballs. While the movement is obviously different between a sinker and cutter, if they are coming in around the same range, that can only help a hitter’s timing. And, if hitters can have success against the fastballs and cutters, it hinders Kluber from getting into counts where he can put them away with his curve.

Maybe it is a mechanical issue, as Kluber and Francona said after the game. Maybe Kluber heads to the bullpen this week to work on it with Callaway and next outing he comes out looking like the starter we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the past two years. It’s not like Kluber was a complete mess Sunday. Issues out of his control played a role, and then he held New York to a 2-for-15 showing to close out his outing.

This is something worth keeping an eye on, though.

SECOND: There is no getting around the first inning. It was vintage Kluber… if we’re talking about the 2012 Kluber that put up a 10.50 first-inning ERA.

Leadoff walk to Curtis Granderson. Base hit pulled through the hole by Asdrubal Cabrera. No-doubt double by Michael Conforto, with no interference by the sun. Two batters and one mound visit from Callaway later, Lucas Duda delivered a two-run single.

There were no excuses about that game-opening sequence.

“Walking the leadoff guy is never good to start a game,” Kluber said. “But, we got a rollover ground ball from Cabby that just found a hole. I just didn’t make a good pitch to Conforto or Duda. They both drove in runs with them.”

THIRD: About the sun, though…

With two outs in the second inning, Granderson sent a pitch from Kluber to deep center field.

Now, we had already received a clue that the sun was an issue. In the first, catcher Yan Gomes went into foul ground to chase down a routine pop-up from Yoenis Cespedes. It dropped in and Gomes was (temporarily) given an error. The error was removed by the official scorer when, after looking at the replay, it was clear that Gomes couldn’t see the ball. That was, unfortunately, foreshadowing.

Davis sprinted toward the wall with his glove high in the air, and the ball dropped a few feet in front of him at the warning track. Granderson was given a triple.

“I had all the way,” Davis said. “And then as it was coming down, it came down right into the sun. I guess it was a little late to tell my left fielder, but it is what it is.”

Rather than an inning-ending catch, Davis’ troubles opened the door for the Mets. Cabrera followed with an infield dribbler, and made it to second on a throwing error by Kluber. Conforto added another double — this one bouncing off first base. And then, Cespedes sent a pitch high over center field.

Once again, Davis lifted his glove in the air to shield the blazing orb that was messing with him all afternoon. Once again, the center fielder had no shot as the ball plopped to the grass for an RBI double.

“I did see it off the bat,” Davis said. “Those are the ones you just have to play out of position to catch those balls. They’re not going to be easy balls to catch, especially with the sun out like that as high as it is, but you just have to make the adjustment, especially at this level.”

In the fifth, Marlon Byrd lost a ball in the sun in right, Davis made it there in time to make the catch, and the Cleveland crowd let out sarcastic cheers of approval.

Kluber’s pitching line now says six runs (all earned) allowed over six innings for this one. Three may never have happened had it not been for the sun. Go figure, too, considering that Davis made a catch in a snowstorm in Chicago a little over a week ago.

 

HOME: Through 10 games, the Indians have seen six left-handed starting pitchers. The latest, rookie Steven Matz, spun six shutout innings with a career-high nine strikeouts. It goes without saying that a six-run cushion after two frames helps, but the early returns against southpaws has not been great for Cleveland.

With Sunday’s showing, the Indians are now hitting .202 (34-for-168) against left-handed pitching this season. Collin Cowgill, Juan Uribe, Byrd and Davis — all with a solid track record against lefties — have gone a combined 5-for-59 (.085) against left-handers so far this year. Indians need that to turn around in a big way.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 9

HarveySome notes and quotes from the Indians’ 7-5 win over the Mets on Saturday.

FIRST: It’s rare to start thinking a no-hitter might be in play after one inning, but Mets righty Matt Harvey looked that good out of the chute on Saturday.

Rajai Davis, Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor saw a combined 10 pitches in the first, which went strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. Kudos to Davis for actually taking a ball in his at-bat.

The rest of the pitches had the same sequence: called strike, fouled strike, swinging strike. Smell ya later.

“That first at bat,” Lindor said. “Strike one, strike two, strike three.”

The strikeouts didn’t continue like that, but Harvey was no less dominant into the fifth inning. Cleveland went 0-for-13 against the Mets ace before Carlos Santana drew a five-pitch walk. And that, my friends, is where things began to tilt in Cleveland’s favor.

You’ll remember Jose Ramirez’s RBI double to break up the no-hitter two batters later. Or the run-scoring hits by Juan Uribe (single), Kipnis (double), Mike Napoli (single) and Yan Gomes (single). It’d be easy to lose sight of the walk that got things rolling.

“Nothing gets lost,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Why was that free pass so critical?

Let’s let Davis explain…

“I think he was very effective in the wind-up,” Davis said. “Getting him in the stretch, he’s a different pitcher. I think he was very good out of the wind-up. Deceptive. Everything.”

Consider that the Indians went 1-for-14 against Harvey when he was working out of the wind-up on Saturday. When he was forced to move to the stretch, Cleveland went 5-for-8 with three walks, two steals, two doubles and five runs. Davis said getting Harvey into the stretch wasn’t a huge part of the pregame planning, but more of an in-game development that the Tribe exploited.

“He was just comfortable,” Davis said. “And he hadn’t been in the stretch pretty much all game. And once he got in the stretch, it was like an opening for us. And our guys did a good job of taking care of that.”

SECOND: Santana not only made an impact with his patience, the designated hitter showed off his speed in the fifth inning, too. Yeah, you read that right.

After Harvey walked Santana, he induced a flyout off the bat of Napoli. With two outs and Ramirez at the plate, Santana caught the Mets by surprise by stealing second base. It marked his first steal of the season, but don’t forget he swiped 11 bags last year.

“I think he can run,” Davis said. “He’s got some good speed. I think he can do that a few more times this year. Just keep surprising the defense. They didn’t really think he was going.”

Davis paused and then smiled.

“And neither did we.”

Francona praised first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. for his input and help when it comes to the Tribe’s players stealing bases.

“I thought Carlos’ was obviously huge at the time,” Francona said. “And Sandy gets a lot of credit for helping those guys down there. That was fun to watch.”

THIRD: Josh Tomlin, who hadn’t started for the Indians since March 29, gave a gutsy performance in his season debut. The righty lasted five innings, limiting the Mets to one run (via a leadoff homer by Curtis Granderson in the first) on four hits. Tomlin ended with six strikeouts and no walks in the effort.

Tomlin could have gone longer, but he was dealing with leg cramps from roughly the third inning on, per Francona. After one warm-up pitch before the top of the sixth inning, Tomlin grabbed at his right hamstring and left the game. After the win, Francona and Tomlin both indicated that it wasn’t serious.

“I don’t know if it was just the adrenaline of not pitching for that long,” Tomlin, “but my hamstring kept grabbing at me. I knew it wasn’t anything serious like a pull. It was just cramping up on me when I followed through. That last inning when I went out there, it grabbed at me and stayed there. It wouldn’t really release.”

JRamHOME: Long-time Indians beat scribe Paul Hoynes calls Jose Ramirez, “Boom Boom,” and it fits given Ramirez’s style of play. Ramirez goes all out and has learned to better control what looks like reckless aggression at times. As Francona said once, if Ramirez’s helmet is flying off — and it has been a lot of late — good things are usually happening.

Ramirez has been worked into the lineup on a regular basis — mostly in left field, but also at third base. On Saturday, for example, he began in left field and moved up to third later in the game after Francona changed the alignment after using a pinch-runner.

“Versatility,” said Lindor, when asked what Ramirez brings to the table. “He’s a switch-hitter. He can run, he can play defense, he can play outfield, he can in the infield, and
he is performing well. The opportunity they are giving him, he is performing very, very well. I wish he could continue to do that, because he’s helping us win.”

Boom Boom broke up Harvey’s no-hitter with a double to center field in the fifth inning. In the sixth, he waited on a deep fly ball from David Wright that caromed high off the left-field wall. Ramirez played it perfectly and made a quick spin-and-fire relay to second baseman Jason Kipnis, who tagged Wright for the out.

EXTRAS: Whether it’s 3 1/3 shutout innings or 3 1/3 awful innings, 3 1/3 innings is far too small a sample to draw any clear conclusions. Here’s what we can say about Bryan Shaw’s performance to date: It’s concerning.

Shaw has two good outings and two really, really ugly outings. On Saturday, working with a 7-1 lead, the setup man allowed four runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning. He allowed two more homers. On the young season, Shaw has allowed nine runs on eight hits, including three long balls. His velocity is actually up a tick from last year, so this appears to be more of a command issue at the moment.

“It just looks like he’s searching a little bit for the strike zone,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said after the game. “Any time you’re searching for the strike zone,
hoping you throw a strike, bad things are going to happen. He needs to get aggressive, throw the ball over the plate with conviction and live with the results.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

 

Cody Anderson’s horse tale

Cody Anderson walked over from his locker in the White Sox clubhouse on Sunday morning and smiled.

“I think I’ve got a name picked out,” he said.

If you haven’t heard, Anderson recently became the proud owner of a horse.

On Wednesday night in Arizona, Anderson’s quarter horse was born at the ranch he has frequented for the past couple of springs.

Tom and Margaret Bartol run the ranch, where they train and tend to racehorses and other animals. When he isn’t at Cleveland’s complex in Spring Training, Anderson spends his time there, riding horses, roping and helping out. It serves as his escape from the daily grind and stress.

This spring, I tagged along with Anderson to the ranch for a day, along with an MLB.com crew, to feature his unique preseason routine. Follow the link below to check it out.

Anderson’s new horse will remain at the ranch under the Bartol’s care for about a year. The pitcher plans to eventually send the horse, which Anderson hopes to train for rodeos rather than racing, to a ranch run by a friend of his in Oregon.

“He breaks horses,” Anderson said. “So, I’ll get him up there and he’ll find out what he’s good at.”

In the meantime, Anderson needs to come up with a name — four names, actually. Within the first year, he has to submit four name ideas to the American Quarter Horse Association, which will approve one. What potential name had Anderson excited on Sunday morning?

“Little rig,” he said with a grin. “They call me, ‘Big rig.’ So, when I’m riding him, and people say, ‘Hey, Big rig, what’s his name?’ It’s, ‘Little rig.'”

Perfect.

Tyler Naquin — one of Anderson’s closest friends — said someone had another good idea on social media.

“Somebody on Twitter tweeted at him and said name it, ‘Tyler Neigh-quin,'” he said with a laugh.

Groan.

Naquin has also headed to the Bartol’s ranch with Anderson from time to time during Spring Training. The rookie outfielder said it was exciting when he and Anderson both made the Opening Day roster for the Indians. Beyond the Naquin and Anderson families, the Bartols also shared in the moment.

“They’re like second parents to us,” Naquin said. “They’re awesome. They were very excited.”

Anderson smiled when asked how the Bartols reacted to the news.

“Oh man, it was awesome,” said the pitcher. “They were thrilled. We went out to dinner to celebrate. Margaret was glad we both made it, so she doesn’t have to try to to watch two games. Now, she only has to watch Indians games.”

–JB

 

Covering the Bases: Game 4

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

Some quotes and notes from the Indians’ 7-3 loss to the White Sox on Saturday in Chicago.

FIRST: Reliever Joe Smith used to joke with reporters in Cleveland that we only ever interviewed him after he blew a game. Now, Smith was (still is) one of the best in terms of dealing with media, so it was a jab at us, but one made with a smirk.

A few seasons back, one local writer made a point to “interview” Smith before each game, even if it was just one question. It became a running gag, so a few of us would join in sometimes for scrums that would wind up just being bull sessions. Whether recorders were on or off, Smith was great to just talk shop with in his time with the Tribe.

Now, there’s some truth to what Smith said. Starting pitchers know that they’ll talk to reporters after each outing. Position players can expect to be interviewed after games both good and bad. Closers might get swarmed after a big save. Other relievers tend to get lost in the interview shuffle.

So, it came as no surprise that Bryan Shaw was a little miffed when media approached him after Saturday’s loss. The righty allowed a career-worst five runs in the seventh inning to not just erase Cleveland’s lead, but blow the door wide open for Chicago. He did have a clean inning of work on Wednesday, but Saturday marked the first time reporters stuck out the microphones and hoisted the cameras.

“You guys only want to talk to me when I [pitch bad],” said Shaw, but with a couple expletives mixed in. “Nobody wants to come up to me when I do good.”

Shaw is hardly the first reliever to make this complaint, and he will be far from the last one to do so. It comes with the territory of being in a bullpen.

I will note, however, that it’s not the case across the board. It just might sometimes feel like it, since the bad outings always stick out more in the memory than the good days. For example, reporters in Chicago chatted with Trevor Bauer after his two-inning appearance on Friday night. It was a strong bounceback outing, so we felt it was a good chance to talk to Bauer about his progress. You have to pick your spots. Unfortunately, Shaw found a really rough spot two outings into the season.

Now, the Indians have seen Shaw recover from such performances in the past. Shoot, two springs in a row now he’s had a rocky showing right out of the chute. Then, he settles in and gives Cleveland a durable arm to help set things up for closer Cody Allen. Over the past two years combined, Shaw has a 2.76 ERA in 154 games (140 1/3 innings). That’s pretty good. Last year, Shaw posted a 5.06 ERA in his first 10 games, and then spun a 1.19 ERA through the end of July. August and September had a couple tough days, but nothing like Saturday.

To Shaw’s credit, following his initial reaction to reporters — one that may have been a mix of sarcasm and seriousness — he was accountable and offered no excuses for his performance. Said Shaw: “It’s just one of those things. I wasn’t locating real well and kind of leaving pitches middle. The balls were over the plate. I wasn’t attacking like I should have and obviously we saw what happened.”

Maybe he’ll get on a roll now for the Tribe. If he does, you can bet we’ll be looking into what’s working for him, whether through pitching coach Mickey Callaway, manager Terry Francona or Shaw.

“Talk to you in three months,” he said as reporters walked away.

SECOND: Over the past few seasons, Shaw has been Francona’s primary eighth-inning arm. On Saturday, though, Tito handed the right-hander the ball in the seventh, even when he had fellow righty Zach McAllister warming and available.

Francona’s reasoning was based on the matchups.

The top of the White Sox order was due up in the seventh and Shaw had better success than McAllister against the hitters at the top. Leadoff man Austin Jackson, for example, was 9-for-18 against McAllister, compared to 2-for-7 against Shaw. The first seven batters were 6-for-35 (.171) combined against Shaw, and 15-for-36 (.417) against McAllister. I know, I know. Sample size alert! But, that played into Francona’s thinking.

“Zach and Shaw were going to throw the seventh and eighth,” Francona said. “And it just seemed like it was backwards to me. … Obviously, it didn’t work, but I would’ve felt worse if I wouldn’t have done that. I just thought it was the right thing to do. It could’ve very easily been, Zach could’ve come in and got them out, but in my mind, Shaw was facing the guys he was supposed to.”

Here is how the inning unfolded…

Austin Jackson: Single to left
Jimmy Rollins: Double to left
Jose Abreu: Intetional walk
Todd Frazier: Fielder’s choice 6-4 groundout (run scores)
Melky Cabrera: Single to right (run scores)
Brett Lawrie: Flyout to center
Avisail Garcia: Home run (three runs score)

Francona said he did not consider pulling Shaw in the stretch leading up to Garcia’s three-run home run.

“Not there,” Francona said, “because again, besides falling behind, which a lot of pitchers were, his stuff was fine. We wanted him facing those guys. Garcia hit the home run, but he had been 0-for-8 with three strikeouts, so he had handled the guys he was facing.”

Shaw worked the count full three times — at-bats that resulted in two hits and a run-scoring groundout. He was struggling to command his pitches, but didn’t blame the near-freezing conditions in Chicago.

“I was trying to nibble too much,” Shaw said. “And when I wasn’t nibbling, I was throwing it down the middle. It was just one of those days.”

THIRD: The seventh-inning collapse canceled out the solid work by the Indians’ offense in the sixth and seventh innings.

The first 20 batters to face White Sox ace Chris Sale went 2-for-18 with five strikeouts and seven groundouts. Then, with two outs in the sixth, Francisco Lindor singled and Mike Napoli drilled a two-run home run. One frame later, Yan Gomes led off with a home run to push the Indians to a 3-2 lead.

Francona enjoyed seeing that fight in his offense against a great pitcher.

“Like Nap can do, he can change the game with one swing,” Francona said. “It was exciting. I know it didn’t end like we wanted it to, but that’s nice to see us claw back like that. Sale was starting to kick it in gear. You could tell he was starting to smell it a little bit. He had a little extra on it those last couple innings he pitched.”

HOME: The other negative result of the meltdown was that righty Cody Anderson was saddled with a no-decision.

Anderson worked six innings, limiting Chicago to two runs on six hits and ending with two strikeouts and a pair of walks. It was a very Cody Anderson-esque outing. He gave up a solo homer to Abreu in the third and surrendered a run-scoring single to Alex Avila in the fourth. That was it.

What was encouraging about Anderson’s outing was that — as has been the theme early on in this week’s frigid temperatures — he was working without his sharpest stuff.

“It’s pretty tough, but we knew that coming in,” Anderson said of pitching in the cold. “Yesterday, playing catch, you knew that. I just had a little bit of a tough time there at the beginning getting the ball down. But, overall, it wasn’t too bad. I was pretty pleased with the results, as far as the start went. But, I could’ve made some better pitches.”

On top of his command issues early on, the defense was kicking the ball around (including a throwing error by Anderson). The fact that the White Sox only led by two through five innings seemed lucky for Cleveland.

“We didn’t make all the plays, but kind of like Cody [does], he didn’t get rattled,” Francona said.  He kept it in check, made some pitches with men on base and gave us a chance where, all of a sudden Nap hits the two-run homer and then Gomer hits the solo, and we actually got a lead.

“So, I think it says a lot about Cody and his ability to manage a game and manage the weather, all the things that are thrown at you.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 3

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

Some quotes and notes from the Indians’ 7-1 victory over the White Sox on Friday afternoon in Chicago.

FIRST: After arriving at my hotel this morning, I had two orders of business. First and foremost, I needed a large coffee. Next, I needed to go buy a winter hat, because it was cold and snowing in Chicago. The good news is you can find great deals on winter hats in April!

Needless to say, it figured to be an interesting day weather-wise for the Tribe. Sure enough, it was snowing a few hours before the game. But, then it cleared up and the tarp came off. And after the national anthem, which included military members wrestling with the oversized American flag — nearly pulled away by the wintry winds — it began snowing again.

It was more of the same during the game: Snow. Sun. Snow. Sun. Snow.

“It was a little bit weird, first time pitching in really cold weather,” Indians righty Danny Salazar said. “And then it was snowing.”

The elements make it tough to get a solid read on Salazar’s performance. We can say this: it was an admirable outing of survival. The right-hander allowed only one run (on a solo homer by Todd Frazier) and scattered two hits. He struck out seven and walked three. And he did all of that by mostly sticking with fastballs (75 between his four-seamer and two-seamer, per PITCHf/x).

Here’s the catch: Salazar had a tough time commanding his fastball. And the weather made things even harder for his secondary pitches. The pitcher said his four-seamer, especially, was problematic in the cold climate.

“That’s a pitch that you just throw it,” he explained, “and you don’t have to do anything different with your hand. So, it’s a little bit hard sometimes, because if you squeeze it too much, you’re going to throw it in the dirt. It was hard to control it. I tried to mix it with my two-seam, when I was throwing the four-seam up. Then, I told [catcher Yan Gomes], ‘I’ll try to throw a two-seam and come back in the count again.’ And it worked.”

A sign of a maturing pitcher is turning in a solid outing even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. On the surface, that’s what this looked like, but manager Terry Francona said it was not that cut-and-dry in this case.

“I think it was not so much maybe not having his best stuff,” Francona said. “I just think the elements kind of play into it — trying to grip the ball and staying loose and stuff. But, he kept them off the scoreboard. He needs to work ahead, and he knows all those things, but we’ll take it. Fighting through a day like today, I know it’s cold, but it feels colder when you’re losing.”

SECOND: Pour one out for the three-inning save. It’s a dying art and we were robbed of seeing one on Friday.

Now, this is where I’ll drop the act and say that the save, in general, is not a great statistic. It’s a great moneymaker for players come the offseason, but there are a lot of flaws to it, and you could argue that the stat has hurt how bullpens are used. Saying that, I also place little to no value on the three-inning variety of the save, other than that I find it neat. Remember the Rangers’ 30-3 romp over the Orioles in 2007? Never forget that Wes Littleton logged a save in that game. A save in a 27-run victory!

When Trevor Bauer took over in the seventh inning, and proceeded to retire six batters in a row through the eighth, we had the possibility of seeing a three-inning save. Alas, Francona handed the ball to Dan Otero, who worked the ninth and got rewarded with a “game finished” for his stats page.

Do you remember the last three-inning save by an Indians pitcher? Try lefty Scott Barnes, who had one on May 23, 2013 for the Tribe. Since 2000, only three other Cleveland pitchers have a three-inning save: Luis Vizcaino (May 27, 2009), Aaron Laffey (May 6, 2009) and Steve Karsay (May 5, 2001).

All of this aside, it was nice to see two strong innings from Bauer, who is still getting used to life out in the bullpen.

“It’s always good to pitch well,” Bauer said. “Anytime you have a positive one, you celebrate it and it’s nice that it came in a team win. … I hope to get back to starting at some point, so I’ll try to pitch as well as I can every time I go out there. But, that doesn’t change regardless of what my role is.”

Said Francona: “Trevor did a really good job. Really, two innings of just really pounding the zone. He really threw the ball well.”

THIRD: With a runner on first and two outs in the fifth inning, Chicago’s Adam Eaton connected with a pitch from Salazar? Or did he? The ball went into stealth mode after it left the bat, toying with center fielder Rajai Davis.

Let’s have Davis walk you through what wound up being an incredible catch:

“Right before that pitch, I could see that the snow started coming down really, really hard. And it was really cloudy there, too. So, it was kind of tough to pick up the ball. Once he swung, I saw his swing, but I didn’t see any [trajectory]. I didn’t see the ball do anything. It seemed like it was all cloudy in the back and gray, so the ball kind of blended in. And then, once I looked in and saw everybody looking at me, I knew that ball was coming my way. So, I just looked up and it happened to be in the blue sky. It got over the stadium and I was able to track it down. I lost it with the snow and everything. There was a lot of snow.”

Davis also delivered a triple in the second and scored on a Jason Kipnis sacrifice fly. It was nice to see the center fielder’s speed come into play on the bases and also in the field. His legs bailed him out on the play in the fifth.

HOME: Francona said Gomes and first baseman Mike Napoli have been discussing and strategizing pick-off plays since Spring Training. We saw the result of their preparation in the second inning.

After Salazar issued back-to-back one-out walks to Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia, he worked ahead, 0-1, against Brett Lawrie. On the next pitch — a swinging strike — Gomes swiftly fired the ball up the first-base line to Napoli, who made a quick tag on Garcia, who wandered too far off the base and stood no chance in his retreat.

Even Salazar was caught off-guard.

“That was amazing,” Salazar said. “I know he gave Napoli an eye or something, to be there. It got me. I was surprised. I didn’t think he was going to throw there, but he did and he got the out. That was huge.”

Salazar then struck out Lawrie to end the inning. After the rally was effectively snuffed out, Salazar bounded off the mound and went straight for his catcher. He high-fived Gomes and gave him a celebratory slap on the shoulder.

“It’s communication between both of them,” Francona said of Gomes and Napoli. “Both of them have to be on the same page, because Nap can’t vacate. But, they did a really good job.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 2

Mike NapoliPostgame quotes and notes on Cleveland’s 7-6 victory over Boston on Wednesday night.

FIRST: If this is what the four-five combination of Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana looks like this season, I think Indians fans will start feeling better about this Tribe lineup.

“Those are two big bats,” said rookie Tyler Naquin.

(More on him in a bit)

In Wednesday’s win, Santana capped off a four-run outburst with a towering blast to the bullpens in center field. He even did a little celebratory dance in the dugout with Jason Kipnis. Santana later slashed a pitch to left-center, and turned it into a hustle double. He added his obligatory walk in the seventh.

As for Napoli, he also drew a walk — ahead of Santana’s towering blast in the first. Following a couple groundouts, which came while Cleveland’s pitching was trying to stave off a Boston rally with little luck, Napoli came through again. In the seventh, with the game caught in a 6-6 deadlock, he put a pitch in the bleachers for a go-ahead, solo homer.

“We’re all going to have to work together as a group,” Napoli said. “It can’t be just me and him. If we do the little things as a group, we’re going to be able to scrap away runs for our great pitching staff.”

Those little things were on display, as they were within the Indians’ lone inning of scoring on Tuesday. Jose Ramirez scored from first on a Jason Kipnis double in the first inning. Santana turned a sure single into that bang-bang double. Yan Gomes went first to third on a Marlon Byrd single in the sixth, setting up a sac fly by Juan Uribe. Rajai Davis stole a base (and nearly two, had it not been for a replay misstep by manager Terry Francona).

Santana said hustling and playing hard has to be the team’s blueprint.

“If you don’t play hard, my teammates will motivate me to play hard every day,” he said. “I’m worrying about winning. If you hustle, and all the players hustle, we’ll be fine.”

SECOND: Naquin got his first start in the Majors on Wednesday and collected the first hit of his career. It was a memorable one, too. Facing Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz, Naquin saw nine pitches in his first at-bat, fouling off four in the battle before yanking a pitch through the hole for a single to right field.

“I’m sure that he probably barely touched the ground going to first,” Francona said. “Good for him. I’m sure that was very exciting for him.”

Consider that confirmed.

“Honestly, I didn’t even really feel myself touch first base,” Naquin said with a smile. “It’s just a great feeling, a very exciting moment for myself and my family.”

Naquin said Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts — “All classy dudes,” per the outfielder — congratulated him after he reached base. As for the baseball?

“I’m not real sure,” Naquin said. “But it’s definitely going to go home back to Texas.”

THIRD: Lost in the wake of this win was a subpar outing by right-hander Carlos Carrasco. It wasn’t as cold as Tuesday, but there were still unpredictable winds and some light rain toying with the players on Wednesday. Carrasco allowed four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings. He struck out five and walked one.

Carrasco also gave up three home runs, including back-to-back shots to David Ortiz and Ramirez in the sixth inning. Apparently, Big Papi’s farewell tour includes one homer per game for the fans.

“They hit some balls pretty hard,” Francona said. “And the ballpark, uncharacteristic for this time of year, was playing pretty small tonight. Balls were flying all over the place. They squared up a lot of balls. We wanted him to get through two hitters in the sixth and he gave up two home runs. So, so much for that.”

HOME: You have to give it to the Tribe tonight. This one felt like one of those games the team would lose a year ago. After taking an early lead, mistakes in the field and some missteps on the mound helped Boston run to a 6-5 lead by the sixth inning. Obviously, I’m generalizing here, but it felt like there were times last year where a mid-game collapse like that would sink Cleveland last year. That made tonight’s win an encouraging one.

There were a few rough moments along the way, though.

After the back-to-back homers in the sixth, Chris Young sent a flyball to left-center field. Left fielder Jose Ramirez and Naquin — with 16 combined innings in the Majors before today (thanks, Zack Meisel, for the quick research) — sprinted toward each other and then… stopped. The baseball plopped in and Young got a “double.”

What looked like miscommunication, though, was more about the elements.

“It was rainy and windy at that moment,” Naquin said. “I even asked Jose. He said, ‘Me no see.’ I said, ‘Me neither, bud.’ We saw it probably four feet above our heads. By that time, it was too late.”

Ross Detwiler followed with two walks and allowed a sac fly to Jackie Bradley. That set up a go-ahead groundout off the bat of Mookie Betts. Third baseman Juan Uribe gloved the chopper, but rather than look Brock Holt back to third, Uribe threw across the diamond for the out at first. Holt, without being challenged, scored easily to put Boston ahead.

“It looked like he kind of realized that he needed to look somebody back,” Francona said, “but he actually looked the other way. Yeah, that was a big play.”

Another mistake came in the eighth, when it looked like Davis and Francisco Lindor pulled off a double steal. Davis made a head-first slide into third and appeared to touch the base before being tagged. Francona moved to the top step, but did not challenge the play. Really, there was no reason not to challenge it, but the manager said — unlike the fly ball — this one was miscommunication.

“That was on me,” Francona said. “I misheard and by the time I realized, it was too late. That’s on me, that’s a bad mistake.”

EXTRAS: We can’t close this one out without mentioning the adventurous final play of the game. With Cleveland up by one and two outs in the books, it was closer Cody Allen against Big Papi. It was a grab-your-popcorn moment for fans.

“I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all,” Napoli said with a smirk. “He’s a great hitter and he can pop it out of the park at any time. And it looks like he’s got some swag going right now and feels good.”

Ortiz took a mighty swing and sent the baseball through the swirling winds to deep left field. Ramirez zigged and zagged and finally stabbed at the line drive at the wall, making a circus catch for the game’s final out. Ramirez pumped his arms in the air after the grab, which sealed the win and a save for Allen.

“Everybody was a little scared,” Santana said. “He did a good job.”

Francona was asked if his heart skipped a beat.

“It skipped a beat a few times tonight,” he said. “It might have even stopped.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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