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Covering the Bases: Game 70

SwisherShotFinal: Indians 3, Red Sox 2 (11 innings)

FIRST: Can one swing turn things around for Nick Swisher? Cleveland can sure dream about that possibility after his go-ahead blast against Boston in the 11th inning on Sunday afternoon.

When the baseball rocketed off Swisher’s bat, he stood in the box and watched it for a moment. It carried down the line and hooked around Pesky’s Pole for a leadoff shot off Red Sox righty Junichi Tazawa. Swisher was asked if he hesitated out of the box because he wasn’t sure it was a home run.

“I knew it was,” he replied with a smirk.

Swish was then asked if he was just enjoying the moment. At that, he laughed his best Brohio laugh.

“It was just one of those days,” Swisher said. “This year has kind of been crazy for me personally. So, just in general, just to be able to come up with a huge hit like that, help this team win a ballgame, especially here, Father’s Day, getaway game, we’re heading back home to where we feel extremely comfortable, man, it was crucial. I was so stoked, man. I wanted to smile all the way around the bases.”

Heading into that at-bat, Swisher was in a 1-for-12 funk at the plate since coming off the disabled list. Even after the decisive shot into the seats, Swisher is only batting .207 on the season. You’ll have to excuse the Red Sox for going right after Swisher in that situation.

“We’re challenging him,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said, “given his four previous at-bats on the day and maybe some of the inconsistencies he’s had during the season. We got beat on it.”

Swisher said he can lean on his track record, knowing he has the ability to bounce back and give the Indians a solid showing by the end of the season. He pointed to last season, when he dealt with a shoulder injury that affected his performance. By September, Swisher snapped out of a multi-month slump and helped the Tribe reach the playoffs.

“Last year, I had to deal with a little bit of something,” Swisher said. “This year, I’m doing the same thing. My second half last year, I really, really turned it on. That’s kind of what it’s seeming to turn out like again. I think just in general, I’m just trying to get the rhythm of the game, man.”

To Swisher’s point, he turned in a .238/.345/.387/.732 slash line in his first 82 games (354 plate appearances) in 2013. After that, he posted a .244/.336/466/.801 slash line in his final 63 games (280 plate appearances. Over his final 22 games in September, Swisher hit .294/.380/.588/.968 with seven homers, 11 extra-base hits, 13 walks, 15 runs and 17 RBIs.

“We all have confidence in Swish,” Indians starter Corey Kluber said. “I think we all have the feeling that it’s going to come around. I mean, when you have that kind of track record, it’s not an accident. I don’t think you suddenly forget what got you to that point. So, hopefully this is kind of that building block.”

Swisher certainly looked like himself on that last swing in the 11th inning.

“I’m just going up there, man, and just taking my swing,” Swisher said. “I’m not trying to manipulate stuff and punch balls to left field, man. That’s not my style. I’m a guy that, I’ll walk a lot, I’ll strike out a lot, I’ll hit you some home runs and I’ll bring a lot of energy. Just getting back to being me is my main focus.”

SECOND: Dr. Smooth continued his All-Star candidacy campaign on Sunday. In the first inning, Michael Brantley flashed both his offensive and defensive value to the Indians.

Brantley began his 2-for-4 showing with a two-out solo home run off Red Sox right-hander Brandon Workman three batters into the afternoon. It marked his team-leading 11th home run of the season. That also established a new career best for Brantley with only 92 games to play. You can bet Brantley has hit sights on his dad Mickey’s career-best 15 (set in 1988 with Seattle).

In the home half of the first inning, David Ortiz sent a pitch from Kluber scraping high off the Green Monster for an RBI single. Big Papi wanted more, which hasn’t been the wisest move on plays involving Brantley this season. Ortiz tried to stretch his hit into a double, but Brantley played the carom perfectly and rifled a throw to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Ortiz was nabbed and Brantley was credited with his eighth assist of the season (second among American League outfielders).

On the season, Brantley now has a .322/.390/.519 slash line to go along with nine stolen bases, 24 walks, 29 extra-base hits, 45 RBIs and 49 runs scored in 68 games. Since his average dipped to .301 on June 3, Brantley has hit .422 (19-for-45) with two homers, four doubles, four RBIs and 11 runs in 11 games. Since his average hit a season-low .253 on April 28, he’s hit .361 (61-for-169) with seven homers, 13 doubles, one triple, 26 RBIs and 36 runs in 42 games.

THIRD: Cleveland didn’t have the best outing from Kluber (“‘Sloppy’ might be a good word,” said the pitcher.) or from its offense (0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and 10 runners stranded). Dating back to Friday, the Indians have actually experienced an 0-for-20 slump with RISP. Somehow, they’ve still managed a pair of wins in the past two games.

“Being able to pull out two big wins,” reliever Cody Allen said, “it’s a great way to end the road trip.”

Allen, along with the rest of the bullpen, played a big role on Sunday. Allen handled the final two innings, keeping his pitch count low enough in the 10th to come back for the ninth.

Lefty Marc Rzepczynski entered in relief of Kluber in the sixth and promptly induced an inning-ending groundout from A.J. Pierzynski, who remains 0-for-Rzepczynski in his career. Righty Bryan Shaw then turned in a clean seventh. The ninth was patched together by John Axford and Scott Atchison, though an escape act was necessary.

Axford walked the bases full with two outs, but saying that on its own isn’t fair to the reliever. The righty did begin to reel it in and home-plate umpire Chris Guccione had some questionable calls (Said Francona: “I thought Gooch missed a couple pitches.”) along the way. Atchison took over with two outs and the bags full and got Brock Holt to ground out. It was a high chopper and took a great play by second baseman Jason Kipnis.

“There was a lot of good pitching,” Francona said.

HOME: Lonnie Chisenhall received a day of rest in the opener of the series in Boston after having played a long stretch of consecutive games, during which he was thrust into the national spotlight and was crushed with media requests in the days following his three-homer, five-hit, nine-RBI showing last Monday in Texas.

Across Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Chisenhall then went 0-for-10 to have his batting average drop down to .371 (gasp!).

Against lefty Craig Breslow in the 10th inning on Sunday, Francona pulled Chisenhall in favor of pinch-hitter Mike Aviles with runners on first and second base, two outs and the game stuck in a 2-2 deadlock. Chisenhall was 0-for-3 in his career against Breslow and 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in the game. Aviles, who hits right-handed, was 2-for-6 in his career against Breslow.

Aviles grounded out against Breslow, whose lefty-righty splits are essentially even, but Francona felt it was the appropriate move.

“Mikey had swung the bat good against him in the past,” Francona explained. “And Lonnie is just going through a little stretch where he’s not seeing it quite as good as he’s been, which I think is realistic. I mean, my goodness. Lonnie will be right back in there [Monday].”

EXTRA: Let’s take another moment to appreciate Carlos Santana’s continued improvement in the batter’s box. The first baseman (he certainly doesn’t seem to be a backup catcher or third baseman at the moment) went 3-for-5 on Sunday. He is now batting .340 (16-for-47) with three homers, four doubles, eight runs, 12 walks and 12 RBIs in his past 14 games. Since being activated from the concussion list, Santana has hit .343 (12-for-35) with four extra-base hits, six walks and eight RBIs in 10 games. After Sunday’s showing, he’s hitting .190. Yes, that’s brutal on an overall scale, and strictly in terms of batting average. It’s also the first time he’s hit as high as .190 since April 11 (.194). Santana seems to be chipping away. That is a great development for the Tribe.

Sunday coverage:

On deck:

Angels (37-30)* at Indians (35-35)
at 7:05  p.m. ET  Monday at Progressive Field

*doesn’t include Sunday night game

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 69

614KipnisFinal: Indians 3, Red Sox 2

FIRST: It is extremely difficult to win a game in the manner the Indians did on Saturday. We’ll get to the details of this scratch-and-claw victory in a second, though.

First, let’s take a moment — in this season chalk full of defensive miscues — to appreciate a gorgeous play that helped Cleveland clinch its trip to the win column.

“I thought Kip made a play off Ortiz’s ball that saved the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

That’d be Tribe second baseman Jason Kipnis, who did indeed make a stellar play in the eighth inning against Boston slugger David Ortiz. With the shift in place, Kipnis was playing more toward first, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was on the right side of second base and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall was shaded toward second in shortstop territory.

With Cleveland clinging to a 3-2 lead, reliever Bryan Shaw issued a leadoff walk to Dustin Pedroia. That set up the clash with Ortiz, who had a game-changing homer on Thursday, three walks Friday and an RBI double off the wall in right already on Saturday.

“The inning didn’t obviously start the way we wanted it to,” Kipnis said. “Shaw could tell you that. You can’t come out and throw balls like that and just let them right on base. You’ve got to make them earn it.”

Shaw was bailed out when Ortiz drilled a 3-1 pitch into the shift and at Kipnis, who snared the ball after it took a sharp hop to the second baseman’s right. As Kipnis prepared to throw to second, Cabrera dropped to the dirt to avoid the baseball. Chisenhall — once a shortstop — handled the relay well and fired it to first to complete the double play.

“That’s a rocket,” Francona said.

“He hit it pretty hard,” Kipnis agreed. “The thing was the top spin on it — just getting the ball. As long as you can field it, you guys know as well as I do, you’ve got some time with him going down the [line].”

There were some chuckles among the press corps at that point, so the savvy Kipnis quickly corrected what could have been perceived as a shot at Big Papi’s “speed.”

“No,” Kipnis said, “usually, it’s because all he has to do is jog for most of his hits. He’s one of those guys where, he hits the ball so hard, you have a lot of time.”

Nice save, Kip.

SECOND: Now, back to where we started. This was a rare win for Cleveland in terms of how it was accomplished.

The Indians went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and finished with 13 runners left on base. The Tribe had four bases-loaded situations (granted, each came with two outs) and the only run produced out of that came via a walk from Carlos Santana in the seventh. Cleveland’s other runs came courtesy of 1) an RBI double from Asdrubal Cabrera, who was promptly thrown out trying to advance to third, and 2) a missed-catch error by Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, allowing Cabrera to score from third in the seventh.

Hey, whatever works, right?

“We’re going to have to win some games like that,” Francona said. “You face good pitching, good bullpens, teams that play good defense. There’s all kinds of reasons.”

That said, this marked the first time since Aug. 19, 1984 that the Indians won a game with no more than three runs scored, along with at least 13 runners stranded and at least an 0-for-11 showing with runners in scoring position. Cleveland did so against the Brewers in that game 30 years ago. Don Sutton was on the mound for the Brewers, who also had former Indians Rick Manning in center field for that game, which was the second tilt of a double header.

The Indians aren’t going to complain about how they got the win. After losing four in a row, Cleveland was content with how things went.

“This is a good win,” Kipnis said. “This is a win we haven’t had in the last couple games. Usually, when we strand a lot of the runners and don’t come up with the big hit, we’re usually on the down side of things. … A win is a win, but after the little skid we’ve been going through, to have this kind of win is what we needed.”

THIRD: To pick up such a win, it obviously takes a solid effort on the pitching side of things. Lefty T.J. House looked a little shaky in the first inning, but he recovered nicely and lasted two batters and one out into the sixth inning for the Tribe. House wound up being charged with two runs, though the second came following his trip to the showers.

With a runner on third and one out in the sixth, Francona turned to reliever John Axford to face Mike Napoli. After falling behind, 3-0, Axford worked the count full before walking Napoli. The first reaction after the walk from Axford might be to think, “Oh, no, here he goes again.” In this case, though, a walk wasn’t a terrible end result. In fact, it potentially sets up a double play with Jonny Gomes (.167 vs. RHP, entering Saturday) at the plate.

“[Napoli] is a good curveball hitter,” Axford said. “So, I was trying to throw a slider to start him off and get him to roll over, keep the ball on the infield rather than something in the air. When I fell behind, it was a matter of nibbling at that point, making sure I wasn’t going to give him something too good. Since I didn’t have the slider at that point, it was a matter of trying to keep things away from him a little bit.

“That 3-2 pitch, I was going to make sure it was off the plate. If he was going to swing, he was going to swing. If not, at least we have a double play in order.”

Axford got his grounder, but it wasn’t hit hard enough to Cabrera to make for a tailor-made twin killing. The shortstop got the out at first, but Gomes narrowly beat the throw to first, allowing Dustin Pedroia to score from third base.

No harm done in the end. Axford, Kyle Crockett, Shaw and Cody Allen pieced together the final 3.2 innings to pave the way to the win for the Tribe.

HOME: Helping Cleveland’s cause was a decision made by Pedroia in the seventh inning. With runners on the corners and no outs, Kipnis chopped a pitch to Boston’s second baseman. It looked like a sure double play, but that would have allowed the Indians to pull the game into a 2-2 tie. Pedroia saw an opening to get Cabrera at home plate, so he went for it.

“I think, like everyone else, we thought he was going for the double play,” Kipnis said. “But, Pedey is about as heads-up a defender as they come. He saw that he had a chance to get him at home.”

Pierzynski was not able to corral the throw and the catcher was charged with an error on the play. When Pierzynski turned to tag Cabrera, the ball skipped away in front of the plate. It looked like Cleveland’s shortstop would have been out with a clean grab and tag.

“If he caught the ball and held on to it,” Kipnis said, “he might’ve got him.”

Red Sox manager John Farrell didn’t fault Pedroia for the game-tying run.

“I can see where it’s a questionable play in a first-and-third situation,” Farrell said, “but Pedey feels like he’s got a chance to cut the runner down at home. The throw was on the backhand side to A.J. just enough that he can’t field it cleanly. But, you can’t second guess that. That’s a good, aggressive defensive play.”

On deck:

Indians (34-35) at Red Sox (31-37)
at 1:35 p.m. ET  Sunday at Fenway Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 68

613MastyFinal: Red Sox 10, Indians 3

FIRST: If the Indians want to get where they want to get, they’ve got to get Justin Masterson going again. That is the reality of Cleveland’s situation. In a rout at the hands of the Red Sox on Friday night, Masterson’s enigmatic season hit an unfortunate snag once again for the Tribe.

If you remove any outings shortened by poor weather or injuries, Masterson’s performance in Boston marked the shortest of his career both in terms of innings (two) and pitches (59). He ended with zero strikeouts in a normal start for the first time since May 29, 2011, against Tampa Bay.

“I threw too many balls. That’s more or less what happened,” Masterson said. “I put the bullpen in a bad spot. They had to come in way too early before they’re supposed to come in.”

From the get-go this season, Masterson displayed diminished velocity — one of the largest one-year decreases in baseball this year for a starting pitcher. Still, no red flags were raised during his stellar spring, and he began the season with a gem on Opening Day. From there, it has been an up-and-down, inconsistent, perplexing game of survival for the sinkerballer.

Let’s take a look at the three-month roller coaster to date:

First start: 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 4 K, 1 BB
Next two: 10.80 ERA, .368 AVG, 8.1 IP, 14 H, 11 K, 8 BB
Next five: 2.94 ERA, .230 AVG, 33.2 IP, 29 H, 33 K, 11 BB
Next three: 9.98 ERA, .344 AVG, 15.1 IP, 21 H, 7 K, 11 BB
Next three: 1.72 ERA, .214 AVG, 15.2 IP*, 12 H, 19 K, 8 BB
Friday at BOS: 2 IP, 3 H, 5 R, 4 BB, 0 K

*includes one rain-shortened start

Indians manager Terry Francona was asked if the peak-and-valley nature of Masterson season was getting frustrating for the ballclub.

“We want to win every game,” Francona replied, “and I’d love to see everybody go nine. That’s not the way the game is. So, rather than getting frustrated, I think we want to just help where we can. [Pitching coach Mickey Callaway] kills himself trying to help these guys, so I don’t think we’ll let it get frustrating. We just want to help.”

As for Masterson, he focused less on his personal problems on the mound — issues he’ll continue to tackle behind the scenes with Callaway this week — and instead expressed regret over putting too much pressure on the bullpen. Francona turned to the relief corps in the third, when Masterson issued back-to-back walks to open the frame, while the game was still in a 3-3 deadlock.

“It’s been an interesting season for me,” Masterson said. “Then again, what’s disappointing even more so tonight — walking, or whatever — is just making the bullpen have to do more than they need to. That sets them up for some tough games coming up, because guys are going to have to work harder than they need to. That’s all because of me.”

Both Francona and Masterson were asked if the pitcher was physically OK.

Said the manager: “No, he’s fine.”

Said the starter: “I mean, physically, in the fact that the body is healthy. But, as far as feeling comfortable and being able to make pitches, no, it just didn’t take place.”

SECOND: For four innings, Cleveland’s bullpen performed admirably in the wake of Masterson’s mess.

With two runners aboard and no outs in the third, Francona turned the ball over to rookie lefty Kyle Crockett, who was summoned from Triple-A before the game. Not only was Crockett just promoted, he arrived to Fenway Park with less than two hours to go until first pitch. Crockett gave up a one-out, two-run double to Mike Napoli in the third, but logged 1.2 innings before bowing out.

All things considered, Crockett gave the Tribe a solid effort.

“I thought he showed very good poise in a tough situation,” Francona said. “I thought he made one bad pitch to Napoli. Other than that, I thought he was tremendous. The presence of Napoli back in their lineup makes their lineup look different.”

Scott Atchison got the Indians through five innings, keeping Boston’s lead at two runs. Marc Rzepczynski followed suit with a clean sixth inning, but then yielded consecutive singles to open the seventh. That initiated a win-clinching push for the Red Sox. Combined, Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, Josh Outman and Cody Allen allowed five runs on six hits across the seventh and eighth innings.

“You know when you go to the bullpen that early,” Francona said, “if somebody has a hiccup, you’re going to pay for it. But, for a while there, Crockett did a good job and we kept it at 5-3. And then it got out of hand.”

THIRD: On the positive side, Carlos Santana belted a two-run home run for Cleveland in the second inning, giving the Tribe a quick, albeit, short-lived lead. Santana finished 1-for-4, but the long ball continued his recent upward trend. Over his past 12 games, Santana has hit .300 (12-for-40) with three homers, two doubles and 11 RBIs for the Indians.

Cleveland wants Santana to focus on the recent success, rather than being overwhelmed by the .176 season average that is in bright lights on the scoreboard.

“His batting average is going to be low for a while, because he had a bad start,” Francona said. “But he’s starting to take some more aggressive swings and staying in the middle of the field. He just missed another one [in the sixth inning] — he just got a little bit on the end. If he gets hot, that’d be great for us.”

HOME: Earlier this season, we had the good fortune of witnessing Yan Gomes take on Brandon Gomes. As you might recall, Yan is the only Gomes in Major League history to have a hit off another Gomes. Your move, Jonny 0-for-Gomes. I bring this up because, on Friday night, we got to see a Rzepczynski vs. Pierzynski clash in the sixth inning. A.J. Pierzynski is now 0-for-Rzepczynski in three career at-batzynskis after flying out to center.

You heard it here first.

On deck:

Indians (33-35) at Red Sox (31-36)
at 4:05 p.m. ET  Saturday at Fenway Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 67

Ortiz612Final: Red Sox 5, Indians 2

FIRST: On the surface, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Right-hander Josh Tomlin was on the mound. Lefty slugger David Ortiz was in the batter’s box. There was a runner on third base, first was open, two outs were in the books and Boston led by one run in the fifth inning.

Walk Ortiz, right?

“No,” Indians manager Terry Francona said matter-of-factly.

When Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway headed to the mound to talk things over with Tomlin, wasn’t an intentional walk part of the conversation?

“No,” Tomlin said. “It was a conversation of, ‘We can gt this guy out. We can attack this guy, but attack him in a smart way.'”

So, why then, was this not a no-brainer?

First off, Tomlin entered the evening with better numbers this season against left-handed batters (.200 average/.586 OPS) than right-handed batters (.228/.644). Then, there was the fact that Ortiz — already 0-for-2 on the night — was 0-for-10 in his career against Tomlin prior to the fifth-inning at-bat. If Tomlin walks him, that brings up right-handed Mike Napoli, who not only has a homer in his career against the pitcher, but has hit righties (.444 slugging percentage) for more power than lefties (.364 SLG) this season.

The knee-jerk reaction — in the immediate aftermath of Ortiz’s two-run, game-changing, no-doubt blast to dead center — is to declare pitching to him a “dumb” move on Francona’s part. Just check my Twitter replies. You better believe that, in a situation such as this, there are no gut feelings or hunches on the part of Francona. The decision to face Ortiz, and try to avoid Napoli, was all based on data and percentages.

Hey, sometimes the numbers betray you.

“Going into that at-bat, he was 0-for-10,” said Francona, clearly aware of the stats that were in his favor. “I know what David can do. I’ve seen him do it. But Napoli hit the next ball off the wall. We wanted to get [Ortiz] out.”

Tomlin simply made a mistake. He wanted to keep Ortiz honest with a first-pitch fastball to the inner part of the plate. Big Papi fouled it off and was behind in the count. The right-hander’s next move — with that inside heater now in Ortiz’s mind — was to throw a pitch for a ball outside to try to get Ortiz to chase.

“It just kind of cut back over the middle of the plate,” Tomlin said. “He put a good swing on it.”

Given the way Lester pitched (7.2 IP, 2 R/1 ER), it was a mistake that proved too much to overcome for the Tribe.

SECOND: Francona pulled Tomlin from the contest after the right-hander’s 107th pitch, which resulted in a two-out triple to Jonathan Herrera in the sixth inning. With lefty-swinging Jackie Bradley Jr. due to hit out of the ninth slot, the manager felt it was an opportune time to give the ball to lefty Nick Hagadone.

“I thought it was a perfect situation for Hags,” Francona said.

Perhaps, but Hagadone wasn’t able to keep Boston at bay.

Following a four-pitch walk to Bradley, Hagadone slipped into a full count against Brock Holt. With two runners in scoring position now — Bradley stole second uncontested — the Red Sox third baseman took a healthy swing and connected for a double to left field that scored two runs.

“It worked out about as bad as it could,” Francona said. “That’s not how we drew it up.”

The Indians called up the 28-year-old Hagadone earlier this month from Triple-A after he posted a 2.25 ERA and had 22 strikeouts against just three walks in 12 innings in May. It was a chance to promote the lefty when his confidence was high. Two outings into his stint in the Majors, Hagadone looked strong, too, striking out four with no walks and one hit allowed in two innings.

In his past three appearances, Hagadone has been charged with two runs on three hits (one home run) with two walks and no strikeouts in just one-third of an inning. Hagadone, clearly frustrated, was asked after the game if there was something in particular he needed to look to fix.

“If I had that answer, I wouldn’t be pitching like this,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Francona was hoping to see better results from Hagadone in his latest trip to The Show.

“We wanted him to build off of what he had done at Triple-A, and in his first couple outings here,” Francona said, “because we need to find a way to get to [Bryan] Shaw and Cody [Allen]. We can’t pitch [Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and others] every night that early.”

THIRD: First baseman Nick Swisher served as the designated hitter in his return to the lineup for the Indians on Thursday. Activated from the 15-day disabled list prior to the game, Swisher finished the night 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, one groundout and one flyout. The groundout ended the sixth, when the Indians had runners on first and second base and were trailing by one run. Rust is obviously expected in the first game off the shelf, but Cleveland needs Swisher to return to his usual level of production.

HOME: For Throwback Thursday, Grady Sizemore came through with an RBI double in the second and made an impressive, wall-crashing catch in foul ground in the fifth against his former club. Let’s all tip our caps to Bradley, though. In the seventh, Michael Bourn sent a pitch to the wall in left-center field. Bradley tracked down the fly and made an impressive catch that was great enough on its own. Then, Bradley fired a rocket back to Napoli at first base, where it was collected on one hop. Napoli stepped on first, doubling up Mike Aviles to bring an abrupt halt to a potential late-inning rally for the Indians.

“That was a heck of a play, because he broke in,” Francona said. “I didn’t think he had any chance to catch that ball.”

On deck:

Indians (33-34) at Red Sox (30-36)
at 7:10 p.m. ET  Friday at Fenway Park

–JB

House vs. Ortiz: The anatomy of an 11-pitch battle

HouseCLEVELAND — Each baseball game can be broken down into a series of individual battles. Some confrontations end quickly, while other engagements are drawn out and develop into a battle of wits between a pitcher and batter.

The latter arose in the fifth inning of the Indians’ 5-3 victory over the Red Sox on Tuesday night. It was rookie against veteran slugger at a critical juncture in the contest. Indians lefty T.J. House was working with a two-run lead, had a runner on first base, two outs and Boston behemoth David Ortiz clapping his hands in the batter’s box.

“I’m not going to give in,” House said. “I know he’s Big Papi and he’s a good hitter, but my mind-set there is, ‘You’re going to have to earn this.'”

What followed was a classic 11-pitch battle between House and Ortiz, who eventually hacked at a sinker and flew out to center field to end the inning. That ended the cat-and-mouse game that Ortiz played with House and Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes. What stood out to Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway is the fact that House never caved or showed any sign of intimidation.

“It was a veteran approach,” Callaway said. “There are those guys where a young pitcher might be like, ‘Oh, man. I’m facing David Ortiz. I’ve been watching him on TV since I was little.’ That didn’t seem to faze him.”

Ortiz has seen 1,190 different pitchers throughout his storied career. The Red Sox designated hitter has launched a home run off 302 of those hurlers. House — called up from Triple-A Columbus on May 22 — has seen just 30 different batters in the Majors. The 24-year-old lefty was three years old when Ortiz signed his first professional contract in 1992.

On Tuesday night, the kid beat the sage.

One day later, House went through the anatomy of his fifth-inning battle with Ortiz, who was also retired by the starter in the first (groundout) and third (lineout) innings. The lefty opened their third meeting with a 93-mph sinker that tailed wide of the strike zone for a ball. House followed that with another two-seamer — a 91-mph sinker in the middle of the zone — which Ortiz swung at mightily for a foul ball.

“I want to challenge him,” House said of the first two pitches. “There’s no secret to how to get anybody out. I feel like, if I show him that I’m going to go out there and attack the guy, maybe I can get a few more swings with him outside the zone. If I can stay in there, and get [ahead in the count early], it’s going to be easier for me to change to a pitch that starts in the zone and then moves out.”

HouseOrtizHouse then switched things up, burying an 83-mph low and outside to fall behind, 2-1.

“I wanted to change speeds on him,” House said. “It looks like my fastball, so I’m trying to get him to swing, trying to get him to get that ball. I had a lot of success with keeping my changeup out of the air and that’s a thing where he’s not going to hurt me. The worst is he’s hitting a single off me, but he’s not getting a ball in the gap and he’s not hitting a home run.

“And I’m trying to bury it. I want it on the ground. If I can get him to swing and he catches it out early, he’s just going to beat that ball on the ground.”

At that point, House decided he wanted to stop Ortiz from looking for an outside pitch, so the lefty sent an 86-mph slider high and inside. Boston’s DH swung and fouled off the offering, shouting in disgust that he did not do more damage.

“If you heard him, Ortiz was yelling the whole time in that at-bat,” Gomes said. “You could tell that he’s getting frustrated, because he’s probably missing pitches he should be hitting.”

Next came a 95-mph two-seam fastball, away and to the middle of the strike zone. Once again, Ortiz fouled it off, but this time the slugger stepped out of the box to collect himself. The increase in velocity was intentional on the part of House.

“Of course. He’s been seeing anywhere from 90 to 91,” House explained. “Right there, I figured, ‘Hey, just throw it as hard as you can and see what you get out of it. Pump it up, see if he catches up with it, maybe it catches him off guard a little bit.”

After burying an 88-mph slider low and away to run the count full, House worked through a string of offspeed offerings. Ortiz fouled off an 84-mph changeup that dropped low and outside the strike zone. He then fouled off an 87-mph slider that was over the middle, but spun down and away. Four lower-velocity pitches in a row kept the guessing game going.

House followed Gomes’ lead throughout the battle, but did admit to shaking off a curveball deep into the sequence.

David Ortiz“That’s my fourth-best pitch,” House said. “If he’s going to beat me, it’s going to be with my best pitch.”

Gomes cracked a smile.

“I was actually going to go up to him,” Gomes said, “and say, ‘Hey, grip something weird and throw it. I don’t care. Do something.'”

The moment House shook off Gomes showed something to Callaway.

“To be able to do that in that situation, and not get flustered,” said the pitching coach, “most guys, the game would speed up on them in that situation. It’s like, ‘Oh man, what do I do? What do I do?’ He just trusted that his fastball was good enough to get him, and that was the right pitch.”

The next foul ball off Ortiz’s bat came on a 94-mph sinker on the outside corner. For his 10th pitch, House snapped off an 88-mph slider, which Ortiz spoiled as it darted low and outside the zone. The Red Sox slugger again stepped out of the box, while House tried to devise yet another plan of attack.

“He’s either getting out or he’s getting a hit,” House said. “Because I’m not walking him.”

House and Gomes opted to go back to the sinker, one that clocked in at 94 mph and arrived at nearly the same spot as the left-hander’s second pitch to the slugger. Ortiz swung for the eighth time in the at-bat, sending the baseball to center field, where Michael Bourn easily made the catch an out.

“Even the last pitch,” Gomes said, “you see in the video, Ortiz is almost bailing out to get it. I was like, ‘How the heck did he know that pitch was coming?’ It’s a credit to House, man. That’s almost a Miguel Cabrera-type guy. You win by walking him. You’re trying to keep him off second base or off the scoreboard. He just kept going at him, man.”

For House, it was not only a satisfying moment, but a valuable lesson as he proceeds on with his season and career.

“It showed me that I can win those battles against those premiere players,” he said. “If I can go out there and do it against Big Papi, why can’t I go out there and do it against Chris Davis, or Adam Dunn, or Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton? It gives me that confidence going forward.”

–JB

 

Covering the Bases: Game 59

140603BournFinal: Indians 5, Red Sox 3

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona had a simple way of summing up center fielder Michael Bourn’s impact on Cleveland’s lineup during a recent chat.

“He makes us go,” said the manager.

Lately, Bourn has indeed been a catalyst atop the Tribe’s order, looking every bit like the player Cleveland thought it had when it invested $48 million on him prior to last season. As the weather has warmed, so too has Bourny’s bat.

Since his second comeback from a left hamstring issue, Bourn has hit .320 (33-for-103) with two homers, five doubles, three triples, three stolen bases, nine walks, 12 RBIs and 14 runs scored in 24 games. That said, it’s fair to note that he’s hit .318 since his 1-for-13 start to the season. So, the strong showing isn’t only recent.

What has changed recently is witnessing Bourn looking more and more comfortable on the basepaths and in center field. He looks long removed from his hamstring issues (knock on wood).

“In a perfect world, every player feels 100 percent from Opening Day until the end of the season,” Francona said. “It’s not a perfect world. The realistic part of it is Bourny had surgery. He had to get some things fixed. He understands that the more he can impact a game with his legs, the better we are. He also understands that staying out on the field is important.”

In Tuesday’s win over the Red Sox, Bourn helped ignited a string of five consecutive hits with a single to left off Boston righty Jake Peavy. That early burst pushed Cleveland to a 3-0 lead. After the Red Sox rallied, it was Bourn’s two-run double off tough lefty Andrew Miller — a two-base hit that scraped high off the wall in left-center field — that broke the deadlock and sent the Indians to their fifth win in a row.

Bourn believes at least a portion of his success early on this season is due to this being his second year in the American League and with the Indians.

“Familiarity is always a key,” Bourn said. “I just try to learn the pitchers as I go. Some of them I’ve faced before being in the NL then they came over to the AL. Some of them I’ve got to lean on my teammates and hitting coach to tell me what they got. The best information you can have is for yourself. Once you know for yourself, you can make the adjustments within yourself. I just try to get familiar with it each day.”

SECOND: Rather than waiting for a blowout scenario to use recently-promoted lefty Nick Hagadone, Francona threw the reliever right into the fire on Tuesday night. With runners in first and second base and one out in the seventh inning, Hagadone entered and was asked to halt Boston’s push, which had already knotted the score.

Hagadone answered with back-to-back strikeouts and a fist pump to end the inning. The lefty then recorded to outs in the eighth, setting up a multi-inning save for Cody Allen and helping Cleveland dodge the earlier trouble experienced by the bullpen.

“That was a huge effort on Nick’s part,” Francona said.

In 18 appearances at Triple-A this season, Hagadone turned in a 3.09 ERA with 35 strikeouts and nine walks in 23 1/3 innings. His goal with Columbus was to be “more athletic” in his delivery, with the idea of pounding the strike zone more consistently. One byproduct of his tweaked mechanics, he found, was an improved breaking pitch.

The Red Sox saw the result.

Hagadone threw six of seven sliders for strikes, including two called, two fouled and two swung on and missed.

“He went down there and worked a little bit on his breaking ball,” said Indians starter T.J. House, who took a no-decision on Tuesday and spent much of this year with Hagadone at Columbus. “I saw it tonight and that thing is absolutely filthy. I told him. He looks a lot better. He’s a confident guy.”

The Indians promoted Hagadone on Monday to help out against Boston’s lefty-heavy lineup. Francona also felt it was an opportune time for a promotion, considering Hagadone had 22 strikeouts and only three walks in 12 stellar innings in May. If the Hagadone Cleveland saw on Tuesday is the pitcher they’ll have from here on out…

“That would be wonderful,” Francona said. “We brought him in and, in Triple-A, he had been on a really nice roll. So we thought it was a good time to get him back here. That’s a pretty high- leverage situation and he handled it really well.”

THIRD: House took a no-decision, but turned in 5 2/3 solid innings. One of the runs on his pitching line was the result of an outing-gone-awry by lefty Marc Rzepczynski. In particular, House’s fifth-inning battle with slugger David Ortiz was especially impressive.

House engaged in an 11-pitch confrontation with Big Papi, winning in the end by creating an inning-ending flyout with a 94-mph two-seamer.

“That was a tough at-bat, but it was really fun,” House said. “I used to watch him when I was in junior high and high school play. So, it’s actually pretty cool to get out there and face a guy like that and actually have success.”

HOME: Don’t look now, but the Indians are 4 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central standings. After a loss to the A’s on May 18, Cleveland was 10 1/3 games back of Detroit in the division. While it sounds cliché, Francona believes his players have done well in adopting a day-to-day mentality, rather than getting overwhelmed by the early hole they found themselves in.

“I think that’s the only way you can dig yourself out,” Francona said. “It can look so daunting when you look too far in advance. But, when you just take care of what you’re supposed to that day, all of a sudden you start doing what you’re supposed to, you pay attention to detail, do your job, and things can mount in a good way.”

Winning eight in a row at home and going 20-11 overall in front of the locals certainly helps.

“Yeah. You’re saying it as we’re about to embark on a 11-day road trip. Thanks,” Francona said. “No, I’m glad. I hope we win everywhere, but we’ve been really good here. I’m glad.”

On deck:

Red Sox (27-31) at Indians (29-30)
at 7:05 p.m. ET  Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 58

140602MastyFinal: Indians 3, Red Sox 2

FIRST: There is a term for what Indians starter Justin Masterson did in the fourth on Monday night. Nasty Masty spun what is known as an immaculate inning.

Nine pitches. Three up, three down. Three strikeouts.

“I didn’t know it was nine pitches,” Masterson said. “I knew I punched out the side.”

It all happened so fast, but — believe it or not — it had never happened previously for an Indians pitcher. According to research done by Cleveland’s media relations staff, no Indians pitcher was known to have accomplished an immaculate inning prior to Masterson on Monday night.

It is believed that Masterson is just the 70th pitcher in baseball history to have achieved the feat.

“He was throwing all his pitches with a lot of conviction,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “which is a good sign. I think when you’re throwing that many strikes and you’re throwing them with all pitches, you’re going to be confident.”

Let’s take you through the immaculate production…

Jonny Gomes:
90-mph four-seamer — called strike
83-mph slider — swinging strike
82-mph slider — swinging strike

Grady Sizemore:
89 two-seamer — called strike
91-mph four-seamer — swinging strike
83-mph slider — swinging strike

Stephen Drew:
92-mph four-seamer — called strike
83-mph slider — called strike
82-slider — swinging strike

That stretch came within a run of 25 consecutive strikes that ran from the last batter in the third (A.J. Pierzynski) to the second hitter in the sixth (David Ortiz). That marked the longest such streak by a Major Leaguer since Scott Diamond ran off 26 strikes in a row on June 24, 2012 against the Reds. On April 18, 2012, Bartolo Colon fired 38 straight strikes against the Angels.

Asked about that streak, Masterson cracked a grin.

“I’ve felt like I’ve thrown 25 balls in a row in one game,” he said with a laugh. “So, it’s nice to throw 25 strikes.”

What was amazing about Masterson’s strike-throwing showing was that it followed an incredibly rough opening to his night. The righty dodged damage in the first few innings, but he needed 61 pitches (32 strikes/29 balls) to record seven outs within the first 13 batters he faced. From there, he threw 44 pitches (35 strikes/9 balls) to the final 13 batters he faced, covering 14 outs.

Masterson ended with seven shutout innings and a season-high 10 strikeouts.

We talked a little bit earlier about how the first three innings, he kind of cruises and then he runs into a tough spot,” Francona said. “He kind of flipped it tonight. Boy, did he ever. He’s facing a bunch of left-handers. He stayed down. He started changing speeds. He just attacked the strike zone.

“You look up in the third inning and you think, ‘OK, we’ve got the lead, but we’re going to be into our bullpen early.’ He got us pretty deep.”

SECOND: The Indians didn’t get much going against Red Sox righty John Lackey (three runs on eight hits in eight innings), but they jumped on the two walks he issued in the first. Tribe leadoff man Michael Bourn set the table in the opening frame and came through again in the third.

Bourn drew a leadoff walk in the first and promptly stole second base. He and Michael Brantley (also walked) both scored on a two-run single from Lonnie Chisenhall. In the third, Bourn led off with a triple and scored on a single from Asdrubal Cabrera. Bourn also reached via single in the fifth, but was stranded.

“He makes us go,’ Francona said. “You could see he set the tone tonight. The first pitch, he takes off and steals a bag. He hits a triple that, maybe when it was cold and he wasn’t confident was a double. You can see how much he’s enjoying that aspect of it. You can see how proud he was of it. He should be. When he goes like that, we can be a different team.”

Since his second comeback from a hamstring issue, Bourn has hit .313 (31-for-99) with two home runs, four doubles, three triples, three stolen bases, nine walks, 10 RBIs and 13 runs in 23 games for Cleveland. Bourn said a key lately has been being more aggressive.

“A little bit — just taking an opportunity when it’s there,” Bourn said. “That’s the main thing, not try to miss out on too many opportunities. If an opportunity exists there you got to try to be aggressive.”

THIRD: The two runs scored by Boston came in the eighth inning, when Xander Bogaerts launched a two-run home run off setup man Bryan Shaw. The right-hander has been used a lot lately and Francona admitted that he probably should’ve gone in another direction in that inning.

“I think those should’ve been my earned runs tonight,” Francona said.

Boston had lefty-hitting Jackie Bradley Jr. due to lead off, so Francona figured the Red Sox would turn to a pinch hitter if he opened the inning with lefty Marc Rzepczynski. The next two batters, Brock Holt (.421 average and 1.031 OPS) and Bogaerts (.308/.885) entered with great numbers against lefties, too. So, Francona turned to Shaw and opted to save Rzepczynski if the inning went awry and Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski were coming up.

I really wanted Zep to face those two if we got in trouble,” Francona said.

Shaw got the initial groundout, but then gave up a single and a home run. After getting Dustin Pedroia to ground out, Francona turned to Rzepczynski against Ortiz, who flew out. As it happens, Shaw and Zep are tied for the Major League lead in relief appearances at 30 apiece. Shaw was also pitching in his third straight game after logging 47 pitches in his previous two outings.

Shaw has now given up three runs on four hits with one walk and no strikeouts in his last two innings over the past two games, raising his season ERA to 2.22 from 1.37.

“I told Shaw,” Francona said, “if he goes to arbitration, ‘I’ll go with you and tell them I shouldn’t have pitched you that much tonight.'”

Fair enough.

HOME: Monday marked Sizemore’s return to Cleveland after a long road of recovery, following multiple knee injuries, surgeries and setbacks. He said before the game that Cleveland “still feels like home,” and it probably did again when he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning.

The Indians were up by one run, there were two outs, the count was full and the baseball gods saw fit to have Sizemore in the batter’s box. It was all set up perfectly for a feel-good moment for Sizemore, but Tribe setup man Cody Allen — drafted in 2011, which was the last time Sizemore played a game with the Indians — had other things in mind.

Allen induced a game-ending flyout to Cabrera at short to notch his fourth save.

“I was a kid when he was here at his peak. He was an animal here,” Allen said of Sizemore. “So, to be able to get him out for the 27th out was pretty cool, in this ballpark. This is his first time back, so that was a pretty cool feeling.”

Monday’s coverage:

On deck:

Red Sox (27-30) at Indians (28-30)
at 7:05 p.m. ET  Tuesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Month in review: May

Kluber1 copyThere is an adult-sized chicken costume sitting in the empty locker to the right of Corey Kluber’s stall inside Cleveland’s clubhouse at Progressive Field. Outside the locker room, there is a photo of two adult-sized chickens standing in the outfield of the Indians’ home ballpark.

Through some intense investigative reporting, it has been determined that one of the mystery chickens was reliever Cody Allen, whose nickname among teammates is, in fact, “Chicken.” The other player within the poultry suit was discovered to be Kluber.

“I keep telling you guys,” Kluber said recently. “It wasn’t me. I don’t know who it was.”

Kluber has become known for his stoic persona. A smile from the right-hander is a rare sight. The chicken suit is a glimpse into a side of Kluber that he has not revealed to the public. He has embraced the robotic character that has been created in the public domain. This was never more evident than during an in-game television interview, in which Kluber never flinched amidst a shower of powder and sunflower seeds.

For the Indians, May was Kluber’s coming-out party. He might not have a nationally-recognized name yet, but you better believe that people within baseball know all about Kluber by now. I am always hesitant to slap the label “ace” on anyone, but I will say that I feel Kluber is has the makings of ace material.

Let’s take a look at some factoids about the Klubot’s season to date and strong May:

  • As of this writing, Kluber has logged six straight starts with at least 6.2 IP and eight strikeouts. That ties an Indians record held by Sudden Sam McDowell (1970), Herb Score (1956-57) and Bob Feller (1938-39).
  • That’s the longest such streak in the American League since CC Sabathia had seven such outings in a row during the 2011 season.
  • Kluber’s six-game streak of having at least 6.2 IP, eight strikeouts and no more than two walks tied an AL record, which is shared by Roger Clemens (1997) and Randy Johnson (1995). Johnson holds the NL record for that unique pitching-line streak with eight in a row in 2001. Sandy Koufax went seven straight in 1965, and some guys named R.A. Dickey (2012), Curt Schilling (2002) and Pedro Martinez (1997) had six-game runs.
  • Kluber is the only pitcher in the past 100 seasons for the Indians to have four straight starts with at least seven innings, eight strikeouts and no more than two walks. That statistical line had been achieved in three consecutive outings 12 times.
  • Entering Sunday, Kluber led the Major Leagues with eight games with at least eight strikeouts and six games with at least nine strikeouts. The righty also led MLB with 95 strikeouts on the season.
  • In the AL, Kluber’s ranks among qualified pitchers were as follows: 3.04 ERA (11), six wins (t-4), 95 strikeouts (1), 2.22 FIP (1), 1.23 WHIP (18), 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings (1), 5.28 strikeout-to-walk ratio (4), .671 opponents’ OPS (13), 68 percent strikes (4), 3.59 pitches per plate appearance (t-3), 19.3 swinging-strike percentage (6) and 18 three-pitch strikeouts (3). He’s done all this with the highest batting average on balls in play (.352).
  • In May, Kluber became the first Indians pitcher since Dennis Eckersley (1976) to have at least 60 strikeouts in one month Kluber joined Yu Darvish as the only Major League pitchers over the past 10 seasons (2005-14) to have at least 60 strikeouts in any one month. Darvish had 64 in Sept/Oct of last season with the Rangers.
  • Kluber’s May marked only the 20th time in the past 100 years that a Major League pitcher ended one month with at least 60 strikeouts and no more than 43 baserunners. The others: Johnson (six times), Schilling (three), Pedro (twice), Clemens (twice), Koufax, Darvish, Johan Santana, Kerry Wood, Mike Scott, Dwight Gooden.
  • Kluber became only the fifth pitcher (19 times) to have at least 60 strikeouts in a single month. Besides Eckersley (’76), McDowell (eight times), Score (’56) and Feller (eight times) accomplished the feat. Kluber (eight walks) is the only one of that group to have fewer than 17 walks in the same month. His 12.6 K/9 and 7.50 K:BB are also the highest for any of the 19 occurrences.

Kluber was the highlight of May for the Indians, but the club also endured some ups and downs to produce 15 wins — a solid comeback from a rough April. All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis missed most of the month due to a right oblique injury, but Mike Aviles performed admirably in his absence and Dr. Smooth (Michael Brantley) and Lonnie Baseball (Lonnie Chisenhall) both continued on their torrid starts.

Here is a glance at the month that was for the Tribe…

AL Central standings heading into June:

1. Tigers 31-21 (–)
2. White Sox 28-29 (5.5)
3. Royals 26-29 (6.5)
4. Twins 25-28 (6.5)
5. Indians 26-30 (7.0)

Record at home: 10-5
Record on road: 5-8

Offense (AL rank)

.273 AVG (t-2)
.344 OBP (t-1)
.428 SLG (3)
.772 OPS (2)
136 R (t-3)
267 H (4)
56 2B (3)
3 3B (t-9)
30 HR (t-5)
127 RBI (4)
12 SB (13)
102 BB (3)
183 K (2)
419 TB (4)

Notes: After a dismal and disappointing April, the Indians enjoyed a solid overall showing this past month. In fact, the last time a Cleveland team posted at least a .770 OPS to go along with at least 130 runs, 100 walks and 410 total bases in one month was August of 2008. If you add the element of having fewer than 200 strikeouts, you have to reach back to May of 2006 to find the last Indians offense to piece together that showing in a single month.

Pitching (AL rank)

15 wins (t-6)
3.86 ERA (7)
4.41 rot. ERA (11)
3.05 rel. ERA (4)
7 saves (10)
254.1 IP (11)
245 H (5)
131 R (14)
109 R (6)
33 HR (14)
93 BB (11)
252 K (2)
.250 AVG (8)
1.33 WHIP (t-8)

Notes: This marked only the eighth time in the past 100 seasons that an Indians’ staff had at least 250 strikeouts in a single month. Cleveland also accomplished the feat in 2013 (May, August, Sept/Oct), 1967 (August), 1965 (Sept/Oct) and 1964 (June, July). This was just the fourth time a Cleveland team had 15 wins and 250 strikeouts in one month and the third time with an ERA of 3.90 or better, plus 15 wins and 250 strikeouts. It also marked the ninth time a Tribe staff finished any one month with at least 200 strikeouts, 95 walks or fewer and 110 earned runs or fewer (once in 2014 and 2010, twice in 1968, and once in each of the 1967, ’66, ’65 and ’63 seasons. The Indians also became the fastest team this season to reach 500 strikeouts this season.

Player of the Month: Brantley
Stats: .345/.405/.564/.969, 5 HR, 7 2B, 1 3B, 19 RBI, 21 R, 27 games

Notes: Among batters with at least 100 at-bats, Brantley’s slash line was the best in one month by an Indians’ hitter since Grady Sizemore’s .377/.455/.642 in June 2005. Prior to that, you’re looking at Roberto Alomar in July 2001, Manny Ramirez in Sept/Oct 2000 and Alomar again in Sept/Oct 2000. If you drop the requirement to 90 at-bats, Kipnis’ June from last season (.419/.517/.699) comes up. The last Tribesman to hit .345 with at least five homers, 19 RBIs and 21 runs in one month was Shin-Soo Choo in Sept/Oct 2008.

Apologies to… Chisenhall, who turned in a .373/.430/.590 slash line to go along with three homers, nine doubles, 14 RBIs and 15 runs in 26 games. I went with Brantley because he had a healthy lead on Chisenhall in at-bats (110 to 83) and Dr. Smooth’s defensive prowess in left field had more of an impact in the field. Chisenhall has also only recently begun to earn trust and playing time against left-handed pitching. Better luck in June, Lonnie Baseball.

Previous ’14 winners: OF David Murphy (April)

Pitcher of the Month: Kluber
Stats: 4-0, 2.09 ERA, 43 IP, 60 K, 8 BB, .217 AVG, 0.98 WHIP, 6 starts

Note: See top section.

Previous ’14 winners: RHP Zach McAllister (April)

Reliever of the Month: RHP Bryan Shaw
Stats:  0.71 ERA, 12.2 IP, 10 K, 0 BB, .191 AVG, 0.71 WHIP, 14 games

Notes: Finishing a month with zero walks with as many appearances as Shaw had in May is a rare feat. In Indians history, only Bob Wickman (July 2001) and Derek Lilliquist (Sept/Oct 1992) previously had no walks with at least 14 games in one month. Only four Major League pitchers accomplished the feat in 2013: Kenley Jensen (June), Mark Melancon (March/April), Wesley Wright (May) and Edward Mujica (May).

Previous ’14 winners: Shaw (April)

Game of the Month (hitter): C George Kottaras
May 4 against White Sox: 2-for-3, 2 HR, 1 BB, 2 R, 2 RBI

Notes: Called up from Triple-A while starting catcher Yan Gomes was on MLB’s paternity list, Kottaras enjoyed one of the most memorable debuts in Indians history. With two homers out of the chute, Kottaras became the only player in Cleveland history to launch a home run in each of his first two career plate appearances with the club. The last Major Leaguer to accomplish that feat was Jeremy Giambi in 2002 with the A’s. That said, King George has nothing on Jamie “Statistical” Quirk. On Sept. 27, 1984, Quirk launched a walk-off homer in his only career plate appearance for Cleveland. No one will ever be able to top his 1.000/1.000/4.000 career slash line in an Indians uniform.

Game of the Month (pitcher): Kluber
May 4 against White Sox: 8 IP, 3 H, 1 R/ER, 2 BB, 13 K, 110 (70), 83 game score

Notes: With this outing, Kluber became the first Indians pitcher to have at least 13 strikeouts in a start of eight or more innings since Bartolo Colon on Sept. 18, 2000. He was the first to have that kind of production in a team loss since Dave Burba did so on July 21, 1999. The last Indians pitcher to go at least eight with 13 strikeouts against the White Sox? You’re looking at McDowell on May 6, 1970.

———————————————————————————–

Minor League standouts for April

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Month: OF Matt Carson
Stats: .281/.365/.531/.896, 4 HR, 4 2B, 11 RBI, 15 R, 20 games

Previous ’14 winners: 1B Jesus Aguilar (April)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Nick Hagadone
Stats: 2.25 ERA, 12 IP, 22 K, 3 BB, .146 AVG, 0.75 WHIP, 8 games

Previous ’14 winners: RHP Trevor Bauer (April)

Double-A Akron

Player of the Month: OF Tyler Naquin
Stats: .328/.370/.434/.805, 2 HR, 5 2B, 1 3B, 17 RBI, 25 R, 6 SB, 29 games

Previous ’14 winners: 3B Giovanny Urshela (April)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Tyler Sturdevant
Stats: 0.00 ERA, 16 IP, 15 K, 3 BB, .118 AVG, 0.56 WHIP, 3 saves, 10 games

Previous ’14 winners: LHP Kyle Crockett (April)

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Month: OF Anthony Gallas
Stats: .300/.379/.500/.879, 3 HR, 13 2B, 16 RBI, 15 R, 13 BB, 4 SB, 30 games

Previous ’14 winners: SS Erik Gonzalez (April)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Ryan Merritt
Stats: 3-2, 2.54 ERA, 39 IP, 31 K, 5 BB, .236 AVG, 1.03 WHIP, 6 starts

Previous ’14 winners: Merritt (April)

Class A (low) Lake County

Player of the Month: INF Paul Hendrix
Stats: .386/.462/.634/1.095, 5 HR, 8 2B, 1 3B, 16 RBI, 18 R, 14 BB,  27 games

Previous ’14 winners: OF Cody Farrell (April)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Robbie Aviles
Stats: 1-0, 1.64 ERA, 38.1 IP, 21 K, 7 BB, .180 AVG, 0.81 WHIP, 6 starts

Previous ’14 winners: RHP Jordan Milbrath (April)

———————————

Month in review: April

–JB

The case for Dr. Smooth

BrantleyHelmetTossThe first round of American League All-Star balloting results were released on Tuesday and — no surprise — Angels outfielder Mike Trout was the league’s leading vote-getter.

What was surprising was the fact that, as I scrolled down the list of outfielders who made the cut for the Top 15, Cleveland’s Michael Brantley was nowhere to be found. Indians fans need to hop online and do all they can to change that in the weeks leading up to the Midsummer Classic.

It’s unrealistic to think that Brantley will fly up the leaderboard and earn a ticket to the All-Star Game as one of the three starting outfielders. Cleveland hasn’t had a player voted in by the fans since 2001 (Juan Gonzalez). There is still ample time to get him where he belongs, which is among the leading outfield candidates.

It’s fair to say that, barring some miraculous movement by Brantley backers, fan voting won’t get the outfielder to Target Field. No, it’s more likely that AL manager John Farrell looks at the list of statistically-deserving candidates and considers Brantley for the roster. That’s what happened a year ago, when AL manager Jim Leyland rewarded Jason Kipnis’ strong first half with a place among the game’s top talent.

No matter how he gets there, Brantley is currently the clear-cut choice as Cleveland’s All-Star representative. Starter Corey Kluber is also a deserving candidate — assuming he maintains his current production — but I’m going to stick with a player who is eligible via the voting process for this post.

Let’s take a look at the AL’s Top 15 outfielders courtesy of the latest voting results:

OUTFIELD
1. Mike Trout, Angels: 764,007
2. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: 675,290
3. Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees: 417,452
4. Carlos Beltran, Yankees: 401,101
5. Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays: 364,506
6. Torii Hunter, Tigers: 322,736
7. Adam Jones, Orioles: 285,913
8. Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: 271,521
9. Yoenis Cespedes, A’s: 249,674
10. Nick Markakis, Orioles: 248,886
11. Brett Gardner, Yankees: 197,577
12. Josh Hamilton, Angels: 188,918
13. Rajai Davis, Tigers: 186,913
14. Austin Jackson, Tigers: 175,165
15. Alex Rios, Rangers: 167,261

An argument could be made that not only is Brantley deserving of being among the Top 15, but he’s worthy of being listed among the Top 5, or even the Top 3. Let’s do the old “Player A vs. Player B” comparison, just to give you an idea as to how Brantley has fared to this point this season. Sure, there are better methods, but this is a quick, effective example:

Player A: .279/.368/.537/.905, 154 OPS+, 152 wRC+
Player B: .307/.377/.516/.892, 153 OPS+, 153 wRC+

Player A: 10 HR, 11 2B, 4 3B, 34 RBI, 27 BB, 58 K, 5 SB, 32 R
Player B: 9 HR, 11 2B, 1 3B, 39 RBI, 19 BB, 19 K, 8 SB, 31 R

Player A is Trout, the AL’s leading vote-getter at the moment and back-to-back runner-up MVP. Player B is, as you’ve likely guessed, Brantley. Through 49 games and 223 plate appearances (Trout) and 50 games and 215 plate appearances (Brantley), they have essentially been the same offensive player. Trout’s defense in center gives him an edge in the WAR department (3.1 to 1.8 via fangraphs), but Brantley is no slouch, as his MLB-leading six outfield assists will show.

Heading into Tuesday’s action, Brantley ranked sixth in the AL in wRC+ and eighth in WAR. He was also in the AL’s Top 5 in offensive WAR (fourth), power-speed rating (second) and win probability added (first). He also ranked in the league’s Top 10 for average (ninth), OBP (t-10th), OPS (10th), total bases (10th), RBI (sixth), OPS+ (seventh), runs created (ninth), times on base (t-eighth) and at-bats per strikeout (sixth).

Those are the Top 5 and Top 10 among all hitters in the AL, not just outfielders.

Among all Major League hitters, Brantley entered Tuesday as one of just six with at least a .300 average to go along with at least 30 RBI and 30 run scored. That short list also included Troy Tulowitzki, Charlie Blankmon, Alexei Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. If you rank them by OPS+, Tulo leads the way at 208, followed by Stanton (177) and Brantley (153).

What’s been remarkable about Brantley’s emergence this season is his increased power production. His .208 ISO was 14th in the AL, entering Tuesday, but well above his career rate (.114). Brantley’s ground-ball percentage has actually increased some over last season and his line-drive rate is down slightly. What he has done differently this year is dramatically reduced the amount of fly balls over the infield (3.9% compared to 7.4% for his career). One byproduct of that has been a considerable spike in his homer-to-fly ball ratio (17.6% compared to 6.2% for his career).

Given Brantley’s career rates, it’s fair to assume there will be some regression in power production as the season progresses, but his current output undoubtedly puts him among the game’s top hitters. He’s also done this while seeing fewer fastballs (56.8% compared to 63.2% for his career) and dealing with more breaking and offspeed pitches. One result of that has been fewer swings overall on pitches both in and outside the strike zone. Basically, when Brantley gets his pitch, he’s attacking it. That’s also led to a slight increase in swing-and-miss rate (4.1% is highest of his career).

Indians manager Terry Francona recently had this to say about Brantley’s increase in power:

“It’s fun to watch. I think his base is stronger — his legs. As good hitters get to know themselves throughout the league, sometimes that evolves into more production. I think that’s what you’re seeing. I don’t think you see him selling out to hit home runs. [It’s] just balls that maybe used to be doubles, he’s starting to drive over the fence, which is great to see. What I really like is the fact that he’s the same hitter, he’s just generating a few more home runs.”

Being the “same hitter” is something Brantley said he concentrated on over the offseason:

“It’s trusting that every time it’s going to be all right and not trying to tinker or make adjustments when there’s no need to. … [When I was younger] I was trying to do whatever worked that felt good at the time, instead of going back to the basics and doing exactly what I was doing before. That’s just not trying to do too much and putting good swings on good pitches.”

Through two months, it’s worked for Brantley, who has looked more and more like the Indians’ top All-Star candidate. The voters need to start noticing.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 47

BalkOffFinal: Indians 11, Tigers 10 (13 innings)

FIRST: Well, that was something. I’ve seen balks and I’ve covered plenty of walk-offs, but Wednesday marked the first balk-off of my career. Cleveland isn’t going to complain about the manner in which it won. The Indians won and they completed a sweep of the rival Tigers.

Cleveland went 4-15 against Detroit last year and is now 4-1 against the Motor City this year.

These were three days that the Tribe needed in a bad way.

“We took enormous steps this week,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “to getting that personality and that chemistry and all the things you talk about that you’re dying to get to. We took some enormous strides getting there.”

This one felt like a boxing match. Detroit scored four in the first, so Cleveland scored six in the first two innings. Detroit added one in the third. So did the Tribe. The Tigers scored two more in the fifth and another pair in the eighth. The Indians knotted things up again with two in the ninth. Detroit scored one in the 13th, and Cleveland answered with two for the win.

“A few weeks ago, we really didn’t show a whole lot of fight. Things weren’t working out,” Indians right fielder David Murphy said. “From our very first at-bat, you knew our offense was going to be up to something today. It was a lot of fun to watch. I wish it wouldn’t have taken 5 1/2 hours, but it was a lot of fun.”

Three days ago, the Indians were still dealing with the embarrassment of their three-game brooming at the hands of the A’s. Oakland trounced the Tribe 11-1 on Friday. The A’s then lost Scott Kazmir to an ejection in the second inning Saturday and still pulled of a 6-2 win (one riddled with errors by Cleveland). On Sunday, the Indians were routed 13-3.

Meanwhile, Detroit came to Cleveland riding a six-game winning streak and having won 15 of 18 games.

In the three losses to Oakland, the Indians hit .191 as a team, went 0-for-15 with runners in scoring position and ended with six runs scored, three home runs and five extra-base hits. In the three wins over the Tigers, Cleveland hit .347 as a team, went 15-for-42 with RISP and ended with 22 runs, four home runs and 16 extra-base hits.

“This game is crazy,” Tigers closer Joe Nathan said. “These guys get swept and absolutely boatraced by Oakland before we get here. We’re playing as good as we’ve played all season before we get here. And who would’ve seen this happening? I don’t think anybody. But it’s a crazy game.”

Crazy, indeed.

Nathan gave up a game-tying, two-run home run to Murphy in the ninth inning, sending the contest into extra innings. Josh Tomlin (Cleveland’s planned starter for Thursday) logged the last three innings and gave up a solo homer to Alex Avila in the 13th. In the home half of that frame, Michael Brantley delivered a game-tying RBI single and, three batters later, Ryan Raburn was at the plate when reliever Al Alburquerque flinched for a balk with the bases loaded and two outs.

“Do I get an RBI for that?” Raburn joked.

Cleveland used 21 players, including nine pitchers who combined for 269 pitches. The game lasted five hours and 16 minutes, marking the longest game at Progressive Field since Aug. 30, 2008. The balk-off was the first in the Majors since July 4, 2011 (White Sox over Royals) and only the 13th such walk-off win in baseball, dating back to 1974.

Murphy put it best.

“I don’t even know where to start with that game,” he said. “I don’t really know if that was a baseball game, or a marathon combined with a circus.”

SECOND: The circus’ first act was another disaster of a performance by Indians starter Zach McAllister. the big right-hander lasted only two batters into the third inning, when he gave up a leadoff homer to Victor Martinez before walking J.D. Martinez.

McAllister finished with five runs allowed (four earned) on five hits with two strikeouts and two walks in two-plus innings, in which he gave up two homers and threw 59 pitches (36 strikes).

“I felt good up there. The way my body feels, everything feels great. I’m happy with that,” McAllister said. “Again, it’s two starts in a row that have not gone well for me at all. I know I can pitch better. I know what our offense did today is awesome, our offense picked every one of our pitchers up and our bullpen did a tremendous job of helping me out.”

In his previous start, McAllister surrendered a four-spot to the A’s in the second inning on Friday. Over his past 5.2 innings of work (covering three outings), he has surrendered 18 runs (17 earned) on 20 hits with six walks, seven strikeouts and four home runs. Over his past six outings, McAllister has gone 0-4 with a 9.51 ERA and 1.86 WHIP after opening the season 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in four starts.

After his latest struggle, Francona hesitated when asked what he thinks is troubling the righty.

“You know what? I don’t know,” Francona said. “I think 10 minutes after a game, it’s kind of hard to digest, especially after a game like this. I think I want to talk to [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] a little bit about it. I know they’ve been spending some time together. He was on such a nice roll for a while and it’s been rough lately. I’d rather kind of regroup and kind of see where we’re at.”

THIRD: The Indians have had their share off offensive issues. Three bright spots have been third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.367 in 34 games), Brantley (.302 in 45 games) and Murphy (.294 in 43 games). That trio combined to go 8-for-18 with two homers, three doubles, six runs and eight RBIs in Wednesday’s walk-off win over the Tigers.

At the moment, Brantley appears to be Cleveland’s top All-Star candidate.

“Brantley just continues to be so good in so many areas,” Francona said. “Defensively or on the bases, and certainly hitting. He’s just turning into a premiere player. It’s kind of like when [Jason Kipnis] got going last year on that run. Brantley’s kind of getting in that boat where he’s one of the better players in the league right now.”

HOME: Two of the betters pitchers in the league right now, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, were worked hard and abused by Cleveland’s offense over the past two games. Verlander gave up five runs in the first two innings on Tuesday and Scherzer allowed seven runs in the first three innings on Wednesday. They then showed their value by finishing with six innings and seven innings, respectively.

“They’ve won two out of the last three Cy Youngs,” Murphy said. “Obviously, they’re incredible pitchers. They have great stuff. All the same, for instance, Scherzer today, he was leaving balls middle earlier in the game, and we were making him pay. He’s got the type of stuff that he can get away with leaving stuff in the middle of the zone, but when our offense is hot like it was today, we were doing a good job of driving the ball.

“He obviously settled down in the later innings, but any time you put up seven on the reigning Cy Young winner, I think that’s a pretty good day. Those guys are workhorses. Whatever the benchmark is for a normal starting pitcher, 100 pitches, those guys are always going 110-120. They eat innings as much as any pitcher, on top of having incredible stuff. Those are two guys that everybody would love to have at the top of their rotation.”

EXTRA: There will be roster moves coming for the Indians on Thursday. After going through the entire bullpen (with the exception of Cody Allen) and using Tomlin, Cleveland will need a starter for Thursday and also some relief reinforcements. Two starting pitching possibilities are right-handers Kyle Davies and Travis Banwart, through neither are on the 40-man roster. A subsequent move would be required. Lefty T.J. House would make sense, but he was just optioned back to Triple-A Tuesday, so he is not eligible to come back yet (unless someone is placed on the disabled list). As for McAllister, I’m not sure what the Tribe can do. With no off-day, McAllister can’t be skipped. He could be sent down, but there’s no clear replacement at the moment. Righty Danny Salazar was optioned on Friday, so he’s not eligible to return by McAllister’s next scheduled turn, either. Maybe they can ask Jason Giambi if his right calf is still sore? We’ll find out Thursday what the moves will be. Cleveland had a flight to Baltimore to catch after Wednesday’s debacle.

NOTE: I will be off for the upcoming road trip through Baltimore and Chicago. Keeping checking Indians.com and following @tribeinsider and @Indians for updates. Believe me, I’d much rather be hitting the road. I’m having my wisdom teeth removed this week. Good times!

On deck:

Indians (22-25) at Orioles (23-20)
at 7:05 p.m. ET  Thursday at Camden Yards

–JB

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