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Covering the Bases: March 17

Kluber2Final: Reds 5, Indians 4

FIRST: There are setbacks that are easier to accept in Spring Training than during the regular season. Monday’s second-inning showing by Indians righty Corey Kluber is a fine example.

Cincinnati rocked Kluber for three runs on five hits and loaded the bases before the starter escaped with a strikeout to Joey Votto. In the regular season, Tribe manager Terry Francona may have been more tempted to turn to his bullpen early. To a point, it’s easier to let a pitcher work through things in the spring.

Francona stuck with Kluber, who got out of second, breezed through the third and fourth, and pitched into the fifth.

“The second inning, he gave up some hits and some balls were hit pretty hard,” Francona said. “But he came back in the third and fourth and, in the third inning, he threw six pitches, all strikes. Fourth inning, seven pitches, all strikes. And got them out. I thought that was really impressive. In a Spring Training game, you can kind of hang your hat on that.

“It was a long second inning, and you’re almost getting to the point where you almost take him out, and then he ends up getting deep enough where it ends up being a really productive outing.”

Overall, Kluber said he was pleased with how his pitches were working.

“I felt really good,” Kluber said. “I felt like for the most part my stuff was right where I needed it to be. There was a decent amount of soft contact, broken bats and things like that. In that second inning, I left a few balls up and there was also some fly balls that got caught in the wind. That’s bound to happen.”

Was Kluber working on any specific pitch or approach in this outing?

“No. I’m just trying to go out there and get ready at this point,” Kluber said. “I think now is kind of the time to start trying to lock in and get ready to go — for me, at least. I’m at the point now where I feel my stuff is where I need it to be. So it’s just a matter of going out there and getting to a point where you can consistently execute all your pitches.”

In all, Kluber was charged with three runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, in which he struck out five and walked two. Those two walks are his only free passes of the spring in 14 1/3 innings. Kluber has 15 strikeouts. The ERA (5.02) leaves something to be desired, but the last thing anyone with Cleveland is doing is basing evaluations on Cactus League stats. Stuff-wise, Francona has been impressed with Kluber, who will open as the team’s No. 2 starter.

“I think he looks really good, I really do,” Francona said. “He’s got such late action on all his pitches, and he’s aggressive. Again, I think the more he pitches, the more people are going to realize how good this kid is.”

SECOND: Francona has been conservative to this point when it comes to the instant-replay challenges he’s had the chance to use in a select number of games this spring. Monday’s game marked another chance for a review, and it was the Reds who used that ability this afternoon.

In the fifth inning, Brandon Phillips was called out on a stolen-base attempt of third. The throw beat him to the bag, but Phillips appeared to get his hand on the base ahead of Lonnie Chisenhall’s tag. Reds manager Bryan Price saw it that way, so he challenged the ruling by umpire Alan Porter.

Cincinnati asked the play to b reviewed and, following a one-minute delay, the call was overturned.

“I didn’t think it was bad,” Francona said of the timing. “I think everybody seems to be working together to get the play right.”

Kluber said the replay review timing was OK from his perspective as well.

“I thought it worked fine,” Kluber said. “I don’t exactly know what their protocols are and stuff, but it didn’t seem to me like it took too long. It seemed like a pretty speedy process and didn’t really interupt the flow of the game too much. I thought it was fine.”

THIRD: In the fourth inning, Indians first baseman Nick Swisher yanked the first pitch from Cincy’s Mike Leake down the right-field line for a solo home run. It marked the second day in a row that Swisher went yard for the Tribe. Over his past four games, Swisher has gone 4-for-11 at the plate, following a 2-for-16 showing earlier this spring. With two weeks until the season opener, Cleveland can only hope that Swisher is getting his bat revved up.

“We kind of said it a couple weeks ago,” Francona said, “as guys start playing back to back games, and they string some at-bats together, you’ll start to see them get their timing. That’s kind of the normal course of Spring Training.”

HOME: During Cincinnati’s hectic second inning — the Reds’ offensive outburst included two doubles, one triple and a hit-by-pitch, among other things — infield umpire Brad Myers was the unfortunate recipient of a line drive off the bat of Phillips. Myers fell to the ground in obvious pain and, well, let’s just say he was carted off the field in a three-ball count.

Did Kluber see where Myers got hit?

“I heard him say where he got hit. I didn’t see it,” Kluber said with a smirk. “I’ll leave that to your imagination.”

Myers was replaced in the field by umpire John Trumpane (he had been in the replay truck), who was later drilled in the rump by a throw from Indians Minor League first baseman Joe Sever. Not a great day for Team Blue.

Francona said he had never seen an umpire get drilled in the field like Myers did on Wednesday.

“Never. Never,” Francona said. “Man, I’ll tell you, I don’t think I’d even watch a game without wearing a cup. That’s dangerous, man. He got smoked.”

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 9

TomlinFinal: Indians 4, Brewers 2

FIRST: If former Indians manager Manny Acta would’ve seen Josh Tomlin’s performance on Sunday afternoon, we all know what he would have said to reporters:

“I couldn’t be any prouder of my little cowboy.”

Acta famously (at least for us scribes) uttered that quote on April 20, 2012. Tomlin isn’t a big fan of the nickname (“Why couldn’t he have just said ‘cowboy?’” he once asked), but hey, what the right-hander has accomplished is something to take pride in.

It’s certainly not lost on the pitcher.

“I feel pretty blessed to be in this situation right now, competing for that spot,” Tomlin said on Sunday. “The main thing I take out of these outings right now is how I feel the next day and how I feel in the outing. So far, so good.”

Feeling good is such a positive for Tomlin, because he missed most of last season while coming back from Tommy John surgery. That operation is becoming fairly standard, but missing a year can set a pitcher back not just in terms of healthy, but positioning on a staff. Once a lock in the rotation, Tomlin is now fighting for the only job available.

In his latest effort, Tomlin spun four shutout innings and ended with five strikeouts and one walk — a first-inning free pass to Jonathan Lucroy that snapped Cleveland’s 20-inning streak with no walks.

“I’ve got to cut down on those,” quipped Tomlin, who had zero walks in 29 1/3 innings between the Majors and Minors last year.

Tomlin — up against Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Harang and Trevor Bauer — for the lone vacancy in the rotation — said he was pleased with his curveball. He was able to throw it for a strike and use it as a swing-and-miss pitch. After the outing, Indians manager Terry Francona sounded nearly as proud of Tomlin as Acta was two years ago.

“I thought he pitched as advertised and how he needs to pitch,” Francona said. “He threw strikes. He kept the ball down. He holds runners. He, basically, doesn’t beat himself. I think the more he gets removed from Tommy John, the more you see him feeling good about himself and attacking the zone. His future is really bright.”

On the spring, Tomlin has allowed two runs on eight hits with nine strikeouts and two walks in nine innings.

SECOND: Say what you will about the fact that it’s only Spring Training, but the Indians have been extremely sharp on the mound to this point. Toss aside the fact that Cleveland is 9-1-1 (with no losses in 10 games), because wins and losses don’t matter. What does matter is getting ahead, showing strong command and putting batters away. The Indians have done that consistently so far this spring.

With Sunday’s win, Cleveland improved its Spring Training-leading ERA to 2.70. The Indians have a 1.08 WHIP and an opponents’ slash line of .209/.268/.327. The team’s strikeout-to-walk ration currently sits at 3.33 (100-to-30).

Francona, pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash preach strike one, and throwing strikes in even-count situations. That’s why there are leaderboards just inside the clubhouse doors for first-pitch strikes and 1-1 strikes for Cleveland pitchers during Cactus League play. It’s a way to motivate and stress importance at the same time.

“You know what? We were actually talking in the dugout,” Francona said. “Normally in the spring, you let guys pitch out of innings just because they need their work. Guys have come in and thrown strikes. They really haven’t had a big inning. Saying that, it’ll happen tomorrow. You know it. But, staff wide, they’ve done a really good job of working ahead and all the things you’re looking for.”

THIRD: The Indians have reached the point in camp when the it’s time to not only build up the pitchers, but give the regular hitters more and more at-bats. On Sunday, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder David Murphy appeared in their second straight game. Murphy went 0-for-4 as the DH and Cabrera went 2-for-2 with one walk. More and more everyday guys will get consecutive games in soon.

Francona gave Cabrera a day in the leadoff spot to get him his at-bats as quickly as possible.

“That was just to get him at-bats,” explained the manager. “He was playing back to back and I wanted t get him that third at-bat without having him stand out there. I think playing two days in a row, same with Murph, was good for both of them. You’ll see that with select guys in the next week or so. They’ll play back to back games.

HOME: That’s where I will be going Monday morning. I’m flying back to Cleveland to spend time with Mrs. MLB and my two kiddos for the next week. The Tribe beat will go on, with MLB.com’s Doug Miller and Joey Nowak pinch-hitting for me over the next seven days. Indians.com will be in good hands, especially because Miller is a big Pearl Jam fan and Nowak is a fellow Spartan. Those qualities are essential for my replacements. Keep checking Indians.com and give those two a follow on Twitter for Tribe coverage while I’m away. Apologies in advance for the blog being dormant in my absence.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 8

Santana2Final: Indians 4, Padres 4 (10 innings)

FIRST: It has been hard to accurately gauge Carlos Santana’s progress at third base up to this point, because the sample size of in-game plays at the hot corner has been so small. On Saturday, San Diego gave Santana a few good tests.

Santana was forced to react to a variety of plays and, for the most part, he looked solid in getting to balls, but still a bit shaky when the time came to make the throw. He’s looked strong in morning workouts, but games have looked like a challenge at times.

“The one thing not to forget is he’s not the finished product,” Indians manager Terry Francona reminded.

That’s certainly fair, considering the difficulty of moving out from behind the plate and to one of the more difficult positions on the diamond. Spring Training is where errors are meant to be made. It exposes the kinks that need to be ironed out. Well, Santana still has plenty of work to do as he tries to prove he can handle third base, if only as a part-time option.

In the second inning against the Padres, Chris Denorfia chopped a pitch to Santana’s left. He moved to the side well, gloved the ball cleanly and made a nice throw for the out. Santana came through again for a 5-3 putout on a grounder from Will Venable. In the seventh inning, though, Santana hit a snag.

Tommy Medica hit another ball Santana’s way, and the third baseman corralled it fine. As was the case on one play earlier this spring, Santana botched the throw. Both times, the throw has sailed high. In this case, it forced first baseman Jesus Aguilar to reach and come off the bag, allowing Medica to reach safely.

“He’s working really hard,” Francona said of Santana. “If he can continue to get some rhythm. At times, he’ll catch the ball and then he doesn’t move his feet. He’s got plenty of arm, and that’s where you’re seeing him scatter a ball every once in a while. It’s still a work in progress. The good news is he’s willing to work.”

Two plays after the throwing error, Ryan Jackson used a sacrifice bunt down the third-base line to move Medica from second to third base. Santana was forced to charge in, scoop up the ball and fire to first on the run. It was the first time Santana has faced that specific play this spring and he completed the play cleanly.

This will continue to be an interesting story over the next few weeks. Francona noted on Friday that he will sit down with Santana within the next few days to map out the plan for the rest of the schedule. One thing Cleveland needs to determine is how much catching Santana might want to mix in in the weeks leading up to Opening Day.

SECOND: Earlier this spring, Indians left fielder Michael Brantley said that there have been times during an offseason when he’s had to stop hitting for a few days. It doesn’t take Dr. Smooth long to get a feel for his swing. Sometimes, maybe he feels primed a little too early. He’s definitely found his stroke early on this spring.

In the tie with the Padres, Brantley churned out four hits: single (first inning), single (third), double (fifth) and double (eighth). For those keeping score at home, he’s not hitting .615 (8-for-13) on the spring. Over the course of his career, Brantley has posted a .325 (82-for-252) batting average.

“I’m stating the obvious,” Francona said. “He uses the whole field and he’s got a nice swing. I don’t know if it matters what time of year it is. He’s a good hitter.”

Brantley is what you might call a “Christmas Day hitter.” He can roll out of bed on Christmas morning, step in the batter’s box and collect a few knocks.

THIRD: Santana and Brantley joined lineup regulars Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and David Murphy in having four plate appearances apiece. It’s only March 8, but the time has come to start building the hitters back up to the full work load. Francona said the next step is starting players in consecutive games.

“It was nice,” Francona said. “Once we had that long first inning, I wanted them to get deeper into the game and get that fourth at-bat. They’ve been going every other day for the most part. In the next week or so, you’ll see some guys play back to back games and start to get built up.

HOME: The Indians ended Saturday’s game with 11 strikeouts and no walks. That gives the Tribe 27 strikeouts and zero free passes over the past 19 innings (two games). In fact, as of this writing, Cleveland ranked first in the Majors this spring in both ERA (2.77) and WHIP (1.05). The Indians also boasted a 3.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s only 10 games, and it’s only Spring Training, but these are strong developments.

Now, don’t blame me if the Indians are involved in a slugfest tomorrow…

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 5

Raburn2Final: Indians 8, Mariners 5

FIRST: In the NFL, a particular kind of quarterback might have a playing style that’s wrong for a certain offense. But, put him in the right kind of system, and he maybe he’ll thrive. You don’t see the same kind of dynamic in baseball.

Maybe Ryan Raburn is a kind of exception.

In Detroit, which tried to capitalize on his solid play as a reserve weapon by making him an everyday player, Raburn struggled and looked overexposed. The Indians snatched him up after an abysmal 2012 season and offered him a specific kind of role in manager Terry Francona’s system.

Raburn has thrived.

From Day 1, Francona has raved about Raburn’s swing, describing it as the perfect swing for a bench. What he means is the simple mechanics can still hold up, even if Raburn is enduring stretches with sporadic playing time. It also means that, used properly (mostly against lefties, in this case), a player like Raburn can maximize his production.

“He leverages the ball,” Francona said on Wednesday. “He uses his legs, his hands and when he gets extended, man. And he uses the whole field. You don’t see Ray pull too many balls foul like home runs. He stays inside the foul poles and he generates the backspin the other way.”

I’m revisiting this topic because Raburn did it again. He launched another spring home run, which has been a relatively common event in his career. Consider that, over the past five springs, Raburn has hit .332 (73-for-220) with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs between his stints with the Tigers and Indians.

Facing Seattle lefty Lucas Luetge in the seventh inning, Raburn drove a pitch to right field, where it landed in the grass beyond the wall.

“That’s Raburn,” Francona said. “You saw earlier, a left-hander hit the ball out there and the wind kind of grabbed it. He hit his through there. That was a pretty strong swing.”

That’s been a trend since Raburn joined the Tribe. Since putting on an Indians uniform, all he has done is hit 23 home runs in 296 at-bats, which covers 2013 and ’14 Spring Training, the 2013 season and the American League Wild Card Game. Last summer, his 16 homers were the most among Major League batters with fewer than 300 plate appearances.

SECOND: Wednesday was essentially a bullpen day for Cleveland. Teams do that every so often during the preseason. Right-hander Travis Banwart got the start, and was followed by Nick Hagadone, Colt Hynes, Scott Atchison, Bryan Shaw, David Aardsma, Blake Wood, Austin Adams and Josh Outman.

Things got a little out of hand in the first inning, when Banwart gave up a home run, double and single to start the frame before recording an out. Later in the inning, Francona used a bases-loaded, two-out situation as an early opportunity for Hagadone to test his revamped delivery with inherited runners.

Hagadone walked in a run, gave up a hit, was charged with a wild pitch and issued another walk before escaping the inning.

“He’s got the new setup and everything,” Francona said. “I think we might’ve caught him off guard a little bit by getting him up early, but that’s part of it. It’s kind of a good test.”

Walks were an issue last season for Hagadone, who has a Minor League option left and is battling for a spot in the bullpen. With lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Outman deemed virtual locks for the ‘pen, Hagadone needs to impress this spring. He did so in the second inning, when he had a one-two-three showing against Kyle Seager (flyout), Robinson Cano (groundout) and Justin Smoak (strikeout).

THIRD: As has been the trend early on this spring, the kids were all right for the Indians in Wednesday’s win. Outfielder Carlos Moncrief contributed a run-scoring triple and shortstop Francisco Lindor chipped in an RBI double. Both are promising prospects for the organization, but Lindor has the added pressure of being a first-round pick (2011).

So far, the 20-year-old hasn’t flinched while under the microscope. He’s collected three hits in nine at-bats early on this spring and now has a .303 average in 15 career Cactus League games for the Tribe. His double in the ninth inning broke open the tie and helped the Indians roll to the win.

“He’s just a good player,” Francona said. “If we would’ve played him the whole game, he would’ve had something to say about the game before that. We tell the kids, ‘You can sit here and eat seeds and have a Coke, or you can be ready to play and go in to try to do something.’ I think you can see that he’s ready to play when he gets in there.”

Francona said it’s still too soon to know what kind of offensive player Lindor might become for Cleveland.

“His season will tell where he’s at as a player,” Francona said. “And we don’t know where that’s going to be. You don’t know if he’s going to end up hitting the ball out of the ballpark, or how many bases he can steal. There’s a lot of room for growth. That’s what’s exciting.”

HOME: Get off the tracks, the Tribe is coming through. Wednesday’s win was the sixth in a row for Cleveland, which is now 6-1 for the spring. As long-time beat guy Paul Hoynes says, “If you can’t hang with the big dogs, stay on the porch.” All kidding aside, please don’t read too much into a Spring Training win-loss record. I say it every spring and I’m saying it again.

What might a strong record mean early in the spring schedule mean? Well, consider that most the big leaguers are out of the game after a few innings and teams turn things over to Minor Leaguers or non-roster guys late. A good record early on can sometimes be a sign that a team’s depth is strong, or that there are some good young players in the upper levels of the farm system.

And, hey, everyone loves a good comeback. Cleveland trailed 5-1 by the sixth inning and then pulled off an 8-5 victory.

“It’s Spring Training,” Francona reminded, “but it’s still fun to see our guys fight back. The young guys did some good things.”

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 3

Pestano3Final: Indians 6, Rangers 5

FIRST: It is never wise to read too much into any singular spring outing, especially one that only consists of seven pitches. That said, what Vinnie Pestano did in his Cactus League debut can certainly be classified as encouraging.

“They were out there hacking, Pestano said. “I didn’t really get into a rhythm, but I’m not going to complain. That’s the cleanest inning I’ve had in about 16 months.”

By now, if you’re a Tribe fan, you’re probably familiar with Pestano’s story.

Pestano went from the 20th round in 2006 (Tommy John surgery in college damaged his Draft stock) to one of baseball’s elite setup men in the 2011-12 seasons with the Indians. Last year, an elbow issue flared in the spring, came up again in the summer and the right-hander endured a turbulent campaign that  led to crushed confidence and a trip back to Triple-A.

Over the offseason, Pestano gave himself a mental vacation and pushed his normal throwing program back by about a week. That’s why he didn’t appear in a Spring Training game until Monday afternoon in Surprise. What Pestano did not do over the winter was take things easy. He showed up to camp slimmer and extremely motivated to regain his footing in the bullpen.

Pestano lost about 10 pounds and said he “traded” about five pounds of bad weight for good weight. He’s down to 206 pounds after hovering around 215-220 over the past few seasons. I’ll have Pestano walk you through his unique explanation of why he decided to shed some weight.

“The past few offseasons,” Pestano said, “it’s always been about, ‘What’s one thing I can do to really focus on the offseason and try to get better?’ Last year, it was a lot of legs, trying to get my legs stronger. Before that, it was trying to get my upper body stronger. Going into this offseason, when I told myself I was going to take a lot of time off, it was kind of like a car that had a different color door on, and a different spoiler, and it’s got a bunch of patchwork on it.

“And, the next thing you know, it’s just a [crappy] looking car. And so I was like, ‘Do I want to do that? Do I want to keep adding parts on the car? Or, do I want to just strip the car and try to start new? So I stripped the car.”

So, what is he now?

“I’m still a car,” Pestano said with a slight laugh. “I’m still a car with a lot of city miles on it. Same engine. Same foundation. Just better parts.”

Cleveland has never questioned Pestano’s engine. The pitcher is definitely driven, sometimes to the point of taking poor outings a bit too hard. That personality trait only added to the problems that kept piling up throughout last season. After his mental cleanse, and physical transformation, over the winter, Pestano has come into camp saying all the right things.

What Cleveland needs to see now is the pitcher doing all the right things on the mound.

Indians manager Terry Francona liked what he saw from Pestano on Monday.

“Seven pitches. He got in on a lefty,” Francona said. “I think Vinnie felt good about it. It’s something to build off, for sure.”

Pestano’s first pitch induced a flyout to short off the bat of Roughned Odor. Two pitches later, Pestano gloved a chopper from Leonys Martin and tossed it to first base for a groundout. Former Indian Shin-Soo Choo saw four pitches, but went on to ground out to short.

“I’m not going to get excited about a seven-pitch inning in March,” Pestano said. “But it was good. I was able to go out there and locate for the most part. The ball had good action — the type of action I wanted and the type of action I was looking for last year. Having that back, it’s natural, it’s comfortable and we’ll just kind of keep it consistent from here on out.”

SECOND: Francona loves having versatile players on his bench and, if Cleveland breaks camp without a true backup catcher in the fold, that could open up a spot for someone like Elliot Johnson to make the club. The Indians know Johnson can bounce all around the field, but he doesn’t have a consistent track record of hitting at the big league level.

That makes this an important spring for Johnson, who can switch hit and offer a pinch-hitter, pinch runner or defensive replacement off the bench. If he impresses the Tribe, and the club carries only Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana as its catchers, Johnson might have a path to the Opening Day roster.

In Monday’s win, Johnson collected three hits, including a two-run triple. He already has a home run this spring, too. Two other non-roster bench candidates, outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Nyjer Morgan, flashed some of what they can do as well. Francoeur had two hits and threw out a runner at the plate,  and Morgan drew two walks and stole a base.

“In Spring Training, there’s a balance,” Francona said. “Guys have to get ready for a season, but the non-roster guys, this is kind of like the regular season for them. So we try to be respectful and make sure we give them their at-bats and they’re doing the things we thought they could do. Elliot Johnson can move around the field. He can run. Francoeur gets a couple hits today. I hope they all do great and we have really tough decisions.”

THIRD: The fifth starter competition continued on Monday with right-hander Carlos Carrasco logging two innings for the Tribe. Carrasco allowed one run on three hits and ended with one strikeout and one walk. Francona said he was impressed with the right-hander’s outing… when he worked ahead in the count.

“[He was] good,” Francona said. “A couple hitters he fell behind and that’s where, when he works ahead, his stuff is [good]. Like today, his first inning was electric. He’s got the breaking ball and the changeup to go with it. He just needs to keep pumping it to where he works ahead. That’s where he’s going to have success.”

HOME: One pitcher Francona doesn’t sound too concerned about is right-hander Corey Kluber, who has a spot reserved for him in the rotation. Kluber got the start for Cleveland and turned in two innings, limiting the Rangers to one unearned run on one hit with one strikeout and no walks.

“I think Klubes looks good,” Francona said. “He’s strong. He’s on track. It’s just a matter of getting him built up for the season. I think Klubes is going to be just fine.”

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Anecdote of the Day

During our daily briefing with Francona, we were discussing the importance of having a strong bench. With players sch as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, Francona can find spots to rest regulars without feeling like he’s losing much at the plate or in the field. The manager said that’s one reason he thinks Cleveland had such a great record in day games (34-20) last season. And then Francona told this story about his first season managing the Phillies in 1997: “I know when I was in Philadelphia my first year, I used to catch some grief about not playing the ‘A’ team on Sundays, because they had this ticket plan. And our record that year, we lost [94] games, but our record on Sundays was better than .500. I used to try to tell them, ‘Hey, this is the only day we win.’ But that didn’t fly. My point was, the guys played and they had energy. We actually played pretty well.”

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: March 2

Bauer3Final: Indians 6, Mariners 3

FIRST: During Trevor Bauer’s first live batting practice session of the spring, the onlookers standing behind the batting cage unknowingly created a buffer zone. Usually, teammates and coaches lean on the cage. In this case, there was about a one- or two-foot gap between the cage and everyone watching Bauer throw.

That right there summed up the kind of control problems we’ve all seen from Bauer since he joined the Indians.

As Bauer worked through the session, one by one, people started moving closer. His command came and went that day, and the same was true for the next BP round and his first Cactus League appearance. On Sunday, something seemed to click.

“That’s by far the best he’s thrown,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Bauer’s outing against the Mariners. “He looked like he had conviction with his fastball and worked ahead. He threw some fastballs down and then he spun his breaking ball off of it. That was really exciting.”

But he gave up a monstrous home run to Dustin Ackley.

“There’s a big ‘but’ there,” Francona said. “That’s where Spring Training is wonderful. He fell behind, he paid for it, but it’s Spring Training.”

The homer by Ackley was majestic. It carried deep to center field and struck the green backdrop about halfway up the wall. Bauer knew it was a goner as soon as it hit the bat, but the pitcher did something he doesn’t normally do. He turned to watch.

“The only question was was, ‘Would it go over the batter’s eye?’” Bauer said. “I originally wasn’t going to watch it, but then I was like, ‘That might go over. That might be impressive.’ So I turned around. He hit it and it was like, ‘Ah, well. Give me a new ball.’”

The home run aside, Bauer was encouraged by his performance. Over the past year, he’s worked hard on retooling his mechanics and regaining a comfort level with the changes. That kind of comfort tends to come before command, and Bauer said the command only comes when there is trust in the mechanics.

“The ball was going over the plate, which was nice,” Bauer said. “I’m weird, though. When I try to command the ball, I don’t command it very well. So, I kind of have to go out there and just let it rip and trust that it will go over the plate. That’s why, when I didn’t really trust my delivery [last season], it was tough to throw strikes. That trust factor wasn’t there.”

On Sunday, the trust factor returned for Bauer’s two innings, in which he struck out two and walked none. It was a positive development for the Indians, who are giving Bauer a chance to compete against Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Aaron Harang for the lone vacancy in the rotation Harang also pitched Sunday (Francona called it another “crisp” performance), giving the Tribe two innings with one run allowed.

SECOND: As is the case every spring, some young players have come through with some highlight-reel moments so far. Carlos Moncrief had his great catch in the opener. On Thursday, 2012 first-rounder Tyler Naquin launched a home run. In Sunday’s win, top prospect, Francisco Lindor, came through with a three-run blast that pushed the Indians to a win.

It was a homer that probably had Tribe fans daydreaming about his future at shortstop.

“It was a good swing. It’s exciting for us to see that,” Francona said. “We get a kick out of that every day when one of our young kids does something. It just makes the games more fun. I know we talk about it all the time, but we love when our young guys play. It’s fun to watch them have some success, even if it’s just Spring Training.”

This is when I remind you that, no, Lindor won’t be stealing Asdrubal Cabrera’s job as the starting shortstop this spring. Lindor will open the year at either Double-A or Triple-A, considering he only played a few weeks at Double-A in the second half last year before being shut down with a back injury. Lindor is very much on Cleveland’s radar, but his development path points to a late-2014 or 2015 MLB debut.

Be patient, folks.

THIRD: On Sunday morning, Francona was asked what the Indians would be watching while evaluating Carlos Santana at third base.

“You try to watch and see what he reacts to, everything, even balls that aren’t hit to him,” Francona said prior to Sunday’s game. “Is he moving? Is he reacting to a play? Is he reacting to the bat? So far, he seems to be just fine. I know in winter ball, all the reports were that he didn’t look out of position.”

Francona then dropped the jinx on Santana with this gem: “His arm is probably as good as anybody’s in the league. He’s shed all the gear and he still has that arm strength. It’s pretty impressive.”

Naturally, Santana received his first grounder of the spring later in the day and it was his arm that did some damage to the play.

Corey Hart chopped a pitch to the left side of the infield, where Santana moved in front of the ball and waited to corral it. The ball took a little longer to get to Santana than it looked like it would off the bat, and the catcher-turned-third baseman appeared to fumble his grip as he made the transfer. Santana’s throw to first baseman Nick Swisher sailed high, and Swisher’s leaping grab-and-tag attempt didn’t work. Hart was safe, and Santana collected his first E-5 of 2014.

“I think coming out of his glove, he just didn’t have it and he took another shuffle,” said Francona, who then smirked.  “Right after I was just talking about his arm…”

HOME: Indians outfielder Michael Brantley collected three hits in Sunday’s victory. That’s old hat for Brantley in Sping Training. He hit .354 in 18 spring games last year and has a .317/.378/.444 slash line in 92 career preseason games. Francona said it doesn’t seem to take Brantley much time to get his swing ready for a season, because the left fielder’s approach is so simplistic.

“Hitting is hard, but his mechanics are so simple,” Francona said. “I think he probably gets ready quicker more than other guys, because his swing, he can repeat it so often. There’s not a lot of moving parts. He did the same thing last year.”

Brantley’s swing has also helped him develop into one of the game’s top contact hitters, which might help explain his solid career marks in “clutch” scenarios. All he does is put the ball in play. Last season, Brantley ranked first in the American League and fifth in baseball with a 90.1-percent contact rate. In 2012, Brantley ranked third in the AL and fourth overall in baseball with a 91.5-percent contact rate.

That is one reason why Francona enjoys bouncing Brantley throughout a lineup. He’s a great protection hitter no matter where he’s slotted in.

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Anecdote of the Day

redselephant

During the media’s daily sit-down with Indians manager Terry Francona, a muted television behind him was tuned into Sportscenter. ESPN was running a special on the late Marge Schott, the former owner of the Reds who passed away 10 years ago Sunday. A reporter motioned to the TV after the question-and-answer session and asked if Francona was there during Schott’s days in Cincy. “I sure was,” Francona said with a laugh. “I rode that elephant at the team party. If you weren’t really good, you had to ride the elephant. If you weren’t good enough to tell her no, you had to ride the elephant.” At the annual Reds’ rally, the animal-loving Schott would have an elephant on hand from the Cincinnati Zoo. Asked how he got on top of the beast, Francona laughed and said he didn’t know. There may have been drinking involved.

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Poll results

In my previous post, I offered 25 nicknames for current Tribe players that were agreed upon by Indians writers here in Arizona. I asked you to vote for your favorite. As of this writing, 267 ballots were cast (only one permitted per voter) and the runaway winner was “Dr. Smooth” (Brantley) with 75 votes (28.09%). That moniker was coined by Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It gained steam over the past couple years, in which it made an appearance on the back of one of Brantley’s Topps baseball cards and was also turned into a scoreboard graphic at Progressive Field. Brantley has a shirt that says “Dr. Smooth” across the chest and he’s said he loves the nickname. So, like it or not, Dr. Smooth is here to stay.

Top 5 current Indians player nicknames (via fan vote)
1. Dr. Smooth (Brantley), 75
2. Scrabble (Marc Rzepczynski), 25
3. Dirtbag (Jason Kipnis), 23
4. Nasty Masty (Justin Masterson), 17
5. Yanny Bench (Yan Gomes), 16

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Catch up on Cleveland’s camp with these links

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Poll: Best current Indians nickname

Brantley3A debate over the best Indians nickname took place this morning in the media workroom. Yes, it’s a very busy news day.

For all-time, Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com likes “Sudden Sam” McDowell. Michael Brantley’s “Dr. Smooth” is a favorite for current players among the press corps. What say you, though?

Here’s an agreed-upon list that reporters came up with this morning from the Tribe’s current roster.

Which moniker ranks above the others?

–JB

Covering the Bases: Feb. 28

TomlinFinal: Indians 4, Reds 0

FIRST: In Spring Training, when there are six weeks of baseball to cover and only so many storylines to chase, reporters can be excused for getting a little ahead of themselves from time to time. Take Cleveland’s rotation race, for example.

After Friday’s win, during which right-hander Josh Tomlin turned in a pair of impressive innings, one scribe asked Indians manager Terry Francona if this was getting interesting to watch.

“You’re a little early. Shocker!” Francona said with a laugh. “We’re two innings into the spring. But, you’re right, I hope it comes down to the end and we have a really hard decision, because that means guys did well and that bodes well for us.

“But they’ve still got to get their legs under them.”

In Tomlin’s two innings, he scattered two hits and ended with a pair of strikeouts and no walks. In fact, Tomlin hasn’t walked a batter since Aug. 12, 2012. Yeah, yeah, I know he missed about a year in there coming back from Tommy John, but the righty did have 21 strikeouts against zero walks in his 29 1/3 innings in 2013 (Minors and Majors).

“Overall, I felt great,” Tomlin said. “My arm feels good and my body feels good. That’s the main thing I’m taking away from this one.”

The fifth starter battle continues on Saturday — barring a rainout (yes, that’s apparently a possibility) — with Aaron Harang and Trevor Bauer slated to pitch against the White Sox. Carlos Carrasco has been impressive to this point in camp and Shaun Marcum, while still touted as a contender, is limited to throwing bullpens at this point.

SECOND: Tomlin was helped out by a great diving catch by outfielder Nyjer Morgan. In the fourth inning, Ramon Santiago drove a line drive into the right-center gap. Morgan, playing center, sprinted in and called off right fielder Ryan Raburn (“He’s a much better athlete than me,” Raburn said with a smile as he exited the ballpark). Morgan dove, made the catch, flipped the ball back to the infield and was clearly fired up in the moments immediately following the play.

Off the bat, Tomlin thought it was going to be a hit.

“But then I saw him coming in hot,” Tomlin said. “He’s a great player. Seeing him lay out like that, it was fun to watch.”

Francona was also impressed.

“Nyjer’s kind of come into camp, you can tell he’s a little bit on a mission,” Francona said. “He’s paying with a lot of enthusiasm. He’s all over the place. That was a heck of a play.”

You may have noticed that Morgan hasn’t been quoted at all this spring. To this point, he has declined on-the-record interviews. I’ve chatted with Morgan a few times, and he has said he just wants to focus on baseball right now, especially as he competes for a bench job as a non-roster invitee. Just this morning, prospect Tyler Naquin raved about how much Morgan has helped him out behind the scenes. Not talking to the media can sometimes be perceived poorly. All I can offer is that Morgan talks to his teammates and has been working hard in the practices. I’m sure his famous quotable side will come out eventually.

THIRD: Friday also marked the Cactus League debut of John Axford, who signed to be Cleveland’s new closer over the winter. Axford’s part in the afternoon was mostly uneventful (though that’s typically well-received for a closer). He struck out two, induced one groundout and walked one.

“He was pretty good, man,” Francona said. “The ball came out of his hand good. He threw a 3-2 curveball in the dirt, but he was pretty good. I thought his ball had a lot of life to it.”

As for that 3-2 curve, it was the only curve he through in the outing. Axford said he and catcher Yan Gomes decided to try to flip one over, just to begin getting a feel for it. Oh, well. At least he missed low. If you miss with a curve, that’s the way to go.

Axford added that he’s ready to prove that he can be a solid closer again.

“That’s why I’m here, definitely,” Axford said. “I definitely could’ve gone other places and done different things. I’m in Cleveland because it’s proving to be a winning organization. Obviously, with Tito at the helm, too, I’m definitely looking forward to that. It’s a great clubhouse and, obviously, an opportunity to close again was very important.”

HOME: The King of Spring is back. In the second inning, Ryan Raburn launched a two-run home run off Reds right-hander Homer Bailey. Ho hum. Belting bombs in the preseason is kind of Raburn’s thing. He hit six last spring for the Tribe (helping him earn a spot on the Opening Day roster) and has crushed 19 long balls in 213 spring at-bats over the past five years.

“He doesn’t do too bad in the season, either,” Francona said. “That was a good swing. That was a nice swing.”

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Catch up on Cleveland camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Feb. 27

Santana4We’re two games into the Cactus League slate and Cleveland is outscoring Cincinnati, 15-11. Feel free to read way too much into the box scores, because I won’t be doing that this early in camp. With that in mind, let’s cover the bases for the first time in 2014.

Final: Indians 12, Reds 3

FIRST: It finally happened. Carlos Santana played third base in a big league game for the Indians. Sure, it was only two innings and, naturally, no balls were hit his way. But there he was, manning the hot corner against Cincinnati.

The Experiment is officially underway.

“He’s comfortable over there,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I think he’s more comfortable than people probably are giving him credit for. He’s pretty at home over there. I think it’s going to be surprising if he doesn’t handle himself pretty well.”

Games will be the true test of that, but there was only one pop quiz in Thursday’s exhibition.

In the second inning, Zack Cozart ripped a pitch into the left-center gap, where Michael Bourn tracked it down. Shortstop Mike Aviles caught the relay through and quickly fired it to Santana, as Cozart tried to stretch a sure two-base hit into a risky triple. Santana gloved the one-hopper and swiftly thrust his glove down, tagging the runner in time for the out. No problems on the play whatsoever.

Francona reminded reporters that it’s far too early to project what might happen at third base.

“We have no idea,” Francona said. “When we leave camp, we’ll try to take our best team with us. We’re two games in. We like Lonnie Chisenhall a lot, so we’ll have some decisions to make.”

Chisenhall played third in Wednesday’s game and Santana followed suit on Thursday. Expect that kind of rotation to continue as the spring progresses. As for catching, Francona said earlier this week that it would probably be at least a couple weeks before Santana returned to that position to get reps prior to the regular season. It’s all third, all the time, right now.

SECOND: Sinkerballer Justin Masterson got the nod as Cleveland’s starter and turned in one shutout inning, finishing with two strikeouts and one hit surrendered. Masterson stuck with only fastballs (four-seamers and two-seamers), noting that he’d probably begin mixing in the slider in his next outing.

More newsworthy, however, was Masterson’s response to a question about his contract status.

“I figure somehow, some way,” Masterson said, “I’ll end up still being here for a few more years.”

That was interesting, because there has been a considerable gap in long-term contract negotiations. Masterson’s camp and Cleveland’s front office rekindled contract talks earlier this week and the sides will likely continue over the weekend and into next week and possibly the weeks to come. What is clear right now is that, if something is going to get done, it would need to happen before Opening Day.

What is also known is that the two sides have exchanged parameters, though nothing is imminent.

THIRD: Two more starters took the hill for the Indians on Thursday. Right-hander Corey Kluber (a lock for the rotation) allowed two runs on two hits with one hit batsmen in one inning. Hey, spring is for shaking off the rust. Righty Carlos Carrasco (a top candidate for the fifth rotation spot) logged two shutout innings with two strikeouts.

Francona raved about Carrasco’s outing.

“Carrasco was really good in his two innings,” Francona said. “The first hitter, to the lefty [Billy Hamilton], he kind of left some balls up to the arm side, but then he made his adjustment and he worked ahead and he was really good. It’s two innings, but he looks comfortable.”

Remember, Carrasco is out of Minor League options. He’s likely on the pitching staff in some capacity — in the rotation or in the bullpen — unless some unforeseen setback comes into play this spring.

HOME: Some of Cleveland’s kids came through for the second game in a row. Francisco Lindor went 1-for-4 with two runs. Jake Lowery launched a grand slam. Erik Gonzalez went 1-for-2 with a run. Tyler Naquin went 1-for-3 with a homer and two RBIs. Getting to watch the younger players is one of Francona’s favorite parts of Spring Training.

Asked about Naquin, Francona replied: “I would put him in the class with Erik Gonzalez. He’s a good, young player. We just don’t know how good he’s going to be. His career is in front of him and it’s going to be fun to see what he turns into. He’s a really good outfielder with a good, strong throwing arm. We don’t know what he’s going to be as a hitter, but it’ll be fun to watch him grow.

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Anecdote of the day

I went searching for a good story about Nick Swisher today. I was looking for something he said or did last season that would’ve been off the radar for reporters. One story that came up happened during the Indians’ May 18 win over the Mariners. In the fifth inning, Swisher flies out to the warning track in left-center field and heads back to the dugout. He heads down the steps and says, “Man, the ball’s not going anywhere today.” The next batter, Mark Reynolds, then used an off-balance, one-handed swing to crush a 3-2 home run off Seattle lefty Joe Saunders. The dugout erupted and Swisher had to stand there and wear all the abuse from his teammates. Instead of fuming, Swisher laughs hard with them and says, “All right. I deserve that. I deserve that.” The moral of the story? Said the storyteller: “He’s able to
laugh at himself as well as dish it out a little bit. That’s one thing about this team. Everybody treats it as a brotherhood. We’re like a bunch of big and little brothers.”

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Catch up on Cleveland camp with these links…

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Francona: “I was out of my element.”

Tito2The Dodgers and D-backs will kick off the 2014 regular season next month with a pair of games in Australia. It’s going to be a fatiguing journey for both clubs, but it’s also an important part of Major League Baseball’s efforts to globalize the game.

Indians manager Terry Francona had a similar experience during his days with the Red Sox. After winning the World Series in 2007, Boston opened up the ’08 campaign with games against the A’s in Japan.

First and foremost, Francona understands why MLB had these kind of events.

“I think it’s good for the game,” Francona said. “I’d rather it be another team.”

One thing you need to know about Francona — if you haven’t gathered it already — is that he craves being prepared and being with his team. He’s the first person in the clubhouse on the day of a game and he’s the first person in the dugout before first pitch.

So, when Francona was required to attend a meet-and-greet at the United States Embassy in Japan on what was Opening Day, he was understandably distracted. Bring it up now, six years later, and he still gets annoyed, especially because the trip included stops in Los Angeles, Oakland and Toronto after going to Japan.

“I hated it,” Francona said. “It’s nothing against Japan. The two games we played, the exhibition games, were great. The minute the season counted, I was a wreck. Opening Day, I was at the embassy. That was the last [bleeping] place I wanted to be. I wanted to have a team meeting and I’m over there with a tie on.

“Everybody wanted to kill me. I was out of my element and I didn’t like it. When they were exhibition games, I was OK. But Spring Training was a disaster. Not a disaster, but we were there a week early. You’re planning on guys pitching, not pitching, staying back. I didn’t like it.”

Francona said he kept inching closer to the exit during the stop at the U.S. Embassy.

“I think Larry Lucchino wanted to wring my neck,” Francona said. “I was sitting out there by the door like waiting for permission to go the ballpark.”

Before the trip was made official, the Red Sox called Francona to get his input.

“They called me in the winter and asked me my opinion,” Francona said. “I said, ‘My opinion is it’s not going to help us win.’ I said, ‘I also understands there are reasons why you do these things, but if you’re asking me pure baseball wise, it will not give us an advantage.’”

Francona was then asked to pack a tie.

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Photo of the Day

cooperspineDr. Curtis Dickman stopped by Tribe camp on Tuesday to discuss the unique spinal cord surgery that first baseman David Cooper underwent. Dickman called it a miracle that Cooper was not only back at 100 percent, but back to playing professional baseball with the Indians. A feature on Cooper and his operation will hit Indians.com on Wednesday.

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Catch up on the latest from Cleveland’s camp with these links:

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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