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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

Covering the Bases: Game 42

0516McAFinal: A’s 11, Indians 1

FIRST: Cleveland’s rotation has had better days than Friday.

The evening began with the news that the Indians had understandably demoted struggling starter Danny  Salazar to Triple-A. The night ended with a lopsided loss carved from a clunker of an outing from Zach McAllister.

What was so perplexing about McAllister’s night was the brilliant manner in which it began. The righty set down Coco Crisp, John Jaso and Josh Donaldson in order to open the game, striking each of them out and throwing 11 of his first 16 pitches for strikes.

“Boy, the first inning, he came out really good,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He threw some of his better breaking balls that we’ve seen. He kind of had some power to it.”

And then in the second inning…

Well, let’s just say that the swiftness with which McAllister fell apart was historic. According to research through baseball-reference.com’s Play Index, it marked the first time in the past 100 years of baseball that a Major League starter struck out the side in order in the first before allowing at least eight runs in the second, among pitchers with no more than two innings logged.

In 1.1 innings of work, McAllister was charged with eight runs on five hits with three walks, three strikeouts and two home runs. He ended with 54 pitches, including 29 strikes.

As our friends over at LetsGoTribe.com pointed out, McAllister’s performance netted a negative game score (-4). That made it only the sixth negative game score by an Indians pitcher, dating back to at least 1914. That list includes Charles Nagy (-1 on Aug. 14, 1998), Bob Feller (-15 on Aug. 26, 1938), Oral Hildebrand (-4 on July 14, 1935), Johnny Miljus (-26 on July 25, 1929) and Joe Shaute (-1 on June 16, 1925).

McAllister’s was only the ninth game score of -4 or worse with no more than 1.1 innings logged in the past 100 years of box scores. The last such occurrence was on Aug. 17, 2008, when Brian Bannister accomplished that dubious feat for Kansas City.

The second inning went as follows: double (Brandon Moss), single (Yoenis Cespedes), RBI single (Jed Lowrie), walk (Derek Norris), grand slam (Josh Reddick), groundout (Eric Sogard), walk (Crisp), walk (Jaso), three-run homer (Donaldson).

“In the second inning of a game,” Francona said, “you want to give a guy a chance to get through it. Maybe he can gather himself. Even if you go four [innings], you’re not into your bullpen in your second inning. But, it just wasn’t happening.”

With that loss, McAllister’s season ERA ballooned from 3.89 to 5.36. The righty is now 0-4 with an 8.72 ERA in his last five starts (all five were losses for the Indians). In that span, he has 24 strikeouts and 10 walks with a .303 (27-for-89) opponents’ average. The eight runs on Friday certainly skews things there, but it’s still a dramatic drop-off from his first four starts of the year. In that time period, he went 3-0 with a 2.28 ERA and .233 (21-for-90) opponents’ average. Cleveland won all four games and he had 17 strikeouts and seven walks.

“I know I haven’t pitched my best,” McAllister said. “Obviously, you’re going to have some peaks and valleys. Right now, I’m down, as far as the way I’ve been pitching lately. I know I’ve got to get back up to that middle ground and pitch better.”

Francona said McAllister’s task now is to ignore the numbers and weather the current storm.

“[He has] to be strong enough mentally to understand that he is a good pitcher,” Francona said. “It might take a while to get that ERA to where he’s comfortable, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win.”

SECOND: No one expected rookie lefty Kyle Crockett to reach the Majors as fast as he did. He was called up from Double-A Akron on Friday, making him the first player from the 20013 Draft to reach the Majors. So, it seemed fitting that Crockett’s MLB debut came sooner than expected, too.

Once McAllister’s struggles reached the tipping point, Francona brought the 22-year-old Crockett into the contest with one out in the second inning. The left-hander started with a walk to Moss, but quickly recovered by inducing an inning-ending doubleplay groundout from Cespedes. Francona let Crockett stay on the hill in the third, and he gave up a leadoff homer to Lowrie and a single to Norris before retiring the final two batters he faced.

“I thought he was nervous, which is to be expected,” Francona said. “Once he gave up the home run, I thought he settled down a little bit and actually threw the ball like he can. He’ll be a command guy. Tonight, he was yanking some pitches. I thought it was good to get that first one out of the way for him and let him settle in.”

THIRD: A’s right-hander Sonny Gray (5-1, 2.10 ERA) is good enough without a huge pile of run support. So, once the right-hander had an 8-1 lead, he pounded the strike zone and cruised through six  frames en route to the win. Gray struck out nine, walked three and scattered two hits.

“He’s a pretty special pitcher,” Francona said. “He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he can cut it, sink it, breaking ball. A lot of our thinking today was, ‘Hey, when you get the first fastball, if it’s middle, go ahead and whack it, because he doesn’t give you much after that.’

“Then, when you get a lead like he had, that kind of plays right into [his hand]. After the first time through the order, man, he’d get to two strikes and he’d just put us away. He’s got so many weapons. The big breaking ball. He’s got a fastball with movement and he commands so well.”

HOME: Not only did McAllister come out firing in the first inning, the Indians’ received a solo homer from Nick Swisher (his first blast since April 12) in the opening frame to grab a quick lead. It’s amazing, though, how a game can feel over only a half-inning later. Following Oakland’s eight-run outburst, Cleveland’s offense went 2-for-26 with 12 strikeouts. The Indians had as many errors (two) in the field as hits off Gray and the A’s had more home runs (three) than the Tribe had runners in scoring position.

There were few positives to be found in this one. The blowout did give Francona the chance to get Crockett his first appearance in the Majors, and the opportunity to get Mike Aviles and Jesus Aguilar their first career work in center field and at third base, respectively. Carlos Carrasco also helped save the bullpen some bullets by eating up the final four innings.

Links:

On deck:

A’s (26-16) at Indians (19-23)
at 7:05 p.m. ET  Saturday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: May 9-11

511MorganSeries: Indians 2, Rays 1

FIRST: Little by little, Nyjer Morgan is allowing Tony Plush to make appearances. You know T.P. is there when Morgan scrunches his face, lets out a growl or begins to almost use a different voice.

Plush isn’t quite back from vacation just yet, but he’s certainly checking in from time to time.

There was no doubt T. Plush was on hand at Tropicana Field on Sunday. He arrived in the eighth inning, when Morgan drilled a pitch from Brandon Gomes over the wall in right field for a leadoff home run. It was Morgan’s first homer in the big leagues since July 30, 2012.

As he left the box, Morgan stared at his blast, held his bat out high and gave it a little flip as it cleared the fence. Plush then ran the bases, one hand tucked close to his body as he made his way around second. He gave an excited high five to third-base coach Mike Sarbaugh and then, as he crossed the plate, Plush quickly flashed his signature “T” with his hands.

It was so fast, we asked if that’s what he did just to be certain.

“I threw up the ‘T,'” said Morgan, whose face contorted as he cocked his head to the side and raise the pitch of his voice. “Threw up the ‘T.’ Just a little one. I kind of short-armed it.”

Plush began laughing.

“Because, you know, that was kind of a Japanese bat flip,” he added, growling, laughing some more. “Yeah, yeah, that Japanese bat flip.”

We’re all laughing now, as Plush now lowered the pitch of his voice to a slow exaggerated tone.

“I was thinking I might end up wearing one. Haah. Haah. Haah. Haaah.”

Whoever it was on the field, he went 3-for-4 with a pair of bunt singles and the home run. Through 14 games this season, all Tony Wahoo has done is turn in a .341/.429/.439 slash line with the homer, one double, six RBIs, three stolen bases, eight runs and more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) in 41 at-bats.

Morgan didn’t play on Friday or Saturday, and his playing time has been sparse since Michael Bourn returned again from injury. On Sunday, Indians manager Terry Francona really wanted to get him into the game. Michael Brantley served as the DH for the day, Bourn manned center and Plush played left.

“He always plays with energy,” Francona said. “He gets kind of the swinging bunt for a run and then he hits the home run. He made a running catch in left field. We were kind of looking for a way to get him in there today, and I’m glad we did.”

The swinging bunt came on an excuse-me swing against Rays righty Chris Archer in the second inning. The ball wound up being perfectly placed down the third-base line, where it rolled to a stop as Asdrubal Cabrera scored. Morgan then bunted for a single again in the sixth, reaching with a head-first slide, but only being deemed safe after a quick instant-replay review.

“I knew I was safe,” Morgan said.

Morgan then moved to second on a balk by reliever Brad Boxberger, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sac fly from Mike Aviles. Morgan said, in his mind, there was no doubt that his abilities as a baserunner influenced that chain of events.

“That’s what I do,” Morgan said. “I’m a threat no matter how you take it. If I’m on first, Mikey’s behind me, they’re going to leave a fastball up for him. My job, even if I’m not base stealing, I can still be a threat just by being out there. I know my game and I know myself. And I know that I’m a dangerous weapon.”

SECOND: In Friday’s win, John Axford labored through a 31-pitch inning that turned in what should’ve been an easy 6-2 win into a nailbiter. Cody Allen cleaned things up, sealing a 6-3 win and prompting the Indians to make a change in the ninth for now.

On Saturday, Axford was informed that he will not be closing games out for the time being. Cleveland wants him to work out some mechanical kinks and find some consistency with his command before resuming that role. In the meantime, Allen, Scott Atchison, Marc Rzepczynski and Bryan Shaw will all hold the fort down for the Tribe.

“We’re all 100-percent confident that he can do it,” said Allen, referring to Axford being the closer. “He’s has over 100 saves in his career for a reason. We’re all confident that he’s going to get there. Maybe just a little rest, a little side work and we’ll get him back to where he needs to be. And we’ll be back to being a better ‘pen.”

On Sunday, Francona used his four-headed closing monster for the first time.

Situationally, it was easy to see how it works. Atchison and Rzepczynski handled the seventh and Zep stayed in for the eighth. When a leadoff walk and botched grounder (Rzepczynski made a throwing error on a would-be, inning-ending double play) threatened the game and put runners on base, Francona turned to Allen to bail the team out. Allen was uncharacteristically wild, but he escaped nonetheless with Cleveland clinging to a one-run lead. Shaw then entered and picked up the save with a clean ninth.

It wasn’t pretty, but in theory, it was aligned in a way that made sense.

Ax is going to be fine,” Rzepczynski said. “He’ll get back to where he needs to be and he’ll get right back in that role eventually. The other four guys, I think just depending on the lineup and depending on who’s available, they’re just just going to go out there and do their job no matter what inning, sixth, seventh, eighth ninth, it doesn’t really matter.

“For me, I look at the lefties and see where they’re hitting. … The other three guys did their job today. Like Tito said, we’ll piece together the ninth or piece together to get to the ninth and whoever is available will go out there and do their job.”

Hopefully with a little less stress next time for Cleveland’s sake.

THIRD: Overall, the Tribe’s rotation went 2-1 with a 4.76 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in the series against the Rays. Not great, but the numbers are skewed by Zach McAllister’s outing on Saturday, when he gave up five runs in 4.1 innings. Corey Kluber (Friday) and Josh Tomlin (Sunday) combined to allow four runs in 12.2 innings with a combined 11 strikeouts (full disclosure: nine via Kluber) and no walks.

For Tomlin, Sunday was his second win in a row since officially completing his return to the rotation after Tommy John surgery. Asked what was working for him in Sunday’s start (six innings, two runs), Tomlin laughed.

“The defense was, to be honest with you,” he said.

Tomlin didn’t have his best stuff — evidenced by the 102 pitches he threw — but he survived and limited the damage.

“The thing that he’s got is he’s going to go out there and battle,” Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. “You know exactly what you’re getting out of him. I don’t think he’s necessarily fooling anybody, but he’s pitching unbelievable, man. He’s going in and out and his fastball plays up, because he’s mixing in his offspeed pretty well.”

HOME: Wielding a pink bat for Mother’s Day, Gomes belted a leadoff homer for the Indians in the sixth inning on Sunday. Combined with Morgan’s blast, that gave Cleveland its fifth multi-homer game in 10 games in May. The Indians had only three multi-homer games in 28 games in March/April.

The Indians have launched 12 homers in May’s 10 games, with five in the last three games and eight in the last five games. In March/April, Cleveland had just 19 games in an anemic month for the offense.

In this series, the Indians scored a combined 12 runs on 23 hits in the two wins. Saturday’s one-run, three-hit showing against lefty Erik Bedard was brutal, but Tampa Bay also put up seven runs and wound up with a blowout. It was the kind of loss that, in David Murphy’s words, players “won’t lose sleep over,” because clunkers like that happen from time to time in a long season. Accept it and move on.

It is worth noting that the Indians have scored 47 runs in 10 games in May for an average of 4.7 per game. In March/April, Cleveland averaged 2.8 runs per game (106 in 28 games). So far in May, the Indians have also turned in a .259/.333/.466 slash line, compared to a .232/.313/.354 line in the first month. Currently, Cleveland’s .779 OPS for May ranks third in the American League.

FUN FACT: When Gomes (Yan) singled off Gomes (Brandon) on Friday, I simply had to know if any other Gomes had recorded a hit off another Gomes in baseball history. As it happens, Yan Gomes is the only Gomes in Major League history to have a hit off another Gomes. He’s gone 2-for-3. Jonny Gomes has no hits off Brandon Gomes, and Wayne Gomes never faced another Gomes in his career. So, there you have it. We can all sleep easy tonight with that knowledge in hand.

I’m still waiting for the day that Hannahan faces Hanrahan. Hey, a sportswriter can dream, can’t he?

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY… to all the great moms out there. I don’t know where I’d be without my awesome wife, Kelly, who is loving and caring and so understanding. I leave for weeks at a time with this job and she’s back home taking care of our two kiddos. Shoot, when I’m home, I just get in the way! And there is not a day that goes by when I do not think about my own mom, Patti. She passed away when I was young, but I was a momma’s boy long enough to now cherish every moment I had with her. Ma had a passion for baseball (Sorry, Tribe fans, she rooted for the White S0x) and my love of the game was fueled by hers when I was a kid. Mom’s can play catch, too, and mine did plenty of times with me. If it weren’t for my mom, I know I wouldn’t be working in baseball. I actually don’t know what I’d be doing. I owe her a lot.

Links:

On deck:

Indians (18-20) at Blue Jays (18-20)*
at 7:07 p.m. ET Tuesday at Rogers Centre

*Toronto plays on Monday

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 35

508CabreraFinal: Indians 9, Twins 4

FIRST: Asdrubal Cabrera sensed the group of reporters gathering behind him at his locker. The Indians shortstop glanced back, shook his head and gave a wave of his hand.

“Don’t wait for me,” he said

On a day to celebrate Cabrera, he exercised his right to decline comment. That didn’t stop manager Terry Francona or Cabrera’s teammates from raving about the shortstop’s showing on Thursday.

In a rout of the Twins that wrapped up a 5-2 homestand, Cabrera went 4-for-5 at the plate with one home run, two doubles, two runs and three RBIs. He fell a triple short of the cycle, though he actually made it to third base on his two-base hit in the eighth. The official scorer gave Cabrera a double and deemed that he advanced to third on the relay throw from right field to the plate.

“He had a cycle. They took it away,” Francona said. “I’m not really sure. I have to look at the rules, but he never broke stride. I’m not sure that really isn’t a triple. I don’t know if I’m begging, but when you see the ball get by the right fielder and Cabby never broke stride, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets changed back.”

The official scorer was none other than long-time Indians beat reporter Sheldon Ocker, who retired prior to this season after 30-plus years covering the Tribe. This marked Ocker’s first game working as an official scorer and, as the baseball gods usually see fit, he was given a tough call on Day 1.

“I thought he retired,” Francona quipped.

Was it a triple?

Said left fielder Michael Brantley: “Absolutely. He worked hard for that. Those don’t come every day. He ran the whole time, didn’t look back, didn’t stutter step. I want it for him. He deserves it.”

Added infielder Mike Aviles: “I think so. I think when we’re at home, it has to be a triple. Obviously, the official scorer doesn’t think so. He gave him it at first, which I thought was weird, to just take it away right away. And you can tell him I said that.”

Travis Hafner remains the last Indians batter to hit for a cycle, doing so on Aug. 14, 2003 in Minnesota.

Cycle or not, Cabrera still had himself a day.

Cabby launched a leadoff homer in the second and then contributed an RBI double in each of the seventh and eighth innings. Since snapping an 0-for-13 slump on Wednesday — a drought that came within a 5-for-40 showing over a 13-game span — Cabrera has gone 6-for-7 at the plate with four extra-base hits.

“It’s great,” Brantley said. “We’ve been doing a great job picking him up as a team, making sure that he knows we’re still in his corner. Keep working, keep fighting. He’s been working his tail in the cage, early work. We’ve been watching it. It’s good to see it pay off. It’s going to continue to pay off. He’s a great player.”

Cabrera’s four-hit showing lifted his season average to just .238 through 35 games. The shortstop’s early-season production has been skewed by drastic lefty-righty splits. Batting left-handed against righties, he headed into Thursday with a .173/.271/.213 slash line. As a righty versus left-handers, Cabrera had a .283/.340/.478 slash line. It was encouraging for Cleveland that Cabrera’s outburst Thursday came from the left side of the plate.

“That shows you how smart I was,” Francona said. “I was going to give him the day off. He talked me out of it.”

SECOND: Cabrera was hardly alone in Thursday’s offensive outpouring.

The Indians matched a season high with 15 hits and set a season high with nine extra-base hits and seven doubles. Six players had at least one hit, while four had multi-hit showings. In fact, those four — Brantley (3-for-5), Cabrera (4-for-5), Aviles (3-for-4) and David Murphy (3-for-4) gave Cleveland its first game with four players collecting at least three hits apiece since April 18, 2009 (Hafner, Mark DeRosa, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta).

“Hitting is contagious,” Brantley said. “One hit goes and another hit goes and you kind of just lean on one another. It was fun to be a part of today.”

Over the six-game homestand, the Indians hit .261 as a team with 34 runs (4.9 per game) on 60 hits, including 26 for extra bases. During the 0-6 road trip through San Francisco and Anaheim, just prior to the homestand, Cleveland hit .183 as a team with 13 runs (2.2 per game) on 35 hits, including 10 for extra bases. It’s worth noting that 21 of the runs at home came in two games (12 on Friday and nine Thursday).

“We’re still inconsistent in some things,” Francona said. “But we’re doing a lot of things better than we were. This whole homestand, we played with a lead [a lot]. The two games we lost, we lost late. I think we’re playing with a little more confidence, a little more purpose. It’s just a little better feel and I think that’s good.”

THIRD: Short of back-to-back losses by closer John Axford, who blew a save Sunday and gave up the decisive home run in extra innings on Monday, Cleveland could have swept the seven games at home against the White Sox and Twins. The main reason for that was the consistent starting pitching.

Over the last seven games, the Tribe rotation went a combined 4-0 with a 1.94 ERA (10 earned runs in 46.1 innings), .198 opponents’ average, 3.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio (51-to-13), 0.99 WHIP and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. On the 0-6 road trip, the starting staff combined to go 0-5 with a 5.05 ERA (21 earned runs in 34.1 innings), .262 opponents’ average, 2.69 K:BB (35-to-13), 1.37 WHIP and 9.2 K/9.

“Our pitching gave us a chance every single game,” Francona said. “That’s a good way to play. I think we believe that we’re going to hit. Hitters go up and down, for sure, but when you pitch that consistently, you always have a chance to win.”

On Thursday, Justin Masterson picked up the win after turning in 6.1 innings, in which he was charged with four runs (two earned) on four hits. He struck out seven, walked four, hit one batter and threw a wild pitch. Masterson cruised through the first five frames on 50 pitches before hitting a few snags in the sixth and seventh.

HOME: During the recent road trip, not only did the Indians lose six straight, but they yanked Carlos Carrasco out of the rotation and lost second baseman Jason Kipnis to an oblique injury. All Josh Tomlin did as Carrasco’s replacement was spin a gem on Tuesday for a win. As for Aviles, he has excelled as Cleveland’s fill-in for its All-Star second baseman.

Since replacing Kipnis in the April 29 game in Anaheim, all Aviles has done is hit .545 (12-for-22) with three doubles and four runs for Cleveland.

“What Mike Aviles has done this year for us hs been huge, man,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “He’s showing everybody how athletic he is.”

Asked by a reporter if the baseball looks like a beach ball right now, Aviles laughed.

“Did you see my hits? They were bloops. It can’t be a beach ball,” he said. “In baseball, you go up, down, up, down, up, down and, fortunately enough, things are going well for myself and for the team. I’ll take it while I can. There will be times when I’ll hit balls hard, the team will hit balls hard, and it will be right at people. We’ll take them when we can.”

Links:

On deck:

Indians (16-19) at Rays (15-19)*
at 7:10 p.m. ET Friday at Tropicana Field

*doesn’t include Thursday’s night result

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 33

506TomlinFinal: Indians 4, Twins 2

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona had a message for Josh Tomlin in the moments before the pitcher took the mound at Progressive Field on Tuesday night.

“I actually walked out to him before the game,” Francona said. “I just said, ‘Hey, man, enjoy the [heck] out of this.’ He loves to compete. You can tell.”

Tomlin underwent Tommy John surgery 622 days ago. He last started a game for the Indians 648 days ago. He last won a game in the Majors 670 days ago.

Consider the comeback complete.

On Tuesday night, Tomlin was officially summoned from Triple-A Columbus and he held the Twins to one run (Chris Colabello clobbered a fastball that Tomlin quipped “wasn’t fast enough” for a solo homer in the seventh) on four hits, ending with four strikeouts and one walk for a win.

It marked Tomlin’s first win since July 5, 2012.

“It was pretty special,” Tomlin said.

His teammates agreed.

“It’s awesome,” Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. “Anybody that goes through Tommy John, it’s not an easy task. You have to work your tail off to get back to full strength, all the maintenance you have to do along that road.

“To see him come out there and perform like he did tonight, it was awesome. It was a lift for the team. That was a big start and a big win for us tonight.”

Tomlin threw 71 percent (66-of-93) of his pitches for strikes and registered a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 24 batters he faced. He never logged more than 19 pitches in an inning, enjoyed a seven-pitch third, faced the minimum in five of the seven frames he worked and had only three three-ball counts on the night.

It was classic Cowboy.

(Former Indians manager Manny Acta famously called Tomlin the “Little Cowboy” after a particularly strong start early in the 2012 season. The nickname never really took with Tomlin, who once joked, “Why’d he have to say little?” I’ll stick with “Cowboy” for tonight.)

On the night, Tomlin threw 75 fastballs (44 four-seamers and 31 cutters, according to brooksbaseball,net) and had a 76-percent strike rate on those pitches. He averaged 90.6 mph with his four-seamer (topping out at 93 mph) and 88.6 mph with his cutter (max speed of 92.4 mph). At his peak in 2011, Tomlin was sitting around 88-90 with his heater.

“I think the velocity has kind of crept up a little bit,” Tomlin said. “But that’s really not my game, so I don’t really try to look at that. It’s definitely nice to have a little bit extra velocity, but I still have to put the ball where I want it, and mix and match and try to keep balls up the middle.”

Plenty of people (myself included) felt Tomlin should’ve opened started this season in the rotation. That said, I understood Cleveland wanting to prioritize depth early in the year. As for Tomlin, he said the stint at Triple-A, where he had a 2.06 ERA and 20 straight scoreless innings going into Tuesday’s outing, helped him continue to regain his rhythm in the wake of his elbow surgery.

“[It was good] just to get the legs underneath you again,” Tomlin said. “To be in that starting rotation down there and going every fifth day and getting six innings, seven innings, eight, nine, whatever it is, getting the feet wet, knowing what it feels like to get up and down that many times, I needed that. I definitely needed that.”

SECOND: Tomlin’s night was just a continuation of Cleveland’s recent rotation resurgence. Since the calendar flipped to May, Indians starters have gone a combined 3-0 with a 1.34 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 4.63 strikeout-to-walk ration, 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 33.2 innings over five outings.

The last four starts — Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Tomlin — have included a combined 0.63 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 6.2 K:BB and 9.7 K/9 in 28.2 innings.

“They’ve been throwing the ball well,” Brantley said. “Offensively, we need to keep putting pressure on them. We need to step it up and give them more runs. They’re keeping us in every game. That’s all you can ask for out of them. They’ve been doing a great job and they’re going to continue to do a great job.”

THIRD: The Indians gave Tomlin enough support on Tuesday with four early runs, but the evening’s offensive showing wasn’t without its flaws.

On the positive side, Cleveland scored four runs and went 5-for-12 in the first two innings (Cleveland had four runs in its previous 22 innings, hitting .165 (13-for-79) in that span) giving Tomlin the kind of cushion he, as a strike thrower, can really use to his advantage. On the flip side, the Indians went 1-for-19 the rest of the game at the plate, but it didn’t matter in light of how Tomlin performed.

Brantley said he feels the hitters have been putting too much pressure on themselves early on this season

“Everybody puts a little bit more pressure on one another instead of just leaning on one another,” he said. “We need to make sure that we just play as a team each and every day. We know what’s it’s going to take. We know how to win ball games in this locker room. We have to continue to play good baseball.”

HOME: The Indians went into Tuesday without the availability of setup man Cody Allen or closer John Axford due to their recent work load. No worries, Marc Rzepczynski took over for Tomlin in the seventh and retired two batters to get one out. Wait, what? He struck out Eduardo Escobar, but the batter reached first safely on a wild pitch with two outs. Scrabble then induced a flyout from Chris Herrmann to end the threat.

For the eighth inning, Francona turned to Scott Atchison, who retired four batters to get three outs. Excuse me? Believe it or not, Danny Santana struck out to open the inning, but then reached first base when — following the dropped third strike — catcher Yan Gomes made a throwing error to first. Atchison then set down the next three batters in order to escape harm.

Bryan Shaw served as the closer for a day and retired the first two hitters without incident. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera then booted a grounder from Kurt Suzuki, giving Cleveland a Major League-high 33 errors (in 33 games) on the season. Escobar took advantage with a run-scoring double, but that’s as far as Minnesota’s rally went.

Never in doubt.

Links:

On deck:

Twins (15-16) at Indians (14-19)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Wednesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 32

505AxfordFinal: Twins 1 Indians 0 (10 innings)

FIRST: John Axford had pitched in the previous two games. On Sunday, the Indians closer blew a save by coughing up three runs on a home run to White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo.

Closers must have short memories, so a quick turnaround can often be the cure for a rough stretch. Indians manager Terry Francona felt the 10th inning on Monday was a good opportunity to get Axford back on the mound.

“We don’t want to hurt guys,” Francona said, “but I actually wanted to get him back in there. I thought it’d be good for him.”

Axford was appreciative of his manager’s trust, too.

“That’s something you want and that’s something that I want,” Axford said. “I want to go out there the next day, the next game, and get the job done. Erase the slate. Get a clean slate and erase what happened the day before. Unfortunately, second pitch, it didn’t work out.”

The second pitch to Eduardo Escobar, who entered the evening with three career home runs in 377 plate appearances, was a misplaced, 91-mph fastball. Escobar yanked it to right field, where it sailed over the wall and clanked into the seats for a leadoff home run. That gave Minnesota a 1-0 lead, which was a mountain of an advantage over the Tribe on this night.

Prior to the game, Axford worked with pitching coach Mickey Callaway on a mechanical adjustment they recently spotted. The lanky right-hander had been bending over a little too much in his motion, and it was affecting his curveball. The home runs to Viciedo and Escobar, however, came on fastballs.

“It’s something that’s happened to me before in the past,” Axford said of the identified mechanical flaw. “I tend to lean maybe a little bit too much. It will affect my breaking pitches. So, I corrected it tonight. My ball was just still cutting, just like it kind of was [on Sunday].

“The fastball just wasn’t staying straight. Tonight, I did it a few times as well, and on that home run.”

As Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel pointed after the game, Axford’s home run rate has been much higher in recent years — especially to this point this season — than it was in his prime as Milwaukee’s closer. Over the 2012-14 seasons, Axford has allowed homers at a rate of 1.4 homers per nine innings in 147.1 frames. Across the 2009-11 campaigns, his rate was just 0.3 homers per nine innings in 139.1 innings pitched.

Over his past two outings, Axford’s ERA has ballooned from 2.31 to 4.85 for the Tribe. Still, he’s saved nine games in 11 opportunities.

Axford said all he can do now is once again have a short memory.

“I’ll just head home,” Axford said, “and, not to sound redundant or cliche, but it’s the same as last night. I’m just going to kind of sit back and think about it this evening, go through some things and make sure I’m ready to go tomorrow with a clear head.”

SECOND: The late meltdown by Axford, but more importantly, the offense, overshadowed another outstanding evening for an Indians starter. We’ll get to the lineup in a minute. First, let’s take a moment to appreciate the work that Zach McAllister did for Cleveland on Monday night.

McAllister went 6.2 innings, holding the Twins to no runs on five hits and ending the game with eight strikeouts (tying a career best) and one walk on 114 pitches. Minnesota also went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position against the big right-hander.

“Zach pitched so well,” Francona said. “He pitched with his fastball and he worked ahead. He pitched out of a couple jams. He was so good. That’s two in a row. That’s about as good as they’re going to pitch. There certainly isn’t much wiggle room right now. But I still like the way our guys pitched.”

Francona was referring to Corey Kluber’s effort against the White Sox on Sunday. The righty held Chicago to one Jose Abreu home run over eight innings, finishing with 13 strikeouts. That makes one earned run allowed with 21 strikeouts and three walks in 14.2 innings over the past two games. The Indians’ rotation actually has a 0.41 ERA over the last three games and a 1.33 ERA through four games on the homestand (33 strikeouts in 27 innings).

“After the first couple games of the year, probably two weeks into it,” McAllister said. “I think we’ve really been on a pretty good roll and have been pretty consistent. Especially these last three games, it’s been pretty fun to watch and be a part of.”

Well, minus the ending the past two games, of course.

“It’s unbelievable,” Axford said. “It’s a shame that my performances in the back end the last two days has kind of taken precedent over a great hitting performance by George [Kottaras on Sunday] and two outstanding starting pitching performances from Kluber and Mac.

“Hopefully, everyone knows that those guys are doing their best and working hard and doing fantastic for us. We’ll piece it all together as a club soon and pulling out some wins.”

THIRD: On the other side, Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson held the Indians to two hits in seven shutout innings, though he had just one strikeout to go along with his three walks. Cleveland ended with three hits, never had a runner beyond second base and finished 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.

Francona made no excuses for his hitters.

“We got in some hitter’s counts. We hit some balls hard,” said the manager. “We just are fairly inconsistent right now. Even in hitters counts, we’re not getting really good swings. I think when it’s team-wide, everybody is trying to do [too much]. It’s a good quality, but we have to fight through it together and keep the line moving. Right now, we’re not doing that.

“I think every night’s different — whoever’s pitching. Tonight was a good night to pitch. The ball wasn’t going anywhere. It was cold. We need more consistency, because in this game, you are going to lineout, and there are guys that make really good plays. That happens.”

HOME: The Indians clearly need to get their offense going. Nick Swisher (.197), Carlos Santana (.150) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.211) have been disappointments to this point, even if their career track records indicate a turnaround. Michael Bourn (left hamstring) is banged up, while Jason Kipnis (right oblique) and Jason Giambi (right calf) are on the 15-day DL. Francona could switch up the lineup, but there are no true No. 3 or No. 4 hitters at the moment.

What about in the Minors? WTAM’s Nick Camino tweeted late Monday night that he heard that 23-year-old first-base prospect Jesus Aguilar could be coming up soon. We’ll see. Through 28 games at Triple-A, the right-handed Aguilar has hit .340 with seven homers, 13 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs. He can play first and DH, but he also has no big league experience. What Cleveland really needs is its lineup regulars to swiftly revert to their normal level of production.

On deck:

Twins (15-15) at Indians (13-19)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Month in review: April

SwisherAprilThe Indians will gladly welcome May with open arms.

April wasn’t kind to the Tribe, which heads into the season’s second month in last place. This has led to plenty of “It’s early” comments from the men in uniform and, with five months to go, we’re still within the grace period for such reaction.

That said, Indians manager Terry Francona hasn’t been leaning too hard on that idea.

“We have to go fix it,” Francona said on Wednesday night. “And we’ll do that.”

Every team each season is different, even if the cast is mostly the same. That said, in the aftermath of Cleveland’s subpar April and six-game losing streak, it seems fair to remember that we called this club “Team Streak” throughout most of 2013. When push came to shove (and the schedule eased up a bit down the stretch), the Indians went streaking right into the playoffs.

Remember, the Indians opened up 8-13 last year with similar issues that have hurt the team this April. Of course, last year’s Tribe started to enjoy its first hot streak by now. After those first 21 games in ’13, Cleveland then had the following stretches in order: 18-4, 4-16, 15-5, 7-10, 10-1, 9-15, 21-6 and 0-1. That last one was the American League Wild Card Game. Ah, well.

The point here is that, well, yeah, it’s early. We can look at the April numbers and see both anomalies and early trends. It usually takes May, and sometimes into June, to determine which rates are holding up and which ones are being corrected in either direction. Remember when Mark Reynolds was going to hit 50 homers? Remember when the Indians were in first place in late May in 2012? Good or bad, give it time.

“You know the ups and downs that come with this team,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “You know that we’re streaky. We can get as hot as cold with anybody. Yeah, we’re going through a little rough patch right now. We went through worse rough patches last year. Fortunately, it’s early right now.”

April certainly had its moments. Tony Plush filled in admirably for Michael Bourn, who missed the first portion of the month while on the disabled list. Corey Kluber spun an absolute gem against the Royals on April 24. A squirrel entertained everybody at Progressive Field one evening. Trevor Bauer finally flashed his promise on the big league stage. The good Lord started swinging the bat for David Murphy. The Ax Man arrived. We now have the Elliot Johnson Rule.

April definitely had its letdowns. Kipnis was recently sidelined with injury. Carlos Santana’s struggles reached worrisome levels before a brief resurgence in Anaheim. Justin Masterson’s velocity had dropped. Carlos Carrasco struggled and lost his rotation job. Vinnie Pestano made the Opening Day bullpen, but woes sent him back to Triple-A. The defense has been the worst in the American League.

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

AL Central standings heading into May:

1. Tigers 14-9 (–)
2. Royals 14-12 (1.5)
3. Twins 12-12 (2.5)
4. White Sox 14-15 (3)
5. Indians 11-17 (5.5)

Record at home: 7-6
Record on road: 4-11

Offense (AL rank)

.232 AVG (13)
.313 OBP (13)
.354 SLG (15)
.668 OPS (13)
106 R (11)
213 H (t-11)
45 2B (t-10)
19 HR (11)
101 RBI (t-10)
21 SB (t-2)
104 BB (5)
197 K (8)
325 TB (13)

Note: Statistically, this was an odd month for the Indians. Cleveland found ways to get on base and advance, as evidenced by its 104 walks and 21 stolen bases, but only scored 106 runs. How rare are those benchmarks? Consider that the Indians haven’t had a month with at least that many walks and stolen bases and no more than 106 runs since May 1918 (100 runs). The Tribe’s 19 homers were the least for any month for the team since April of 2012. Only one other Indians team since 1914 had a month with at least 45 doubles and 104 walks, with no more than 106 runs. That was in May of 1943.

Pitching (AL rank)

11 wins (t-12)
4.28 ERA (t-8)
4.82 rot. ERA (13)
3.24 rel. ERA (2)
8 saves (t-2)
242 IP (7)
241 H (t-9)
132 R (12)
115 R (9)
18 HR (t-1)
100 BB (11)
244 K (1)
.259 AVG (9)
1.41 WHIP (10)
3.46 FIP (t-2)

Note: This marked the first time since June 2010 that an Indians team allowed no more than 18 home runs, but had an ERA of at least 4.28. This was the first month in Indians history (since 1914) in which the club had at least 244 strikeouts with no more than 18 homers allowed. If you change the cut-offs to at least 240 strikeouts and no more than 20 homers, it’s only happened two other times: April and September last season.

Player of the Month: David Murphy
Stats: .282/.360/.436/795, 2 HR, 4 2B, 1 3B, 18 RBI, 10 BB, 10 K, 9 R, 26 games

Note: This was only the sixth time since 1914 that an Indians hitter had at least 18 RBIs and a .795 OPS with no more than 10 strikeouts in April. That list also includes Victor Martinez (2006), David Justice (1997), Albert Belle (1994), Andre Thornton (1983) and Earl Averill (1932). Murphy also hit .529 (9-for-17) with runners in scoring position.

Pitcher of the Month: Zach McAllister
Stats: 3-2, 3.82 ERA, 33 IP, 28 K, 12 BB, .240 AVG, 1.27 WHIP, 6 starts,

Reliever of the Month: Bryan Shaw
Stats: 1.98 ERA, 13.2 IP, 14 K, 4 BB, .200 AVG, 0.95 WHIP, 14 games

Game of the Month (hitter): David Murphy
April 8 against San Diego: 2-for-3, 1 HR, 1 2B, 1 BB, 3 R, 4 RBI, 7 TB

Game of the Month (pitcher): Corey Kluber
April 24 against Kansas City: 9 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 88 game score

———————————————————————————–

Minor League standouts for April

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Month: 1B Jesus Aguilar
Stats: .356/.440/.667/1.107, 7 HR, 6 2B, 16 RBI, 13 BB, 13 R, 24 games

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Trevor Bauer
Stats: 3-0, 1.40 ERA, 25.2 IP, 28 K, 7 BB, .196 AVG, 0.97 WHIP, 4 starts

Double-A Akron

Player of the Month: 3B Giovanny Urshela
Stats: .302/.344/.570/.914, 5 HR, 8 2B, 19 RBI, 15 R, 23 games

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Kyle Crockett
Stats: 0.00 ERA, 9.1 IP, 9 K, 1 BB, .094 AVG, 0.43 WHIP, 2 saves, 9 games

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Month: SS Erik Gonzalez
Stats: .341/.368/.495/.863, 1 HR, 5 2B, 3 3B, 11 RBI, 13 R, 5 SB, 22 games

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Ryan Merritt
Stats: 3-0, 0.37 ERA, 4.1 IP, 18 K, 6 BB, .165 AVG, 0.82 WHIP, 4 starts

Class A (low) Lake County

Player of the Month: OF Cody Farrell
Stats: .261/.386/.449/.835, 3 HR, 4 2B, 9 RBI, 10 R, 23 games

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Jordan Milbrath
Stats: 1-1, 1.52 ERA, 23.2 IP, 23 K, 8 BB, .159 AVG, 0.89 WHIP, 5 games (2 starts)

–JB

 

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