Covering the Bases: Game 154

920KipnisFinal: Indians 2, Astros 1 (6.5 innings)

FIRST: Welcome to the Wild Card spot, Cleveland.

With the music blaring inside the clubhouse, and rain falling outside, there was not a single player complaining about the weather delay that arrived in the seventh inning on Friday night. Why would they complain?

When the skies opened and the tarp unrolled, the Indians had a 2-1 lead and the game was official. With the playoffs now a realistic goal, the Tribe needs as many wins as possible, and the team doesn’t care how those victories are obtained.

“Any way we can,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

“A win is a win,” said pitcher Zach McAllister.

“You can’t be mad about going home with a win,” Nick Swisher beamed.

Especially when the win in question helped the Indians leapfrog the Rangers for one of the American League’s two Wild Cards. Texas (a half-game up on the Tribe heading into Friday) lost to Kansas City, which is also very much in the hunt. As of this writing, Tampa Bay and Baltimore — two more contenders — were tied in the 14th inning. That said, the result of that game doesn’t change the Indians’ place in the standings.

Francona made it clear that the decision to call the game early came via the umpires and the league. The final call was not up to the Indians.

The TVs were tuned to the relevant games inside the clubhouse during the delay, and the Progressive Field scoreboard did a split-screen of the Texas-Kansas City and Baltimore-Tampa Bay tilts. The fans who tried to wait out the storm, while sheltered under the stadium’s overhangs, cheered loudly for the Orioles when they scored a couple late runs.

“That’s nice,” Swisher said. “It kind of feels like everybody is jumping on board right now. This is the perfect time to do it.”

There are eight games left on Cleveland’s schedule against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Cleveland has gone 13-6 in September and 10-5 since the nine-game gauntlet (3-6) against Detroit, Atlanta and Baltimore. Everyone noted that the Tribe simply needed to take care of business against the teams it should beat, and the team has done so with an 8-1 mark in recent games against the Mets, White Sox and Astros.

“This is pretty close to being playoff baseball right now,” Swisher said. “For us, we’ve got ourselves a good schedule ahead of us. Then again, These guys [Astros] are doing a good job. Look at their pitchers, man. We have a pretty good hitting offense and we haven’t really done much.”

“For us,” he added later, “as best we can, we’ve got to keep our heads out of those papers and really keep to the grindstone, because we’ve got ourselves in a great spot. Just to be able to be here, a complete turnaround from last year, it’s exciting, man. These last [eight] games are going to be great.”

SECOND: You could make an argument that the Indians didn’t win this game, but that the Astros lost it.

Houston made three errors, and one miscue that went down as a fielder’s choice officially, that led directly to Cleveland’s two runs against lefty Brett Olberholtzer. Third baseman Brandon Laird booted two plays in the second (one to allow Asdrubal Cabrera to reach and another with the bases loaded that led to the Indians’ first run).

In the fourth, first baseman Chris Carter had a shot at a double play with one out and runners on first and second. He threw into left field, and then left fielder Marc Krauss threw wildly beyond home plate, and we all heard circus music as Cleveland took a 2-1 lead.

“Obie was outstanding,” Houston manager Bo Porter said. “Even you look at the two runs they scored, both of them were unearned. If we made a couple of defensive plays, we arguably could be standing here with a 1-0 victory. He pitched that well.”

The Indians certainly felt fortunate.

“We didn’t do a whole lot with it,” Francona said. “But fortunately we did enough.”

THIRD: Francona summed up McAllister’s outing perfectly:

“Zach kind of bent, but didn’t break.”

McAllister logged five innings (plus one batter in the sixth) and, unlike Olberholtzer, was able to thank his defense after the game. Center fielder Michael Bourn made a great diving catch to open the game, Cabrera made an outstanding barehanded grab for an out in the third and second baseman Jason Kipnis and Cabrera teamed for a critical double play with the bags full and one out in the fifth.

“That fifth inning, I left a few balls up and fell behind hitters,” said McAllister, who had four hits, three strikeouts and two walks on his line. “When you do that, you’re asking for trouble. But we were able to have some great defense behind me. They made a huge double play for me. That was extremely important.”

After McAllister walked Jose Altuve on four pitches to open the sixth inning, Francona turned to his bullpen.

“There’s so many factors that go into it,” Francona said of that decision. “There’s a lot of times during the season [where] you can’t do that. But with a full bullpen, you can do that now.”

One of the factors might be that McAllister headed into Friday’s start with a .355 opponents’ batting average and a .985 opponents’ OPS in the 76-100 pitch range. His fourth pitch to Altuve, the last toss of the night for the righty, was No. 76 for McAllister.

HOME: One of Cleveland’s unsung heroes down the stretch has been right-handed reliever Bryan Shaw. After McAllister, Francona turned to lefty Marc Rzepczynski for one batter, and then had Shaw finish out the game. Thanks to the rain delay, Shaw notched his first save of the season.

Dating back to July 6, Shaw has posted a 1.95 ERA and .178 opponents’ average over 31 games (32.1 innings). The righty has a 1.33 ERA and .155 average against in 19 games (20.1 innings) going back to Aug. 12. In September, Shaw has posted a 0.00 ERA in 11 1/3 innings with nine strikeouts, no walks and a .154 opponents’ average.

“He’s topping the guns at 95, 96,” Swisher said. “It’s nice to see that, especially this late in the season. To be able to have that much juice left is impressive. He’s gone out there and has had some serious innings logged for us.”

ON DECK:

Astros (51-103) at Indians (84-70)
at 6:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 153

F919Carsoninal: Indians 2, Astros 1 (11 innings)

FIRST: His nickname is Crash Carson.

That stems from a full-throttle sprint that resulted in a painful crash into the center-field wall at The Coliseum during Matt Carson’s stint with Oakland a few years back. Search YouTube. But, you’d be fine with thinking it had its roots from Crash Davis, the career Minor Leaguer from the baseball movie, “Bull Durham.” Shoot, Carson even had a stint with the Durham Bulls.

Carson has spent a dozen years in the Minor Leagues — six of those at Triple-A — and only six percent of his 1,334 professional games have come at the big league level. There have been stops with Staten Island, Battle Creek, Tampa, Trenton, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Sacramento, Durham, Rochester and, this year, Columbus.

Mixed in have been cups of coffee with the A’s, Twins and Indians.

“Man, I’ve crisscrossed the country quite a few times playing this game,” Carson said. “It’s been a good journey.”

It all led to Thursday night in Cleveland.

A perfect storm led to Carson walking to the plate with the bases loaded in the 11th inning of a tie game with Houston. In the bottom of the ninth, Indians manager Terry Francona turned to veteran Jason Giambi as a pinch hitter for Drew Stubbs. Giambi popped out to end the inning, so the manager sent Carson out to right field as a defensive replacement.

Two innings later, with Astros righty Rhiner Cruz on the mound and the bags full of Indians, Francona had the option of sending Carson to the plate, or turning to Ryan Raburn or Jason Kubel. Francona said he did not really considering pinch hitting in that situation.

“No, I really didn’t,” Francona said. “There’s a few reasons. One, he’s so good defensively. We weren’t losing. We got the pitcher’s spot coming up the next inning, and we got Raburn and Kubel, and Ray’s not running great. So, sometimes you just stay out of the way and let them play.”

Carson made good on his manager’s faith, sending a pitch from Cruz past a diving Jose Altuve for a walk-off single. As he rounded first base, and broke into a wide smile, infielder Mike Aviles embraced the long-time Minor Leaguer, who was then mobbed by his teammates.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” Carson said. “I’ve done it plenty of times going out there with other guys. To be the guy getting mobbed, it feels good.”

Carson said it was a moment he’ll never forget.

“That’s probably kind of a pinnacle for me at this point in my career,” he said. “To do it for a playoff team like we have right now, in a win that we needed, like I said, it was tops for me.”

And, considering the kind of career he’s had, experiencing the top certainly beats scraping the bottom.

In nine at-bats with Cleveland since being promoted from Triple-A, Carson has seven hits, including three in the Tribe’s recent  7-1 win over Chris Sale and the White Sox in Chicago.

“There’s been lot of low points. Lots of low points,” Carson said. “There’s going to be highs and lows. Being in the Minor Leagues as long as I have, there’s definitely been those times. As long as I’m still playing the game, it can’t be that low.”

Following the game, while doing his sit-down with reporters, Francona smiled as he heard his players — in the clubhouse across the hall — yelled and celebrated when Carson walked in the room.

“You can hear the guys in there right now,” Francona said. “Everybody’s pretty fond of him. He’s the kind of kid that, went to Triple-A the whole year, comes to Spring Training, does a great job, everybody likes him. … He’s come up and impacted the Major League team. He goes in, he plays defense, he gets hits. It’s kind of rewarding to see a good kid get rewarded like that and get a hit.”

SECOND: Ubaldo Jimenez once again set the tone for Cleveland with a strong start. The right-hander wound up with a no-decision, as did Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel for his seven innings, but held the Astros to one run on six hits in seven frames.

Big U finished with nine strikeouts and zero walks. In the first 205 games of Jimenez’s career, he never had an outing with at least nine strikeouts and no walks. He’s accomplished that feat three times in his past five starts for the Indians.

“I feel good. I feel confident every time I take the mound,” Jimenez said. “It feels great to be out there for the team, knowing that I can be the game’s difference. I can be there for the team competing. Pretty much every five days that I get on the mound, I’m going to give everything that I have for the team.”

Dating back to May 27, Jimenez has posted a 2.45 ERA across 21 games. Over his past 10 starts, the righty has a 1.77 ERA to go along with 80 strikeouts and 23 walks in 71 innings.

“We’re leaning on him,” Francona said. “And I think he’s enjoying it. Every five days, he’s answering the bell. He’s consistent with his stuff, and that’s past encouraging. That’s exciting.”

THIRD: There are a few things I could go over here. Catcher Yan Gome’s arm: throwing out Altuve on a stolen-base attempt in the third inning or picking pinch-runner Jake Elmore off second base in the 10th. Chris Perez’s ninth inning: bases loaded with one out before striking out the next two to escape unscathed.

“Everybody might be nervous, except for [Perez],” Francona said with a chuckle.

Or, there was Nick Swisher’s bat: four hits to tie a season-high and career-high. Given that performance, it was a little surprising that Francona turned to rookie Jose Ramirez as a pinch runner for Swisher at second base with two on and one out in the eighth inning. Houston reliever Kevin Chapman struck out Carlos Santana and Gomes to stop the Tribe’s rally in its tracks.

As a result, Cleveland lost the designated hitter, because Santana (the DH) had to move to first base with Swisher pulled from the game.

What was Francona’s thinking?

“We needed to try to win there,” Francona explained. “[Swisher] had gotten all of his hits right-handed, and they were done with their left-handed pitchers. … We had enough guys on the bench where we could … In the normal course of a year, you probably can’t do that. But when you have extra guys, you feel a little bit better about doing it.”

What was Swisher’s reaction to the decision to use a pinch runner there?

“‘Man, you better score!’ That’s what I was thinking,” Swisher said. “Jose, man, he can fly. A situation like that, he’s got way more speed than me. All we’re doing is looking for a base hit, trying to win that game.”

HOME: In a recent meeting with his teammates, Giambi stressed the importance of putting egos and personal stats aside in these final games. Right now, doing something, big or small, to help win a game is more important than polishing up the ol’ season stat line. That means, it doesn’t matter who plays the role of hero.

Everyone on the roster has a chance to come up big. That is the kind of environment Francona has tried to create.

“I think it’s a fun way to play,” Francona said. “when everybody in that room knows that they’ve got a chance to be in the game. Sometimes in the American League, you throw nine guys out there and you play. Our guys know that when they show up, they all have a chance to get in and help us win.”

Carson saw that from afar before joining the Tribe for its stretch run.

“Being down in the Minor Leagues,” Carson said, “watching these guys play, every day it was a different hero. I certainly wasn’t the only hero tonight. You saw how Ubaldo threw and our bullpen threw. Those guys, you’ve got to tip your hat to those guys. They were getting it done as well.”

Cleveland has had 10 walk-off wins this season, with nine players coming through with the game-winning hit.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

t-1. Tampa Bay 83-69 (–)
t-1. Texas 83-69 (–-)
3. Cleveland 83-70 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 81-71 (2.0)
5. Kansas City 80-72 (3.0)
6. New York 80-73 (3.5)

ON DECK:

Astros (51-102) at Indians (83-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 152

918KCCLEFinal: Royals 7, Indians 2

FIRST: The Indians head home a half-game back of the American League’s second Wild Card spot with 10 games left against the Astros, White Sox and Twins. Cleveland clearly has the edge among the Wild Card contenders when it comes to the remaining schedule.

Right? Well, no, it’s not that simple.

On the surface, yes, the Indians do have the easiest slate left in terms of their opponents’ overall winning percentage this season. Take a look:

Remaining Opponents’ 2013 Combined Winning Percentage

.387 (Indians)
.450 (Yankees)
.459 (Royals)
.474 (Rangers)
.516 (Rays)
.536 (Orioles)

Here’s the thing, though. Each of the contending teams are playing at varying levels this month compared to their overall showing, and the same can be said for each team’s upcoming opponents. So the better question is: which team is playing the best right now, and which team’s remaining opponents have gone the coldest?

To try to answer that question, I added up the overall winning percentage and the September winning percentage for each opponents of the six American League Wild Card candidates. I did the same for each of the clubs in the Wild Card chase.

For instance, the Indians’ opponents have a .387 winning percentage overall, but a .346 winning percentage in September. The Tribe’s upcoming foes are actually even colder right now than their overall showing. Add it up, and you get .733. Doing the same for the Indians, you get 1.186 (.539 overall and .647 in September). The Indians are hotter right now compared to their showing all season long. The difference then between the opponents and the Indians would be -.453.

If you do that for each team, it should give a pretty good indication not only of the strength or weakness of the coming schedule, but how each Wild Card team’s recent performance compares to that of its upcoming opponents. Follow me? A negative number is good — since I’m comparing the opponents to the contending team – and a positive number is bad (I’m looking at you Texas).

Let’s call it the True Strength of Schedule as of Sept. 18:

1. Royals (-.479)
2. Indians (-.453)
3. Rays (-.074)
4. Yankees (-.062)
5. Orioles (-.046)
6. Rangers (+.294)

Opponents’ September showing compared to overall showing:

+.077 (Rangers)
+.035 (Yankees)
+.006 (Orioles)
-.041 (Indians)
-.085 (Rays)
-.224 (Royals)

What that means is that Kansas City’s opponents have gone the coldest this month, and Texas’ upcoming opponents have heated up the most. Needless to say, Texas should consider itself fortunate to hold a half-game lead for the second Wild Card spot, because the Rangers have gone ice cold this month and their remaining slate includes a group of teams playing better than they have for most of the year.

Kansas City just took two out of three against Cleveland, improving to 11-6 in September and pulling within 2.5 games of a Wild Card berth. The Royals’ remaining opponents’ .235 winning percentage this month is brutal, putting KC in a great position to continue  a push up the standings. The Indians at least have the advantage of a two-game lead on the Royals.

Could this series at Kauffman Stadium have actually been a preview of the 2013 Wild Card game?

SECOND: The momentum of Wednesday’s game shifted in Kansas City’s favor in the fifth inning, when the Royals wound up with an extremely unconventional double steal that led to their fourth run of the night.

With one out, Alex Gordon on first base and Alcides Escobar on third, Indians righty Danny Salazar fired a pitch to Emilio Bonifacio. Gordon sprinted for second on the play.

“We put a hit-and-run on with Boni and Boni missed the sign,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “So we had some scampering around.”

Tribe catcher Yan Gomes came out of his crouch and pump faked, looked toward third for a split second, and then decided to throw through to second base after all. What followed was a 2-6-3-4-3-5-2 exchange that ended with Escobar sliding across home plate safely.

Where did the breakdown occur?

Cleveland first put Gordon in a run-down between first and second base, while Escobar crept down the third-base line. First baseman Nick Swisher eventually decided Escobar had advanced enough, so he fired the ball to third baseman Mike Aviles, who in turn snapped it to Gomes at the plate.

“I thought we handled it perfect,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “To that point, I thought they did a good job.”

After receiving the ball from Aviles, though, Gomes took a look toward Gordon.

“I kind of peeked to see if Gordon was going to third,” Gomes said.

That’s when Escobar made an athletic, game-changing maneuver. Kansas City’s shortstop dropped to the dirt, avoiding a tag attempt from Gomes, who fell after the swing and miss. Escobar then scrambled to his feet before diving head-first across the plate.

“Esky, wow. What a move,” Gordon said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Gomes felt awful that it did.

“It was a pretty disappointing play on my part,” Gomes said. “It kind of turned out to be a pretty [big] momentum play for them, so it was kind of tough to swallow.”

THIRD: Salazar had averaged fewer than five innings per outing over his past six turns while working with his 70-80 pitch limit. The rookie right-hander said Wednesday that he was told the restriction was lifted for this start against the Royals and he responded by giving his team six admirable innings.

Salazar also finished with just 82 pitches, working more efficiently than in previous starts.

Unfortunately, Salazar was a little fastball-happy in the first inning, helping Kansas City push three early runs across. The right-hander settled down, but the damage was done.

“I thought early on he was obviously pretty amped up,” Francona said. “A couple of the at-bats, he got where he was over-throwing a little bit. As he settled into the game, and started using all his pitches, he was really good. But they got three in the first.

“Some of those guys, you can’t throw the ball past. You have to locate a little bit.”

HOME: Once again, Bruce Chen proved to be a nemesis for the Indians. The Royals lefty logged five-plus innings, allowing two runs and ending with just one strikeout. It was hardly overpowering – it never is with Chen — but he now has a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings against the Tribe this season.

“He does what he does, man,” Francona said. “He goes up, down, in, out. Nothing’s the same speed. Different arm angles. He kind of gives you fits. He just really knows how to pitch. He kind of takes the sting out of your bat.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE

1. Tampa Bay 83-68 (+1)
2. Texas 82-69 (–-)
3. Cleveland 82-70 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 81-70 (1.0)
t-5. New York 80-72 (2.5)
t-5. Kansas City 80-72 (2.5)

ON DECK:

Astros (51-101) at Indians (82-70)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 151

917BournFinal: Indians 5, Royals 3

FIRST: With less than dozen games left on the schedule, there is not much a player can do — good or bad — to have a great impact on his final season statistical line. The numbers are what they are right now.

What matters now is doing anything and everything possible to try to find the win column.

“You have to pull a rabbit out of the hat and find a way,” Nick Swisher said.

For Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Bourn, that also means finding a way to turn the page on what has been — in the overall sense — down years statistically for each of them. And over the past few weeks, that trio has stepped up to help inject some life into a Cleveland offense that labored mightily through August.

Swish, Cabby and Bourny — as they’re called within the clubhouse — came up big again Tuesday.

Bourn powered the offense with a run-scoring triple in the seventh inning and a leadoff home run in the ninth. Cabrera came through with an RBI double that glanced off the glove of left fielder Alex Gordon in the eighth inning. Swisher delivered a sacrifice fly to pull the game into a 3-3 tie in the seventh.

The season-long slumps, for the moment, are in the rear-view mirror.

“We’ve just stayed behind each other. That’s about it,” Bourn said. “Individual stats, for the most part, they are what they are at this point of the year. That doesn’t really mean anything to anyone anymore — for real. We’re just trying to play to get to the playoffs. That’s all we can do.

“Each day, whoever comes up with the hit, whoever comes up with the defensive plays, whatever it is, we’re all behind each other. We’re just rooting for each other every time somebody goes up to bat. That’s all it is. We’re not worried about all that other stuff anymore.”

Bourn added that 42-year-old veteran Jason Giambi spoke to the team recently about that very topic.

“We listen when he talks,” Bourn said. “He’s been around for a long time — 19 years. It’s the truth. You’re not playing for yourself now. It is an individual game at times — we know that. It’s not that anymore. It’s not about the individual anymore. You do what you can to try to get that win.”

Over the past seven games, Bourn has hit .310 (9-for-29 with a homer, double, two triples, five RBI and six runs scored, after hitting .203 with a .565 OPS in his previous 45 games. Cabrera has hit .278 (10-for-36) with five homers and 12 RBI in his past 11 games, after hitting .199 (.555) in his previous 57 games. Swisher has hit .326 (14-for-43) with five homers and 12 RBI in his last 11 games, after hitting .215 (.642) in his previous 80 games.

“It’s like Tito told us in Spring Training,” Swisher said, “bad teams pick each other apart and good teams pick each other up.”

SECOND: The Indians were tasked with taking on 22-year-old rookie Yordano (no, I will not call him Ace) Ventura on Tuesday night. The hard-throwing right-hander was starting in place of injured lefty Danny Duffy and making his Major League debut.

I’ve heard plenty from fans — via Twitter, e-mail, etc; — about Cleveland’s inability to handle pitchers making their debut. It turns out it is more of a very recent trend, if you can even call it that, more than anything else.

Including Ventura, five starting pitchers have made their big league debut against the Indians over the 2012-13 seasons, posting a 2.79 ERA as a group. Dating back to 2009, the nine starters who made their debut vs. Cleveland combined for a 3.83 ERA. That ERA spikes to 4.52 if you combine the past 15 starting debuts against the Tribe.

Prior to facing Ventura, Indians manager Terry Francona noted that pitches almost always have the advantage in a first-appearance situation. The Royals righty certainly appeared to have the edge on Tuesday, scattering five hits and holding the Indians to one run over 5 2/3 innings.

What made him so effective?

“Other than the fact that he was throwing 100 mph?” Swisher said with a laugh. “You’ve never seen the guy. You get scouting reports, but those aren’t always right. So, yeah, we’ve just got to get ready for that next time. He really went out and did a good job. He obviously had a plus fastball. he was using his cutter a lot more than we expected. I felt like he was just setting up shop on my knuckles all day.”

Bourn was asked if Ventura reminded him of any other pitchers.

“Neftali Feliz for some reason. I don’t know why,” Bourn said. “He just looked like him out there to me. Just the way his delivery is, that’s how he reminded me of him. He’s good, man. He’s got some good stuff. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be around for a while for their organization, so we better get used to facing him.”

THIRD: Swisher called Tuesday’s tilt a “must-win” game and Francona certainly managed like it.

Indians starter Corey Kluber was at 79 pitches with two outs in the fifth inning when Francona emerged from the visitors’ dugout and turned to his bullpen. The right-hander had been spotty with his command to that point and Francona wanted to stop the bleeding.

And, with 15 relievers in the bullpen thanks to September’s expanded rosters, Francona had the luxury to go that route.

“You can’t do that in the middle of the season,” Francona said. “We used a bunch of our roster tonight and it helped us win.”

Rich Hill, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Cody Allen, Joe Smith and Chris Perez combined for 4.1 shutout innings, keeping Kansas City to three runs. That provided Cleveland’s lineup time to mount a rally against a strong Royals bullpen.

“Every last one of their dudes throws hard. Every last one of them,” Bourn said of the KC ‘pen. “You’ve got to be ready and try to do what you can against them. That doesn’t happen too often against them, but we were able to do it tonight.”

That helped lay the groundwork for a great comeback road win for the Tribe.

“Tonight was one of the more gratifying wins I’ve been a part of,” Francona said.

HOME: That’s where the Indians are headed on Wednesday. Back home for the final six regular-season games at Progressive Field this year. The Indians will arrive in Ohio with its first winning season since 2007 secured, and still very much in the thick of the wide-open Wild Card race in the American League.

Looking around Kauffman Stadium, the Indians saw and felt a playoff-type environment. The crowd was fired up for every pitch, on its feet for critical moments throughout the night, and providing an energy that the Tribe hopes to experience back in front of its local fans.

“I liked it, man,” Bourn said of the crowd in Kansas City on Tuesday. “It was a good atmosphere. Kansas City’s fans came out and supported their team. We’re just hoping for the same when we get back to Cleveland. We’ve only got one more homestand for the whole year, so we would like that.

“It’s our last week and a half. We just want somebody to be behind us to help push us to that playoff spot. When you play in that atmosphere, you like it. It gets your blood flowing. It felt like a playoff atmosphere — it did. They came out and supported their team. Hats off to their fans. They’re behind them. We want the same thing.”

AMERICAN LEAGUE WILD CARD RACE
1. Texas 82-68 (–)
2. Tampa Bay 82-68 (–)
3. Cleveland 82-69 (0.5)
4. Baltimore 80-70 (2.0)
t-5. New York 79-72 (3.5)
t-5. Kansas City 79-72 (3.5)

ON DECK:

Indians (82-69) at Royals (79-71)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium

–JB

2013 Indians Minor League standouts

FrazierOver the past couple of years, the Indians have boasted about the wealth of talent at the Class A levels of their farm system. This year, if you are looking for hope for Cleveland’s future, the time has come to start taking a glimpse at Double-A.

This season, the Indians’ top prospect, shortstop Francisco Lindor, and 2012 top pick Tyler Naquin ascended to Double-A Akron, which also featured a powerful one-two punch in Jesus Aguilar and Carlos Moncrief. Infielder Jose Ramirez — one of the Tribe’s surprising September call-ups — also spent the year in Akron. It is a talented class that could be knocking on the Triple-A door in 2014.

That is good news, because the cupboard at Triple-A Columbus was rather bare this season. That is clear enough when outfielder Jeremy Hermida — a 29-year-old veteran of a eight big league seasons spent between five teams — was the Clippers’ offensive player of the year. The depth at Triple-A was lacking this year, to the extent that Cleveland brought in veterans Kelly Shoppach and Jason Kubel from outside the organization as September reinforcements.

So, hope resided in Akron, as well as in the system’s lower rungs.

Most notably, Cleveland’s trio of first-rounders from the past three Drafts had strong showings.

The 19-year-old Lindor (selected with the eighth overall pick in 2011) led Cleveland’s farm system in average (.303), adding 25 stolen bases, 31 extra-base hits, 34 RBI and 65 runs before a lower back injury ended his season. The switch-hitting shortstop ended with more walks (49) than strikeouts (46).

Naquin — the 22-year-old outfielder out of Texas A&M — hit .269 with a .739 OPS in 126 games between tours with Class A (high) Carolina and Double-A Akron. The outfielder showed off a cannon of an arm (11 assists) and finished with 10 homers, 30 doubles, six triples, 15 stolen bases, 48 RBI and 78 runs.

Outfielder Clint Frazier, 18 (pictured) made his pro debut with the Arizona League (Rookie level) Indians after being taken with the fifth overall pick in the June Draft this summer. In 44 games, all Frazier did was hit .297 with an .868 OPS, collecting 21 extra-base hits, 28 RBI and 32 runs in AZL play.

At the big league level, the Indians have quickly turned the page on a 94-loss season by staying within shouting distance of the American League Wild Card race. A handful of Cleveland’s top prospects provide hope that the organization can continue to hold its ground, especially at some key positions around the diamond.

There were certainly disappointments this season — chief among them, pitching prospect Trevor Bauer — but here is a look at Cleveland’s standouts from this year’s Minor League season:

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

MoncriefOutfielder Carlos Moncrief

The easy pick here would be first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who launched 16 home runs and knocked in 105 RBI, but it was the 24-year-old Moncrief who had the better all-around offensive season.

Over 129 games, Moncrief hit .284 with an .824 OPS, belting 17 homers, churning out 50 extra-base hits while delivering 75 RBI and stealing 15 bases. Remarkable was Moncrief’s reduction in strikeouts this year, too.

Moncrief (taken in the 14th round of the 2008 Draft) whiffed 98 times in 489 at-bats after piling up 284 strikeouts across 817 at-bats in his previous two seasons. A former pitcher, Moncrief has improved his OPS each season as a pro since converting to the outfield: .693 (2010), .768 (2011), .804 (2012), .824 (2013).

PITCHER OF THE YEAR

SalazarRight-hander Danny Salazar

The 23-year-old Salazar has already advanced to the Major League stage, where he has a 3.00 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 33 innings for the Indians, but his work on the farm is worthy of the Pitcher of the Year nod.

In 93 innings, the hard-throwing Salazar amassed 129 strikeouts against 24 walks, posting a 2.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and .211 opponents’ batting average. He did so while limited to an average of 70 pitches per appearance between Double-A and Triple-A.

His showing was a continuation of 2012, during which Salazar went 5-2 with a 2.36 ERA, 76 strikeouts and 27 walks in 87 2/3 innings between stops with Class A (high) Carolina and Akron. The Indians have been careful with Salazar’s work load since he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. Heading into 2014, Salazar (signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2006) will be primed for a full-time rotation opportunity with Cleveland.

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MINOR LEAGUE YEARLY PICKS

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Year: OF Jeremy Hermida
Stats: .247/.365/.416/.781, 17 HR, 23 2B, 3 3B, 66 RBI, 88 BB, 62 R, 117 H, 132 games

Pitcher of the Year: RHP Preston Guilmet
Stats: 1.68 ERA, 20-for-24 saves, 64.1 IP, 72 K, 14 BB, 0.89 WHIP, .182 AVG, 49 games

Double-A Akron

Player of the Year: OF Carlos Moncrief
Stats: .284/.354/.470/.824, 17 HR, 26 2B, 7 3B, 75 RBI, 15 SB, 77 R, 139 H, 129 games

Pitcher of the Year: LHP Matt Packer
Stats: 12-9, 3.27 ERA, 154 IP, 119 K, 44 BB, 1.40 WHIP, .286 AVG, 28 games (25 starts)

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Year: 2B Joe Wendle
Stats: .295/.372/.513/.885, 16 HR, 32 2B, 5 3B, 64 RBI, 10 SB, 73 R, 122 H, 107 games

Pitcher of the Year: RHP Cody Anderson
Stats: 9-4, 2.34 ERA, 123.1 IP, 112 K, 31 BB, 1.10 WHIP, .236 AVG, 23 starts

Class A (high) Lake County

Player of the Year: OF Logan Vick
Stats: .281/.413/.407/.820, 5 HR, 23 2B, 3 3B, 45 RBI, 25 SB, 81 BB, 61 R, 98 H, 108 games

Pitcher of the Year: RHP D. J. Brown
Stats: 2.71 ERA, 66.1 IP, 71 K, 20 BB, 1.19 WHIP, .238 AVG, 27 games (2 starts)

Short-Season Affiliates
Mahoning Valley, Arizona League, Dominican Summer League

Player of the Year: OF Clint Frazier, Arizona League
Stats: .297/.362/.506/.868, 5 HR, 11 2B, 5 3B, 28 RBI, 32 R, 51 H, 44 games

Pitcher of the Year: RHP Cole Sulser, Mahoning Valley
Stats: 2.06 ERA, 48 IP, 50 K, 9 BB, 0.94 WHIP, .206 AVG, 14 games (8 starts)

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MINOR LEAGUE STANDOUTS FOR AUGUST

Triple-A Columbus

Player of the Month: OF Matt Carson
Stats: .314/.368/.500/.868, 3 HR, 2 2B, 1 3B, 11 RBI, 10 R, 22 H, 21 games

Previous 2013 winners:

OF Jeremy Hermida (April), INF Cord Phelps (May, June), 3B Ryan Rohlinger (July)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Bryan Price
Stats: 0.53 ERA, 17 IP, 17 K, 1 BB, 0.53 WHIP, .143 AVG, 9 games

Previous 2013 winners:

RHP Preston Guilmet (April, June), RHP Carlos Carrasco (May), RHP Danny Salazar (July)

Double-A Akron

Player of the Month: 1B Jesus Aguilar
Stats: .308/.352/.477/.829, 5 HR, 3 2B, 26 RBI, 16 R, 33 H, 28 games

Previous 2013 winners:

1B/DH Chun Chen (April), C Roberto Perez (May), OF Carlos Moncrief (June, July)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Kyle Crockett
Stats: 0.00 ERA, 10.1 IP, 9 K, 2 BB, 0.87 WHIP, .200, 9 games

Previous 2013 winners:

LHP T.J. House (April), RHP Jose Flores (May), LHP Matt Packer (June, July)

Class A (high) Carolina

Player of the Month: OF Jordan Smith
Stats: .369/.478/.550/1.027, 2 HR, 10 2B, 2 3B, 17 RBI, 23 BB, 22 R, 41 H, 29 games

Previous 2013 winners:

SS Francisco Lindor (April), OF Luigi Rodriguez (May), 2B Joe Wendle (June),  3B Paddy Matera (July)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Louis Head
Stats: 1.65 ERA, 16.1 IP, 22 K, 0 BB, 0.61 WHIP, .172 AVG, 9 games

Previous 2013 winners:

RHP Cody Anderson (April, May, June, July)

Class A (low) Lake County

Player of the Month: C Eric Haase
Stats: .318/.408/.515/.923, 3 HR, 4 2B, 11 RBI, 10 BB, 11 R, 21 H, 19 games

Previous 2013 winners:

OF Logan Vick (April), OF LeVon Washington (May), 2B Yhoxian Medina (June), 1B Joseph Sever (July)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Grant Sides
Stats: 1.72 ERA, 15.2 IP, 20 K, 5 BB, 0.89 WHIP, .170 AVG, 12 games

Previous 2013 winners:

RHP Michael Peoples (April), LHP Ryan Merritt (May), RHP Josh Martin (June), RHP D.J. Brown (July)

Class A (short season) Mahoning Valley

Player of the Month: INF Claudio Bautista
Stats: .253/.299/.363/.662, 7 XBH, 6 RBI, 10 R, 23 H, 24 games

Previous 2013 winners:

Bautista (June), 1B Nellie Rodriguez (July)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Trevor Frank
Stats: 1.54 ERA, 11.2 IP, 19 K, 0 BB, 0.77 WHIP, .205 AVG, 8 games

Previous 2013 winners:

LHP Harold Guerrero (June), LHP Kyle Crockett (July)

Arizona League (Rookie) Indians

Player of the Month: INF Grant Fink
Stats: .311/.370/.486/.857, 1 HR, 8 2B, 1 3B, 14 RBI, 13 R, 23 H, 20 games

Previous 2013 winners:

OF Clint Frazier (June, July)

Pitcher of the Month: LHP Sean Brady
Stats: 2.37 ERA, 19 IP, 17 K, 4 BB, 0.95 WHIP, .197 AVG, 5 games

Previous 2013 winners:

LHP Anderson Polanco (June), Brady (July)

Dominican Summer League (Rookie) Indians

Player of the Month: 1B Juan Carlos Moncion
Stats: .235/.299/.397/.696, 2 HR, 5 2B, 11 RBI, 6 R, 16 H, 20 games

Previous 2013 winners:

2B Erlin Cerda (June), OF Hector Caro (July)

Pitcher of the Month: RHP Daniel Gomez
Stats: 0.36 ERA, 25 IP, 19 K, 6 BB, 1.00 WHIP, .204 AVG, 5 games

Previous 2013 winners:

RHP Edward Estrella (June), RHP Francisco Lopez (July)

–JB

Month in review: August

titoLast August was Cleveland’s downward spiral. This August, it was all about survival.

You might call it The Mark Reynolds Effect — the fact that the Indians’ slugging percentage has declined each month since April. Reynolds’ slump, and subsequent release, coincide with the Tribe’s regression on offense as a whole. In August, there were slumps on top of slumps, and virtually every batter struggled in the month.

Here’s the thing, though.

Even after a 1-5 trip through Atlanta and Detroit, the Indians are still in this thing. The Tribe sat 3.5 games back in race for second Wild Card, entering Monday.

“We’ve played ourselves positively and negatively into a position where every game means so much,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I can think of a lot worse scenarios. I can think of a few better, but I can think of a lot worse.

“The fact that it’s September, and every time we go out there it’s so meaningful, that’s good.”

Here is a look at the month that was for the Indians…

Record: 12-16
Home: 4-7
Road: 8-9

Offense (AL rank)

.229 average (14)
.295 on-base (15)
.362 slugging (15)
.658 OPS (15)
92 runs (14)
221 hits (13)
45 doubles (t-6)
3 triples (t-11)
26 home runs (t-9)
86 RBI (15)
86 walks (t-10)
217 strikeouts (7)
18 stolen bases (8)
74 extra-base hits (9)
350 total bases (14)

Notes: The Indians suffered their worst single month in terms of offense since, well, last August. Over the past 20 seasons, Cleveland has had three months with an OPS of .658 or worse: August 2013, August 2012 and June 2011. Over past 20 seasons, only in August 2013, August 2012 and April 2005 did the team have an OBP of .295 or lower. Prior to this August, Cleveland hadn’t turned in a slash line of .230/.295/.365 or worse since June of 1991 (.230/.294/.295).

Pitching (AL rank)

12 wins (t-10)
3.77 ERA (6)
4.10 rot. ERA (7)
3.25 bullpen ERA (5)
7 saves (t-8)
255.2 innings (6)
242 hits (6)
117 runs (9)
107 earned runs (7)
19 home runs (1)
107 walks (14)
257 strikeouts (1)
.249 average (4)
1.37 WHIP (9)

Notes: This marked only the sixth time since at least 1916 that the Indians had a month with 250-plus strikeouts and 100-plus walks. The Tribe also did so in May earlier this season, but prior to that the club hadn’t had a month like that since the ’60s (August 1967, September 1965, July 1964, June 1964). September of ’65 was the last time the Indians had 250/100 and an ERA of 3.77 or better. This was the first time since September 1989 that Cleveland had an ERA of 3.77 or better with at least 16 losses in a single month. Add 200 strikeouts to the mix, and the Indians hadn’t done it since August of 1968.

INDIANS PLAYER HONORS

Player of the month: C Yan Gomes
Stats: .281/.361/.422/.783, 2 HR, 3 2B, 3 RBI, 4 BB, 6 R, 18 H, 19 games

Notes: In a month with very few individual offensive standouts, Gomes seemed to be the best choice. He led the Indians’ regulars in average and on-base percentage for August and assumed the bulk of the playing time behind the plate (156 innings).

Previous 2013 winners: C Carlos Santana (co-winner, April), INF Mark Reynolds (co-winner, April), 2B Jason Kipnis (May, June), LF Michael Brantley (July)

Pitcher of the month: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez
Stats: 1-4, 3.10 ERA, 29 IP, 37 K, 13 BB, 1.38 WHIP, .241 AVG, 5 starts

Notes: It is hard to turn in an ERA of 3.10 and lose four games. In fact, Jimenez’s month marked the first time since June 2002 (Chuck Finley) that an Indians starter lost at least four games with an ERA of 3.10 or better. The last to do so, while also having at least 35 strikeouts, was Gaylord Perry in September of 1974.

Previous 2013 winners: Masterson (April, May), Jimenez (June), LHP Scott Kazmir (July)

Reliever of the month: LHP Marc Rzepczyski
Stats: 0.00 ERA, 11.2 IP, 10 K, 4 BB, 0.86 WHIP, .150 AVG, 13 games

Notes: This marked only the third time since at least 1916 that an Indians pitcher enjoyed a single-month with an opponents’ batting average of .150 or better and no earned runs allowed in at least 13 games (no starts). The others: Matt Miller in August 2004 and Paul Assenmacher in July 1997.

Previous 2013 winners: RHP Joe Smith (April), RHP Cody Allen (May), RHP Vinnie Pestano (June), RHP Chris Perez (July)

Game of the month (hitter): Ryan Raburn, Aug. 1, during 6-1 win over White Sox
Stat line: 3-for-4 with 2 HR, 2 R, 4 RBI, 9 TB

Notes: Raburn turned in his second two-homer, three-hit, four-RBI game of the season, making him the first player to have two such games in one year for the Indians since 2011 (Asdrubal Cabrera). Raburn became the first Tribe outfielder to have two such games in one season since 1999 (Manny Ramirez).

Game of the month (pitcher): Jimenez, Aug. 29, during 3-1 loss at Braves
Stat line: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 10 K

Notes: For the first time in his career, Jimenez finished a start with 10-plus strikeouts and no walks. Unfortunately, one ill-time mistake cost him in the form of a three-run homer to Atlanta’s Brian McCann. Jimenez became first Indians pitcher since 1976 to go 0-2 in back-to-back 10-plus strikeout games.

The monthly Minor League awards for August/September, along with my picks for the top players and pitchers of the year, will be posted following the completion of the Minor League season.

Previously…

Month in review: July
Month in review: June
Month in review:
May
Month in review:
April

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 133

829BravesFinal: Braves 3, Indians 1

FIRST: Sitting inside the visitors’ dugout on Tuesday afternoon, Indians center fielder Michael Bourn was asked how important the current nine-game stretch against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles was for Cleveland.

“Honestly?” Bourn replied. “I think it’s very important. It’ll tell what kind of team we have.”

Right now, the Indians look like a team that just isn’t ready.

Cleveland is a good team. It’s an interesting team. It just might not be a playoff team this season. When it’s all said and done, maybe the Tribe will find the resilience that has defined the team all season and make me eat my words here. That’d be just fine. Stranger things have happened.

After a three-game sweep in Atlanta, though, the Indians just don’t look ready.

August has once again been a trying month for the Tribe. No, this is nowhere close to the 5-24 disaster of a year ago, but the offensive drop-off over the past month has been jarring. It’s actually impressive that Cleveland has pulled off as many wins (12) as it has this month, considering the lineup’s team-wide problems. Tribe fans can thank the pitching staff for that.

Consider this: Cleveland’s pitching staff has posted the American League’s fourth-best ERA (3.37) for August, while holding hitters to a .669 OPS (second-best in the league). The staff also ranks fourth in the AL in strikeouts (220) and WHIP (1.30) for the month of August. Both the rotation and bullpen has more than done its part, and that included in Atlanta, where the Indians turned in a zero in 21 of 25 innings against the Braves.

“We’re making small mistakes that are unfortunately leading to close losses,” staff leader Justin Masterson said on Wednesday.

The mistakes…

Second inning Tuesday:
Danny Salazar gives up two-run, two-out triple to Elliot Johnson in 2-0 loss.

Second inning Wednesday:
Masterson walked the pitcher and then allowed two-run single to Jordan Shafer.

Ninth inning Wednesday:
Joe Smith gives up walk-off single to Chris Johnson in 3-2 loss.

Third inning Thursday:
Ubaldo Jimenez gave up a three-run homer to Brian McCann in a 3-1 loss.

“Right now, we’re in a stretch where if you make a mistake,” Jimenez said, “you’re probably going to pay for it with the game. We’re not scoring a lot of runs. That’s part of baseball.”

Scoring three runs in 27 innings and going 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position provided little to no margin for error for Cleveland’s pitchers throughout the three-game sweep at Turner Field. Now, it’s on to Detroit, which holds a 6.5-game lead in the division and has gone 13-3 against the Indians this season.

In August, the Indians rank 15th (last) in the American League on batting average (.227), on-base percentage (.295), slugging percentage (.354), OPS (.650) and runs scored (85) through 26 games. The Mark Reynolds Effect has been this: Cleveland’s month-by-month slugging percentage this season has been .465 (April), .421 (May), .395 (June), .391 (July) and .354 (August).

It has been a one-through-nine problem, too.

August slash lines for Cleveland’s regulars (top nine in at-bats):

CF Michael Bourn: .217/.265/.283 (106 AB)
1B Nick Swisher: .223/.304/.388 (103 AB)
2B Jason Kipnis: .258/.351/.340 (97 AB)
DH Carlos Santana: .225/.349/.404 (89 AB)
LF Michael Brantley: .227/.269/.309 (97 AB)
C Yan Gomes: .281/.369/.368 (57 AB)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera: .213/.260/.337 (89 AB)
3B Mike Aviles: .254/.250/.381 (63 AB)
RF Drew Stubbs: .246/.355/.385 (65 AB)

“Unfortunately, when this team is red hot, the whole team is red hot,” Jason Giambi said. “And, unfortunately, when we’re not red hot, we don’t swing the bat. We have a tougher time manufacturing, which is kind of weird with the speed that we have and the agility players that we have. You’d think we could overcome some of that and kind of steal a few wins here and there.

“For some reason, we just don’t push it over the top. I think that’s a team coming together and learning.”

SECOND: Help is on the way. Or, at least that’s what the Indians are hoping.

Late Thursday night, MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert reported that the D-backs and Indians agreed to a deal to send outfielder Jason Kubel to Cleveland in exchange for a Minor Leaguer and cash, according to a baseball source. The Indians did not have any comment, but the deal is expected to be made official on Friday.

The 31-year-old Kubel can help out in the outfield and at designated hitter, helping lengthen the Tribe nine in theory. Through 89 games with Arizona this season, Kubel has hit just .220/.288/.324/.612 with five homers and 32 RBI, while battling a variety of leg issues. Since the All-Star break, Kubel has hit just .137 (7-for-51) with no home runs, one walk, five RBI and 21 strikeouts in 25 games. He was designated for assignment on Tuesday.

All of that said, Kubel is one season removed from posting a .253/.327/.506/.833 slash line with 30 homers, 64 extra-base hits and 90 RBI for the D-backs. Across the 2008-12 seasons, he hit .269/.337/.478/.815 with an average of 22 homers and 84 RBI per season over those five years. Cleveland can only hope that it will catch some form of the 2008-12 Kubel, and not the banged-up, subpar version that showed up this season in Arizona.

THIRD: Let’s take a moment to recognize the work of Jimenez against the Braves, because really, aside from the home run he allowed to McCann, the right-hander was again strong for the Indians. Jimenez piled up 10 strikeouts, scattered seven hits, walked none and only allowed the three runs in seven innings of work.

It marked the first time in Jimenez’s career that he struck out at least 10 batters with no walks. It was his 14th career double-digit strikeout game and the first time he’s had at least two such outings in one year since 2010 (four times). He has struck out at least eight in three straight starts for the second time this season, tying a career best (he also had two such streaks in 2010). This was the first time had had 10 strikeouts in back-to-back starts in his career.

What’s been working?

“The fastball,” Jimenez said. “I’ve been able to throw the fastball consistently around 94-95 mph and then I’ve been able to locate it wherever I want. And then I’ve been throwing good breaking balls off my fastball.”

In the second inning, Jimenez struck out B.J. Upton swinging on a 97-mph heater. The Turner Field radar gun wasn’t running hot, either. The PITCHf/x date backed it up. Jimenez’s claim about his fastball is dead on, too. Over his past two starts, he has logged 61 four-seamers, compared to thrower fewer than 20 four-seamers in four of his previous five starts. He has also reduced the volume of sinkers and relied more on sliders and a changeup the past two turns.

In Indians history, there have been 46 double-digits strikeout streaks of at least two straight games. Bob Feller holds the club record with four consecutive 10-plus strikeout games from Sept. 23, 1938-April 21, 1939. Prior to Jimenez this month, CC Sabathia was the last two accomplish the feat by turning in three 10-plus strikeout games in a row from June 15-27, 2008. Thanks to the low run support, Jimenez is the first Tribe starter to go 0-2 in back-to-back 10-strikeout games since 1976 (Dennis Eckersley).

Over his past 17 starts, dating back to May 27, Jimenez has posted a 2.98 ERA with a .240 opponents’ batting average and 8.9 K/9 over 96.2 IP. He’s gone 6-6 in that span with a 1.44 WHIP, playing damage control while dealing with low run support.

HOME: Whether the Indians do or don’t make the postseason this year, I hope Cleveland fans are able to appreciate the special season at hand. When frustrated over a tough loss, it is always good to remember that the Indians lost 94 games last season. Going from a 90-plus loss showing to contending for a postseason spot a year later is an impressive feat. Yes, Cleveland’s highest-paid players have underperformed, and there’s frustration currently residing in the clubhouse and within the fan base, but this season will still be a memorable one when it’s all said and done.

At 71-62, the Indians are on pace to finish with 86 wins, if the team’s .534 winning percentage holds true down the stretch. That would be an 18-win improvement over 2012. Excluding strike-shortened seasons, there have only been seven one-year turnarounds of at least 18 wins in Cleveland’s franchise history, which dates to 1901.

24 wins: 1985 to 1986
20 wins: 1915 to 1916
19 wins: 1991 to 1992
19 wins: 1953 to 1954
19 wins: 1928 to 1929
18 wins: 2006 to 2007
18 wins: 1925 to 1926

Maybe the Indians turn this around this weekend in Detroit and down the stretch in September. Maybe they don’t (the team looks a hitter or two short of being a legitimate contender right now). Either way, this team has been a fun one to watch and cover, and it should be an interesting stretch run in September.

NOTE: It is MLBastian Jr.’s birthday this weekend, so I will be back in Ohio and not in Detroit. Make sure to keep checking Indians.com, and following @Indians and @tribeinsider on Twitter, for updates throughout the three-game series at Comerica Park.

ON DECK:

Indians (71-62) at Tigers (78-56)
at 7:08 p.m. ET Friday at Comerica Park

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 132

828AsdrubalFinal: Braves 3, Indians 2

FIRST: There was no excuse for the baserunning blunder Asdrubal Cabrera made on Wednesday night, and the Indians shortstop did not make one.

“That was really bad for the team,” Cabrera said. “I’ve got nothing else to say about that. It was my fault. That’s it.”

The situation was as follows…

With two outs and runners on the corners, Michael Brantley was in the batter’s box for the Indians with the game caught in a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning. Cabrera, on first base, sprinted for second base to attempt a steal.

Brantley swung. Cabrera stopped.

Thinking the ball was fouled off, and chopped behind the catcher, Cabrera halted dead in his tracks and took his time walking back to first base. One problem, Braves catcher Brian McCann caught the ball, it was live and he threw it back to reliever Luis Avilan. Cabrera — had he kept running — could have possibly completed the stolen base.

“They weren’t throwing through. We just couldn’t take the base,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “We’re trying to yell. It’s kind of a frustrating feeling. He thought it was a foul ball and there’s nothing you can do. You’re too far away. Everybody was yelling, but he thought it was foul.”

It ended the inning, stopped the comeback, and cost Cleveland a key win.

SECOND: The game’s decisive moment came in the bottom of the ninth, when Chris Johnson delivered a walk-off single to left field to propel Atlanta to the win.

The inning began with a strikeout of Joey Terdoslavich and continued with an infield single from Jordan Schafer. The base hit went to the left of the mound, chopping in such a way that the spin essentially stopped the ball before Cabrera could get to it in time. Just a tough-luck infield single. Schafer stole second base, and Smith then induced a flyout to Justin Upton.

This set up a choice: pitch to the left-handed Freddie Freeman or the right-handed Johnson?

Entering Wednesday, Freeman was hitting .311 with 16 homers and 85 RBI while Johnson was batting .331 with 10 homers and 57 RBI. Pick your poison. This season, lefty hitters have posted a .732 OPS off the sidearming Smith compared to a .564 OPS by righties.

Smith opted to intentionally walk Freeman.

“Multiple reasons,” Francona said. “I know Chris Johnson is a good hitter, but it makes sense to let Smitty face CJ instead of Freeman.”

Johnson made the Indians pay with his game-winning single.

“It’s obviously not personal,” Johnson said. “It’s Freddie Freeman hitting in front of me with a base open with a righty on the mound.  But, yeah, any time somebody gets walked in front of you on purpose to pitch to you instead, you want to come up big, and that’s what I did.”

THIRD: The Indians have now gone 0-for-17 with runners in scoring position through two games against the Braves. The two runs scored by the Tribe marked the 15th time in the past 24 games that the club scored three or fewer runs. It should come as no surprise that Cleveland has gone 3-12 in those games.

The Indians have one of the better overall offenses in the American League this season (Really. Look it up.), but the lineup has regressed substantially in the second half. The massive slump of slugger Mark Reynolds, leading to his release, has led to an offense that has struggled in the power and run production department.

Entering Wednesday, the Indians ranked 14th in the AL in OPS (.748) and 13th in runs scored (141) in the second half. In the first half, Cleveland ranked sixth and fourth, respectively, in those categories. Francona was asked if the second-half woes on offense was becoming troubling.

“Man, you just try to figure out the game tonight,” Francona said. “Regardless of what’s going on — who’s hitting or who’s not — you try to put a lineup together, play the game and figure out a way to win. We’re getting good pitching and, because of that, we’re staying in games and giving ourselves a chance.”

HOME: Justin Masterson, standup guy that he is, tried to shoulder the responsibility for this defeat. In reality, despite some command woes, the big sinkerballer pitched well enough to win. Over six innings, he held the Braves to two runs on five hits, ending with six strikeouts and four walks.

Why did Masterson blame himself for the loss?

The right-hander pointed to the second inning, when he allowed a two-out double to Andrelton Simmons and followed with a walk to pitcher Paul Maholm to load the bases. That one-two punch led to Schafer delivering a two-run single on a sinker.

“I’m the reason we lost the game,” Masterson said. “In the second inning, I had two outs, Andrelton Simmons in a good count. Lose him, hang a slider to him, he hits it for a double and I’ve got the pitcher up next. I walk him and then Schafer makes a good play on a sinker away to score those two runs. That was kind of the turning point.”

In tight games, little mistakes become more glaring.

“We’re making small mistakes that are unfortunately leading to close losses,” Masterson said. “In one sense you’re excited, because we’re right there. We’re in every single game we’re going after. We’re more or less losing ballgames. We’re not always getting beat. We’re losing ballgames. That’s the unfortunate part of it.”

ON DECK:

Indians (71-61) at Braves (80-52)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday at Turner Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 131

827SalazarFinal: Braves 2, Indians 0

FIRST: It appears that The Salazar Rules are in full effect.

After four innings and 77 pitches against the Braves, right-hander Danny Salazar was pulled from his start by manager Terry Francona. This falls in line with the way Cleveland has handled the 23-year-old pitcher of late. In his previous outing, Salazar was lifted after 75 pitches (five innings). The time before that, it was 71 pitches (four innings).

The only time Salazar has gone over 100 pitches this year (and in his career, according to the pitcher) was when he logged 103 against Detroit on Aug. 7. Prior to that, he averaged roughly 70 pitches per outing throughout his Minor League slate earlier this season.

Even before Salazar’s start in Atlanta, here is what Francona had to say:

“He’s coming off Tommy John and we need to recognize that, be cognizant of that,” said the manager. “We’re on the same page organizationally. It’s just, in the middle of a game, when you know he can get guys out, but the kid has a long career, sometimes you have to kind of give yourself a kick in the pants to do the right thing.”

With an eight-man bullpen, which includes a former starter in Carlos Carrasco, the Tribe can certainly afford to pull Salazar after four. That was especially the case Tuesday — one day after the Indians enjoyed a scheduled day off. With a rested bullpen, Francona did not need to unnecessarily increase the pitch count of a highly-touted prospect that has already surpassed a career high for innings in one year.

That said, can the Indians afford to keep plowing forward — while trying to contend — with one of their starters essentially limited to four or  five innings?

My guess is that the Tribe does so at least until rosters expand in September. That’s when someone like Josh Tomlin could potentially be added as a spot starter (or sixth starter) to provide some extra rest for guys like Salazar and/or Scott Kazmir (also dealing with a higher workload than in recent years). The Tribe could also use the expanded roster to add a reliever or two to the mix to help the situation.

“We’re in a position with him right now where, when he has long innings,” Francona said, “we owe it to him and to the organization to keep an eye on him. There’s going to be a day when we can turn him loose and let that four [innings] turn into six or seven, but not right now.”

“His next start will be in September,” the manager added later. “So that will ease it a lot. It’s just kind of common sense. We’re coming off an off-day so we can manage it. We’ve been able to manage it. He’s only made four or five starts, so we’ve been able to manage it.”

SECOND: Little things loom much larger in a game with only two runs scored.

Consider the situation that arose with two outs in the second inning. With Salazar on the mound, the Braves put runners on the corners for No. 8-hitter Elliot Johnson. The pitcher was looming in the on-deck circle, so an intentional walk to Johnson was certainly one way to go.

That said, it is also worth noting that Johnson headed into the night with a .186 average and a .465 OPS on the season. He was also hitting .180 (.456) vs. right-handed pitchers and .076 (.192) over his past 36 games, entering Tuesday.

All things considered, Francona said pitching to Johnson was the way to go.

“The idea,” Francona said, “is you really have an advantage when you have an eight-hole hitter and you have the pitcher up behind him. Second and third, maybe [you walk Johnson]. But a guy that’s hitting .180-something, that’s a real good time to pitch. You set up the next inning also.”

Of course, now that we all have the benefit of hindsight, it proved to be the game’s turning point.

Salazar threw five straight fastballs to Johnson and then catcher Carlos Santana called for an offspeed pitch. The rookie right-hander shook off the catcher and stuck with a fastball, which Johnson sent to the wall in right-center field. Right fielder Drew Stubbs couldn’t make the catch and Johnson wound up with a two-run, game-deciding triple.

“I was a little bit disappointed in myself,” Salazar said. “I felt great tonight, but I couldn’t find my release point. Changeup, fastball, slider — everything was up. Santana was calling for offspeed pitches. I just didn’t trust myself to throw it and I just tried to throw the fastball away [to Johnson].”

THIRD: Credit where credit is due: nice job by the Tribe bullpen tonight. Marc Rzepczynski, Matt Albers and Carlos Carrasco teamed for four shutout, hitless innings of relief after Salazar’s four innings. The Indians relief corps now has a 2.65 ERA over 139.1 innings in the past 43 games.

“They were tremendous,” Francona said of the relievers’ work against the Braves. “They zig-zagged through the rest of the game and gave us a chance, because they were so good. That was impressive.”

HOME: Facing rookie lefty Alex Wood, though, the Indians’ offense went quiet. The 22-year-old 2012 Draftee scattered five hits and issued four walks, but held Cleveland to an 0-for-6 showing with runners in scoring position and an 0-for-10 showing with runners on base.

“There was a lot of deception in his delivery,” Francona said, “and there’s some late movement. He’s not a real hard thrower, but there’s a ton of deception. We had a couple chances, but not a lot going.”

Indians infielder Mike Aviles said there were no excuses.

“I know me, personally,” Aviles said, “I had four people on base where I could’ve gotten a hit that could’ve changed things. I think we left 10 people on base. I throw myself under the bus here. We have to do better with people on base, because our pitchers did their job. Danny gave up two runs. I’ll take that from a starter all day. And the bullpen came in and threw up zeros.

“They did their job. We, including myself, especially myself, just didn’t do ours. There’s no sugarcoating it. At the end of the day, we had people on base and we had a chance to do what we needed to do. We just didn’t do it.”

Cleveland has scored three runs or fewer in 14 of the past 23 games.

ON DECK:

Indians (71-60) at Braves (79-52)
at 7:10 p.m. ET Wednesday at Turner Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 118

811BournFinal: Indians 6, Angels 5

FIRST: Resiliency has been a trademark of this Tribe club all season. After losing six games in a row, including being swept in a four-game series by the Tigers, the Indians came back from a five-run hole for a comeback win over L.A. on Sunday.

Michael Bourn, who played a key role in the comeback, was asked if a single win in August can save a team’s season.

“I wouldn’t count it out. I wouldn’t say no to that,” Bourn said. “Certain games are key games in a season. This could’ve been one of them. We’ll see in the future. We’ll go back and look at it when everything is said and done and see where we’re at.”

The Indians needed any kind of win — no doubt. But, perhaps what the team needed was this kind of win. Cleveland was down 5-0 by the fourth inning, Justin Masterson was gone before the fifth and the Tribe seemed dead and buried and on its way to its first 0-7 homestand since 1990.

And then…

“One minute we’re getting one-hit,” Mike Aviles said. “Next thing you know, it’s 5-4, and then it’s 5-5 and all of a sudden we’re ahead.”

It was a game that served as a microcosm of Cleveland’s season.

The Indians lost five in a row in April, and then answered with a 19-6 win over Houston to jump-start a 28-game stretch with 21 wins. The Tribe went 4-16 in a stretch between May and June, and then won two road games in Texas to ignite a 15-5 run. The Indians lost four in a row, including a pair of lackluster games at home against the Tigers on July 5-6, before winning six of eight before the All-Star break.

After the All-Star break, it was a 1-5 start through Minnesota and Seattle. Scott Kazmir then turned in a gem on the road against the Mariners to begin an eight-game winning streak, and an 11-game run with 10 victories. That include two wins to end a three-game series in Miami, which began with Jose Fernandez striking out 14 Indians hitters in an eight-inning, three-hit performance.

“We’ve been doing it quite a bit this year,” Aviles said of overcoming adversity. “Just not lately.”

That brings us to this week, leading up to Sunday.

Cleveland was three outs away from being two games out of first place, and then…

Monday: Chris Perez blows a save in the ninth inning to send Indians to loss to Tigers.
Tuesday: Starter Corey Kluber lands on the disabled list and Tribe loses again.
Wednesday: Indians drop a 14-inning heartbreaker to the Tigers.
Thursday: Tribe cuts Mark Reynolds and is dealt a sweep at hands of Detroit.
Friday: Scott Kazmir experiences a “dead arm” and Indians lose to Angels.
Saturday: Four errors by Tribe, four-run eighth by Angels turns a close game into a rout.

One blow after another and Sunday was no different for five innings.

“The situation we’re in right now, it hasn’t worked out for us,” Nick Swisher said. “But to get down 5-0 early, it kind of felt, ‘Hey, man. It’s been the same thing all week long.’”

The Indians changed the script. In the sixth inning, after Jerome Williams allowed just one hit to the first 18 batters he faced, the sequence went single (Bourn), home run (Swisher), walk (Jason Kipnis), home run (Aviles). In the seventh, Carlos Santana tied things up with a homer off JC Gutierrez and Bourn later delivered the go-ahead single.

“Bang, couple balls hit good, and next thing you know, we’re in it,” Francona said. “We tie it, and then we take the lead.”

Can a win of this nature be good for a team?

“It’s got to be,” Francona said.

SECOND: It’s kind of an odd thought, but the Indians might not win Sunday’s game if Asdrubal Cabrera isn’t ejected by home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Cabrera misplayed a sharp ground from Grant Green in the second inning and, in the same frame, was unable to reach a grounder up the middle from Mike Trout (a dive attempt might’ve helped) that wound up being a two-run single. Cabrera then led off the bottom of the second and struck out swinging. The fourth pitch (a low breaking ball) was ruled a strike, so a possible 3-1 count instead turned into a 2-2 count.

Cabrera swung through Williams’ fifth pitch for the strikeout and immediately had words for Carapazza, who had zero patience.

Francona wasn’t pleased about the swiftness of Cabrera’s ejection.

“I asked [Carapazza], ‘Did he say something out of [line]? He said, ‘No,’” Francona said. “He said he just argued strikes and balls. I just [think] maybe that was a younger umpire maybe trying to show his authority a little bit. I thought he got a little aggressive there. I don’t think he needed to throw him out.”

It worked out all right for the Indians, considering Aviles entered and launched the two-run home run that pulled the Tribe within one in the sixth.

THIRD: For all the grief fans and we in the media have given the Tribe’s bullpen this season, it’s only fair to tip the ol’ cap for the group’s role in Sunday’s win. Masterson endured arguably his worst start (4.1 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 1 HBP, 101 pitches) of the season, and the bullpen helped bail him out with 4.2 shutout innings with just one hit allowed.

Lefty Rich Hill followed Masterson with one inning and righty Matt Albers came next with 1.2 frames. That put the offense in position to rally, which it did, setting things up nicely for setup man Joe Smith (eighth) and Perez (ninth). It seemed fitting that Perez was on the mound to seal the win, when it was his blown save that began the losing streak.

Perez had no comment.

HOME: Throughout this season, the Indians have had a handful of players-only meetings, including one on Thursday after the sweep by Detroit. On Saturday night, following the Tribe’s sixth loss in a row — one helped by some sloppy play in the field — it was Francona called a meeting.

His message?

“It’s just basically how we want to play the game,” Francona said. “It’s not always going to be perfect, but we have to fight through frustration.”

Cleveland still had some issues in the field, and certainly on the mound early, but the Tribe finally showed some fight and looked fed up with this slump in the final few innings. Is it possible that Francona’s meeting played a role in the team’s play?

“Well, we won,” Bourn said with a smile. “So I guess you could say it worked. He has our back in all the situations that we’re in. He’s behind us. He’s not against us, but sometimes he’s got to let us know what time it is. We don’t mind it as a team. It might’ve picked us up and got us going.”

NOTE: I will not be making the trip to Minnesota for the Tribe’s series against the Twins. I’m actually taking a few days to help Mrs. MLB paint and decorate the room for Baby Girl Bastian, who is due smack in the middle of the Indians’ October push (if the team pulls off a late-season comeback, that is). Talk about the ultimate jinx on my part. I will meet up with the team for continued Indians.com coverage when they arrive on the West Coast.

ON DECK:

Indians (63-55) at Twins (52-63)
at 8:10 p.m. ET Monday at Target Field

–JB

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