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.


On deck:

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


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’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


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)



Covering the Bases: Game 28

PujolsTrout430Final: Angels 7, Indians 1

FIRST: Nick Swisher has been around long enough to know the drill. When he saw reporters waiting for him on Wednesday night, the Indians first baseman asked if they needed him, agreed to an interview and then launched into his own Q&A before any reporters said a word.

“I already know the first question,” Swisher began. “‘What was [C.J. Wilson] doing against us?’ He was mixing his pitches. He was up and down. He was changing speeds and throwing a lot more strikes than we’re normally used to seeing.

“The second question is: ‘What do you think you guys are going to have to do to turn this around?’ Things aren’t really going the way that we’d like right now, but there’s no quit in this team. There’s always fight. We’ve got a nice off-day tomorrow. It’s big-time needed.

“Hopefully, we just go home, relax a little bit, get our minds right and get ready to go on Friday.”

I probably would’ve led off with some variation of Question No. 2. We can get to Wilson in a little bit. For starters, the focus has to be on the fact that Cleveland went 0-6 on its road trip through San Francisco and Anaheim. After going 0-for-California, the Tribe heads home for Thursday’s off-day and a weekend series against the White Sox.

Two things arrive at an opportune time for the Indians. Thursday’s off-day will be well received by the players — a chance to take their minds off the game for 24 hours — and the calendar will flip to May. When a player or team is going through a terrible month, there is something mentally refreshing about seeing the new month arrive.

“Obviously, it’s only the month of April. It’s done,” Swisher said. “But, to get out of the gates the way we did, that’s not the way that we play baseball. We’ve got to get back to fundamentals, start playing some clean games and taking advantage of what we’re given.”

Cleveland’s 11-17, last-place April showing was punctuated by the six-game losing streak against the Giants and Angels. On the trip, no area of the team was without fault. Offensively, the Indians hit .183 (35-for-191) with 13 runs scored (2.2 per game) and a .167 (6-for-36) showing with runners in scoring position. On the mound, the Tribe posted a 5.55 ERA in 48.2 innings (5.50 ERA for the starters and 5.65 ERA for the relievers). In the field, Cleveland made four errors, plus a handful of missed plays that did not get the official “E” in the box score.

Also on this trip, Carlos Carrasco lost his rotation job on Monday and All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis (right abdominal strain) was lost to injury on Tuesday.

(It’s possible Kipnis is placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday. Then again, Francona hinted that the Indians might wait longer than that. Here’s a thought: Cleveland doesn’t need a replacement starter for Carrasco until Tuesday, so perhaps the decision with Kipnis will be delayed until then. The Indians can go with their eight-man bullpen and versatile three-man bench. Then, if Kipnis indeed does need to be DL’d, Cleveland can back-date it to when he was hurt, and call up a replacement starter to avoid an extra roster move.)

All the Indians can do now if put the trip behind them as quickly as possible.

“We have to,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “My feelings about our team don’t change on a road trip. It was a really tough trip. There’s no way around it. We’re going to have to be strong enough now to go home and be able to look at our record for a little while and not be happy with it, knowing that the best way to remedy it is to play better. We’re going to have to be strong, because this was a tough trip. Not a lot went right for us.”

SECOND: As for Wilson, the Angels’ veteran left-hander spun eight strong innings, retiring 18 in a row to finish his outing. Wilson struck out eight, walked only one and yielded just one run in his 117-pitch performance. Once again on this trip, and for the second time by a lefty, the opposing starter settled in and quieted Cleveland’s limping lineup.

“He was very aggressive with different fastballs,” Francona said. “He was cutting it, changing speeds with it. And then off of that, a breaking ball. He was just so aggressive in the zone and working ahead. He was just attacking.”

There was a lot of attacking of the Tribe’s offense over the past six games.

Cleveland made Tim Linecum work on Saturday and chased him from the game before the end of the fifth, but the opposing starters had solid overall success against the Indians on the trip. Combined, Tim Hudson, Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Tyler Skaggs, Jered Weaver and Wilson went 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 3.44 strikeout-to-walk ration in 39 innings (six-plus per start) against Cleveland.

Was it a case of great pitching? Or, was it a case of poor in-game adjusting by the Indians? Both are true, but the answer varied game by game.

“There always are [two sides to it],” Francona said. “But again, the only side that I really care about is us winning. There’s always more to it. We had a tough trip. Now, we have to go fix it. And we’ll do that.”

THIRD: The Indians were baseball’s best-hitting team against left-handed pitchers in 2013. Among all Major League teams, Cleveland ranked first in average (.271), on-base percentage (.341) and OPS (.766), as well as third in slugging percentage (.425), when facing southpaws during last season’s Wild Card-clinching campaign.

Cleveland did that with mostly the same roster as this season, but the team is currently one of the Majors’ worst teams against lefties. For the month of April, the Indians posted a .207/.283/.315 slash line against left-handers in 333 at-bats. What’s been the issue? The main problem has been a lack of production from last season’s lefty killers.

Ryan Raburn hit .308 against lefties last year, but hit just .147 against them in the first month. Yan Gomes went from .327 in 2013 to .194 this April. Carlos Santana (.299 in ’13 and .132 this April) and Swisher (from .295 to .171) have also been slow out of the gates against southpaw pitching.

“Well, right now, we don’t have really anybody [hot],’ Francona said. “The guys that do a lot of damage — Swish right-handed, Raburn — we’re just still searching. We don’t have anybody really very hot. Other teams, they know how to navigate through lineups, too. We’ve got to be that team that keeps that line moving. Right now, we’re not.”

HOME: The Indians caught a bad case of Error Flu in the first month of the season, too. Gomes’ throwing error into center field on Howie Kendrick’s stolen base in the third inning Wednesday marked Cleveland’s AL-high 26th error of the season. The Indians have had at least one official error in 19 of their 28 games. They also have 10 errors in the last 10 games, as well as 18 errors in the past 17 games.

Gomes remains the most surprising culprit. Cleveland’s catcher is a plus defender, and his caught-stealing rate remains strong, but he has seven errors in the season’s early going.

“I just think he’s so quick,” Francona said. “There’s times when he knows he has to be perfect. If a guy has a good jump, he tries to maybe be a little too quick. He’s throwing runners out probably as good as anybody in the league. He just tries to be quick. It’s out of caring and trying to be perfect.”

EXTRA: Talk about a bummer of a postgame post. There had to be some semblance of a silver lining within the putrid road trip, right? Danny Salazar looked to have possibly turned a corner on Saturday in San Francisco, where he spun seven strong innings with eight strikeouts, one walk and one run allowed in a no-decision. Michael Brantley was pitched incredibly tough in San Fran, but then snapped out of an 0-for-17 slump on Tuesday. And then, there’s Carlos Santana. After it felt like he was 0-for-April, Santana went 4-for-11 with two home runs and six RBIs in the series against the Angels. His mini-breakout came in a sweep at the hands of L.A., but it’d be huge for Cleveland if his swing is finally coming around.

NOTE: I will be off this weekend for the White Sox series. Keep checking for all the updates and latest news.

On deck:

White Sox (14-15) at Indians (11-17)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Friday at Progressive Field


Covering the Bases: Game 25

427SalazarFinal: Giants 4, Indians 1

FIRST: The Indians can only hope that Sunday’s loss to the Giants will actually lead to more wins down the road this season.

What I mean is this: within Cleveland’s defeat, right-hander Danny Salazar finally looked to have turned a corner. He gave the Tribe the type of outing it had been waiting to see. After the game, Salazar exuded confidence.

Finally, after what had been a discouraging April for the developing starter, he had something to build on.

“Today, I was trying to bring the guy that was here last year,” Salazar said. “I wasn’t thinking about my delivery or anything. [My mind was] just on keeping the ball down.”

This was the win within the loss.

In each of Salazar’s previous outings, he failed to last five innings. He piled up strikeouts, but gave up a pile of hits (19 in 12.2 innings). He posted a 9.95 ERA and gave up a 1.061 OPS. He brought up issues with tipping pitches on his own, sounding like a young pitcher searching for answers. It felt to him like the batters knew what was coming. That happens in the big leagues with elevated fastballs and hung breaking balls.

Things changed against San Francisco.

Over seven innings, Salazar still flashed the strikeouts with eight on the afternoon, but he limited the Giants to one walk and scattered five hits. After back-to-back doubles from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Crawford led to a run in the fourth, Salazar settled down and retired 10 of the final 11 hitters he faced. The one hit allowed in that span was quickly erased with a double-play groundout.

“In the fourth inning,” Salazar said, “when I came to the dugout, I was just thinking about keeping the ball down — nothing else. I went back out there and I accomplished that the whole game. It worked. I was just trusting myself and trusting that I have good guys behind me, that if they hit the ball, they’re going to get it.”

(Michael Bourn did just that to end the fourth inning, actually. With Crawford on second base with two outs, Brandon Hicks drilled a pitch to the left-center warning track. It was a near-homer and looked destined to at least be an extra-base hit. Cleveland’s center fielder ran a mile, unofficially, and turned on the turbo boost as he closed in on the wall to make an impressive running catch. Bourn’s hamstring looks just fine.)

Indians manager Terry Francona was definitely encouraged by Salazar’s performance.

“He was pretty good, man,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I thought early, in the first inning, he was up [in the strike zone]. I thought he made the adjustment and he threw some really good changeups — not too many — but to the point where they had to respect it. I thought he threw some really good breaking balls. I thought he threw fastballs when he was supposed to, attacking the right hitters with it.”

One adjustment Salazar made was increasing the number of first-pitch strikes. Heading into Sunday’s start, he had a first-pitch strike rate of 55.7 percent. Against the Giants, Salazar registered a first-pitch strike to 19 of the 26 batters he faced for a rate of 73.1 percent. San Francisco hit .222 (4-for-18) in at-bats ending in a fastball and 0-for-4 against his slider. One of the two at-bats ending in a changeup resulted in a hit.

“He pitched really well,” Francona said. “That’s a pretty good ballgame right there.”

SECOND: There are times to tip the ol’ cap when an opposing pitchers handcuffs and overpowers your lineup. One of those days came Friday, when Giants veteran Tim Hudson turned in a strong seven-inning effort to send the Tribe on its way to a 5-1 loss.

On Saturday, the Indians forced Tim Linecum out of the game before the end of the fifth inning, but then went 0-for-13 against San Francisco’s bullpen. On Sunday, Ryan Vogelsong turned in seven shutout innings against the Indians, but was it a case of him being exceptionally strong or Cleveland not coming through when it should have at the plate?

“It’s probably a little bit of both,” Francona said. “It probably always is.”

That said…

“I thought we had some pitches to hit that we didn’t,” the manager added. “And then, when we didn’t hit them, he made some good pitches.”

Consider that — unlike Salazar’s high first-pitch strike percentage — Vogelsong (he of the 7.71 ERA going into the day) threw only seven first-pitch strikes to the 24 hitters he encountered. That’s 29.2 percent. Think of it this way: Cleveland was in a 1-0 count 17 times on Sunday.

Heading into Sunday’s action, Major League teams had a .263 average (.797 OPS) after a 1-0 count. The Indians went 2-for-16 after a 1-0 count on Sunday. MLB teams had a .272 average (.938 OPS) after a 2-0 count. The Indians went 0-for-6 after a 2-0 count on Sunday. MLB teams had a .282 average (1.086 OPS) after a 3-1 count. The Indians went 0-for-3 after a 3-1 count on Sunday.

Cleveland also had eight 2-1 counts, five 3-2 counts and one 3-0 count. The Indians went a combined 0-for-10 after those counts.

It was a bad day at the offensive office on Sunday.

“[Vogelsong] mixes pitches up real well off his fastball and changeup,” said Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, who drew two walks. “A lot of times, his misses are not over the plate. It might be down low or up high. He won’t ever just give you a middle pitch to square up. You factor that in with how well he holds the running game. … I don’t think we made the adjustments that we needed to make.”

Cleveland hit .162 (17-for-105) overall and went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position in the brooming by the bay.

“You try not to look back too many days, because that doesn’t help,” Francona said. “We have good hitters. We have to start making better adjustments during the game and make it harder for guys to get us out. For whatever reason, whether it’s pressing, it’s probably different for each hitter, but we’ve got to make it a little harder.”

THIRD: The biggest offensive issue this weekend was not found at the top of Cleveland’s lineup. In fact, the Nos. 1-3 hitters (Bourn, Nick Swisher and Kipnis) hit a combined .324 (12-for-37) with four extra-base hits, three walks, four runs and four RBIs in the three losses. As a group, they accounted for four of the five runs that the Indians scored.

The rest of the lineup hit a combined .074 (5-for-68) and came through with just one run. That came courtesy of a leadoff home run by catcher Yan Gomes in the eighth inning on Sunday. That blast into the left-field seats snapped a 52-inning homerless drought for the Tribe. The Nos. 4-6 hitters (Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera) went a combined 0-for-29 in the series.

HOME: The dagger on Sunday came via a two-out, three-run, walk-off home run from Brandon Hicks in the bottom of the ninth inning. On the wrong end of that blast was Indians setup man Cody Allen, who elevated a 1-0 fastball that wound up in the stands beyond the left-field wall. Allen had been stellar to that point, with no earned runs allowed all season.

In his second inning of work, Allen gave up a leadoff single to Buster Posey, who was replaced by pinch-runner Ehire Adrianza. Pinch-hitter Gregor Blanco then used a sacrifice bunt to move the runner up to second base. After striking out Sandoval, the Indians opted to intentionally walk Crawford. That set the stage for Hicks’ heroics.

“They were just trying to get a right-on-right matchup to feel more comfortable,” Allen said of the walk before the walk-off. “It didn’t work. It’s just kind of one of those things where I put myself in a bad count right there and threw a bad pitch, and he hit it.

“It’s disappointing. I felt like we had a chance to win a couple games here,” he added. “It’s one of those things where we kind of had a couple opportunities to win some games and they were better than us in some areas.”

On deck:

Indians (11-14) at Angels (11-12)*
at 10:05 p.m. ET at Angel Stadium

*doesn’t include Sunday’s late game



Covering the Bases: Game 24

426McAllisterFinal: Giants 5, Indians 3

FIRST: Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis put it best on Saturday, when asked about what Zach McAllister has meant to the Tribe this month:

“He’s been our best starter so far. Probably the last three starts for him, he’s been kind of our go-to guy when we need a big win.”

Indeed, McAllister — and, in fairness, Corey Kluber fits this description right now, too — has been a steady part of Cleveland’s inconsistent rotation. Even in the wake of Saturday’s loss to the Giants, McAllister has a 2.55 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 24.2 innings in his last four starts. In that span, he has 19 strikeouts, four walks and a .217 opponents’ average.

Against San Francisco, McAllister was strong out of the gates, holding the Giants to a first-inning, leadoff double over the first four innings. During that stretch, the big right-hander retired a dozen straight batters, relying heavily on his fastball, per usual.

“Early on his fastball had so much life to it and he was commanding it,” Indians manager Terry Franona said. “He just didn’t command it as well in the fifth.”

Therein lies the rub.

In the fifth inning, everything fell apart for the Indians, who could not recover and went on to drop their second game in a row by the bay. When the smoke cleared, McAllister was charged with four runs on five hits in five innings, ending with six strikeouts and one walk. The righty logged just 75 pitches, but his spot was due up second in the sixth, so he was pulled for a pinch hitter. Welcome to National League baseball.

So, what happened?

“I maybe got a few balls up,” McAllister said. “They were able to string together a lot of singles, put the ball in play and make some things happen.”

Francona cites McAllister’s fastball command as an issue and the results certainly back that up. In the first four innings, the Giants went just 1-for-11 against the right-hander’s heater. In the fifth, San Francisco had more success, going 3-for-5 in at-bats that ended with a fastball. Two more plate appearances ending with a fastball in the fifth resulted in a walk and a run-scoring sacrifice fly.

SECOND: This one does not fall solely on McAllister’s shoulders, though. There was a moment when it appeared he’d escape with only two (not four) runs allowed in the fifth. He would’ve still had a 3-2 lead and perhaps Francona would have let him hit in the sixth in order to stay in the game. Hey, McAllister did have a single in the second inning.

The moment in question was when Hunter Pence — with two outs and runners on second and third base — sent a 2-1 fastball across the infield grass and to Kipnis’ left for a would-be groundout. Initially, it looked like a dive would be in order, but the second baseman ran down the ball, closing in quickly enough to feel he had a shot at reaching down to snare it with his glove.

“I was planning on diving the whole time until I kind of gained ground on it,” Kipnis said. “I caught up to it and thought I could reach it. It kind of caught me in-between steps and it’s one of those ones where you just don’t know if you can bend down, slide or dive. I went for the reach and it scooted under my glove.”

It rolled into right field for a two-run single that put the Indians behind for good, 4-3. Buster Posey later launched a solo homer off reliever C.C. Lee for some insurance, but the damage had been done.

No one felt worse about it than Kipnis and, give him credit, he owned up to the mistake in the immediate aftermath of a loss. Plenty of players over the years have declined comment in the moments right after a tough loss in which they played an unfortunate part. Kipnis turned, saw reporters and faced the music.

“It sucks,” Kipnis said. “It cost us pretty much the game and it cost McAllister a good start. I could’ve bailed him out of that inning. It just didn’t happen. I don’t think he cares to hear that. I don’t think he needs to hear that. No one really needs to hear anything. It’s just a play that needs to be made.”

THIRD: Kipnis should also be given credit, along with leadoff man Michael Bourn and No. 2-hitter Nick Swisher, for carrying the early offensive load for the Indians. The first three hitters in the order have been producing more of late, which is a great sign for the Tribe.

In Saturday’s loss, that trio went a combined 5-for-15 with three extra-base hits, three RBIs and three runs scored. The rest of the lineup went a combined 4-for-20.

Over his last five games, Bourn has hit at a .370 (10-for-27) clip with one double, two triples, three RBIs, three runs, one walk and a stolen base. Swisher, over his last five games, has hit .360 (9-for-25) with five doubles, two RBIs, two walks and three runs scores. Swisher’s hot stretch actually covers his last eight games, during which he’s sported a .323 average for the Indians.

Over his last nine games, Kipnis has hit .314 (11-for-35) with a homer, three doubles, five RBIs, three walks and four runs scored.

HOME: Cleveland did a great job of getting to Giants starter Tim Lincecum, chasing the right-hander from the game after 98 pitches and 4.2 innings. Unfortunately for the Indians, they then went 0-for-13 against San Francisco’s bullpen and ended the afternoon 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position (after a 1-for-9 showing with RISP on Friday night).

“We did a really good job of making Lincecum work,” Francona said. “We just weren’t able to get that one more hit to tack on and spread it out a little bit.”

On deck:

Indians (11-13) at Giants (14-10)
at 4:05 p.m. ET at AT&T Park


Covering the Bases: Game 23

425CarrascoFinal: Giants 5, Indians 1

FIRST: It wasn’t quite the Fiasco in Frisco, but Carlos Carrasco’s early-season struggles continued in the City by the Bay on Friday night.

That Carrasco’s line (six innings, five hits, four runs, one walk, six strikeouts) was an improvement should tell you all you need to know about his season to date. Against the Giants, he pitched better than he has, but the Tribe still faced an early hole.

“He was pitching out of the stretch probably three pitches into the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.

Two batters in, San Francisco had one run, thanks to a hard single from Angel Pagan and a triple from Hunter Pence. The Giants had a 3-1 lead by the end of the third (the ol’ shut-down inning eluded Cleveland again) and Michael Morse made it 4-1 with a towering homer on an 0-2 fastball to open the fourth.

“I was supposed to throw down and away,” Carrasco said. “I just threw it in the middle.”

And so it goes.

Carrasco is now 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA through four starts this season. Since he last won a Major League game on June 29, 2011, the right-hander has gone 0-12 with an 8.09 ERA in 17 starts, giving up 77 earned runs in 85.2 innings. There were times within that stretch to put some of the blame on his Tommy John surgery and subsequent recovery. That no longer flies.

Does Carrasco worry about his job security?

“Yes, every day,” he said. “I pitch every five days, I worry every single day.”

No one has said anything yet about pulling Carrasco out of the rotation. I still don’t think that’s going to happen right now. The relievers in place are performing well as a whole and Carrasco’s next step, if he’s not going to start, would be to move to the ‘pen. Cleveland can’t just send him down (he’s out of options), and you can bet a team would put in a claim if the big righty hit waivers.

It’s also worth considering that moving Carrasco would strip a layer of starting depth. Sure, the Indians could move him to the bullpen and call up either Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin. There’s no turning back if Carrasco moves to the ‘pen, though, and that decision would put the Indians one unpredicted injury or setback away from having their rotation depth exposed.

If Indians fans and reporters are mulling all these factors, you can bet the Indians are giving it deep thought, too.

SECOND: All winter long, and throughout Spring Training, Carrasco worked with pitching coach Mickey Callaway on raising his lead arm in his delivery to create more deception. After Friday’s loss, Carrasco said he’s noticed a flaw with that mechanical adjustment.

“I feel different when I start doing my leadoff arm down a little bit,” Carrasco said. “I feel different when I go up. Up, I’m [throwing] 90-92 [mph]. When down, I just went 94-96. That’s how I feel. I feel more strong when I do that.”

So, Carrasco feels stronger when he has a slightly lower angle, but perhaps the deception is lacking. When he’s raised, the deception might be there, but the velocity is decreased. This is certainly something we’ll follow up on with Callaway in the coming days.

As for that fastball, it did seem to abandon Carrasco against the Giants.

“I thought his fastball command was kind of what plagued him a little bit tonight right from the get-go,” Francona said. “That’s one thing he usually kind of does have, and he was scattering some fastballs. That’s what got him into a little bit of trouble.”

All together, the Giants hit .300 (3-for-10) in at-bats that ended with a fastball, but they hit just .100 (1-for-10) against the right-hander’s slider and curveball combined. He mixed in one changeup that resulted in a hit, too. Entering Friday’s outing, hitters actually had a .346 average (9-for-26) in at-bats that ended with his four-seamer this year, according to Fangraphs.

THIRD: This past winter, Francona took on the role of recruiter in trying to convince veteran right-hander Tim Hudson to sign with the Indians as a free agent. Hudson was coming back from a severe ankle injury, but Francona knows the pitcher from their days with the A’s, and he said the righty is “an easy guy to bet on.”

You can bet the Indians don’t want to see Hudson for a while.

Hudson signed a two-year, $23-million contract with the Giants over the winter and Cleveland paid the price on Friday night. Over seven innings, the 38-year-old veteran scattered four hits, allowed only one run, struck out five and walked two.

(Hudson actually set a franchise record — since 1900 — by starting the season with 30 walk-free innings. Carlos Santana ended that with a walk in the first inning, and he drew another free pass against the righty in the sixth.)

“He’s a veteran guy,” Nick Swisher said. “So if you go out there a little too geeked up, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s been doing this for a long time. He did a great job against us tonight. We just have to worry about tomorrow.

“He doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He’s not sitting there at mid-90’s. But he has a lot of movement on his fastball. He throws that front hip-check fastball. Likes to throw that backdoor cutter. He really uses his change up well.”

HOME: All of that said, hitting with runners in scoring position has been an issue all month for the Indians. They headed into Friday’s game with a .230 mark as a team with RISP, including a .149 average with RISP and two outs. Against San Francisco, Cleveland went 1-for-9 with RISP and stranded nine in the process.

“I feel that’s been our crutch as of late,” said Swisher, who had an RBI single on Friday, but has a .185 average with RISP. “We need to break out of that.”

On deck:

Indians (11-12) at Giants (13-10)
at 4:05 p.m. ET at AT&T Park


Covering the Bases: Game 22

MLB: Cleveland Indians-Photo DayFinal: Indians 5, Royals 1

FIRST: Corey Kluber stood at his locker, answering questions as robotically as he worked through Kansas City’s lineup on Thursday. A few lockers over, Justin Masterson leaned back in his chair, grinning.

Between inquiries, Masterson chimed in.

“Did you smile after the game?” Masterson asked.

Kluber smirked.

“I did,” Kluber replied. “Only when I saw you.”

Kluber has heard all the jokes about his quiet, collected personality. The running joke is that the pitcher never smiles. During the spring, I asked him if it bothered him at all. Kluber smiled.

“No, I like it,” he said.

In a way, the personality that Kluber allows everyone to see fits his pitching style. He stands still on the mound, seemingly expressionless, and then does all he can to pound the strike zone aggressively. Kluber attacks, begging for early contact and counts in his favor. When hitters attack back in early-count situations, it can sometimes play into his hand.

“It can probably play into anybody’s hand as long as you work ahead in the strike zone,” Kluber said. “If you continue to execute your pitches, they’ll tend to get more aggressive as the game goes on and maybe chase some pitches out of the zone early on until you establish the zone.”

Kluber was extremely efficient against Kansas City on Thursday. He registered 75 of his 101 pitches for strikes and threw a first-pitch strike to 22 of the 31 batters he faced. The fact that he ended the afternoon with a career-high 11 strikeouts and nearly finished with fewer than 100 pitches was a testament to how aggressive he was in the zone.

In all, Kluber created 23 of 27 outs via grounders (12) or strikeouts. That will happen when a pitcher logs 52 sinkers and has a 25.8-percent swing-and-miss rate with his slider and changeup.

The Klubot ended the day with his first career complete game. He also became the first Indians pitcher (and only the seventh since 1914) to have no earned runs allowed, no walks and at least 11 strikeouts in a complete game. The last? Len Barker in his perfect game on May 15, 1981.

That list includes Kluber, Barker, Luis Tiant (7/3/1968), Stan Williams (5/18/1968), Sam McDowell (5/1/1968), Bob Feller (6/6/1941) and Guy Morton (8/15/1915).

Prior to Thursday, the last American League pitcher to have no walks, no earned runs, four or fewer hits and at least 11 strikeouts in a complete game was King Felix Hernandez. He did so in his perfect game on Aug. 15, 2012. The last Cleveland pitcher to have at least 10 strikeouts and no walks in a CG was CC Sabathia on Sept. 7, 2005. The previous Tribe hurler to do that at home was Orel Hershiser on June 5, 1995.

Only twice did one of Kluber’s outs go to the outfield, and both were flyouts to left.

“I was a little bit bored, but I’ll take it any day,” Indians right fielder David Murphy joked. “It was fun to watch. When you’ve got a pitcher that throws 100 pitches and 75 strikes and is able to strike out 10 guys and just have dominant stuff like he did today, it’s fun to play behind him and it’s fun to watch.”

SECOND: As April has progressed, Kluber and fellow Indians right-hander Zach McAllister have given the rotation some stability amidst inconsistency. Justin Masterson has been up and down, Danny Salazar has looked lost of late and Carlos Carrasco has also been slow out of the gate.

Dating back to the home opener, McAllister and Kluber have gone 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 41 strikeouts and six walks in 49 innings (seven starts). The three other members of the current staff (so, excluding Trevor Bauer’s spot start) have combined to go 0-5 with a 6.45 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 66 strikeouts and 30 walks in 60 innings (11 starts).

These numbers also do not include the first outing for both Kluber or McAllister, who were each roughed up in the season-opening series in Oakland. Even so, the Indians love what they have in that duo, which is unheralded around the league, but certainly appreciated within the organization.

“All winter long until now,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, “we’ve consistently said that we think we can win those guys. That’s a pretty big compliment to young pitchers.”

THIRD: Of course, Kluber gets nowhere without a little help from his friends.

Cleveland’s offense took care of that with a five-run outburst in the fifth inning against lefty Bruce Chen, who has been hard on the Indians over the years. After breezing through the first four innings with only one hit allowed and 11 retired in a row, here’s how the fifth went down:

Carlos Santana: leadoff double, snapping 0-for-16 drought.
Michael Brantley: run-scoring single to center.
Ryan Raburn: walk.
Yan Gomes: single to left to load bases.
Murphy: two-run double down left-field line.
Mike Aviles: sacrifice bunt to move two runners up a base.
Asdrubal Cabrera: two-run double to left.

Chen: showers.

“He’s the epitome of kind of the crafty lefty,” Francona said of Chen. “He gives you different angles, different speeds. He’ll throw injust enough and then get you to reach, and you’ll hit something in the air that doesn’t go far enough. He kind of takes the sting out of your bat. And then Carlos with a good swing the opposite way. Mikey getting the bunt down. Sometimes, little things lead to big things. We strung our hits together. Cabby swung the bat all day.”

As for Murphy’s hit, it was an awkward swing, but he made contact deep in the zone and slapped it just inside the third-base line and into left.

“It’s funny,” Francona said, “because his [butt] was going the other way and the ball went that way. But he’s got really good hands.”

Asked about the hit, Murphy laughed.

“I don’t necessarily have the best lower half incorporated into my swing,” he said. “But I try to use the eye-hand coordination that I’ve been blessed with. In that situation, it’s just do anything byt strike out. There’s a lot of good things that can hapen when the bases are loaded right there. I didn’t hit it very hard and it didn’t look pretty. I got the end of the bat on it and it found a hole.”

HOME: Cabrera is only hitting .238 on the season, but the big reason behind that paltry average is his .156 (7-for-45) mark against right-handed pitching. The switch-hitting shortstop has hit .343 (12-for-35) against lefties after going 2-for-3 with his two-run double against Chen on Thursday.

“He’s swung the bat pretty much all year right-handed,” Francona said. “And then when he starts swinging the bat left-handed … he’s got really goot hands [but] sometimes he gets himself in a position where he really can’t use them. You see some of those swings where he’ll roll over and hit a ball like into their dugout or something, or be late. It’s not because he doesn’t have bat speed. He just gets himself sometimes in positions where he can’t use his hands.”

Cleveland will face three righties (Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong) in the upcoming series in San Francisco, giving Cabrera a chance to get that left-handed swing going.

On deck:

Indians (11-11) at Giants (12-10)
at 10:15 p.m. ET at AT&T Park


Covering the Bases: Game 20

Salazar422Final: Royals 8, Indians 2

FIRST: Indians manager Terry Francona said it a few hours before Tuesday’s game. There is a learning curve for every player in the Major Leagues. Right now, Danny Salazar is experiencing that with Cleveland.

“Regardless of how much time you spend in the Minor Leagues,” Francona said, “when you come to the big leagues and you’re an everyday player or you’re a starting pitcher, whatever you do, there’s a learning curve. You can’t get around that.”

Well, chalk Tuesday night up as another learning experience.

Salazar allowed no hits through three innings before falling apart in the fourth. The right-hander was gone before the end of the fifth after giving up five runs (four earned) on seven hits. He struck out six and walked two.

Over his past three starts, Salazar has logged only 12 2/3 innings. Yes, he has 19 strikeouts in that span, but he’s given up 15 runs (14 earned) on 19 hits with seven walks.

Between his last start and this one, Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway met with Salazar to talk things over, and to reinforce with the pitcher that the club has all the confidence in the world with him. Francona said Salazar admitted to feeling pressure to live up to expectations.

After Salazar’s latest lapse, his teammates were supportive, too.

“It’s growing pains. This is his first real go-around,” Indians first baseman Nick Swisher said. “We have the utmost trust in him. He has plus stuff. When he figures it out, it’s going to be a lot of fun to be on this side. He’s a young cat. He’s going to figure it out.”

The Indians appear willing to let Salazar figure it out in the Majors. Cleveland could option him to Triple-A, but there’s always the chance he simply overpowers Minor Leaguers with his stuff and doesn’t actually learn from the experience. Maybe that could serve as a confidence boost for Salazar, but an argument could be made that he might benefit more from growing pains in the big leagues.

“Baseball, this is tough. This is not easy,” Salazar said. “Everybody from every team that is up here, if he’s here, it’s because he’s good. You just have to learn about all those little things and keep your head up.”

SECOND: One issue that has plagued Salazar all season is slipping during the second time through the batting order. It’s especially glaring when looking at a breakdown of his pitch ranges.

Entering Tuesday, Salazar had held hitters to a .133 average/.525 OPS on Pitches 1-25. The numbers jumped to .421/1.165 in Pitches 26-50 and .462/1.434 for Pitches 51-75. This is when it’s worth noting that Salazar had thrown exactly 50 pitches through his three no-hit innings. He was at 76 pitches after Kansas City’s four-run, five-hit assault in the fourth.

“It’s kind of like maybe I’m doing something obvious,” Salazar said, “so they know what pitch I’m going to throw.”

Maybe there’s something to that?

After the game, Salazar said he might be tipping his pitches. After reviewing video, the right-hander noticed some variation in how he positioned his glove prior to fastballs or changeups. In the fourth, Salazar threw consecutive changeups to Mike Moustakas. The second one rocketed over the wall in right field for a three-run home run.

“With my changeup sometimes, I open up my glove too much,” Salazar said. “That’s the only thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes, I just try to, when I’m going to throw my fastball, I try to open my glove, too, just to try to confuse. I think sometimes I forget.”

More to the point, maybe a second straight changeup — a hanging one at that — wasn’t the best pitch selection.

“That was a mistake,” Salazar said. “I should’ve thrown a fastball outside or something. Not back-to-back changeups.”

We’ll certainly follow up with Callaway and Francona about the possible tipping pitches issue over the next few days.

THIRD: With so much focus on Salazar, and rightly so, the outing turned in by Kansas City’s James Shields was kind of pushed to the side in Cleveland’s clubhouse. Let’s give the man some credit, though. Big Game James spun off six solid innings, striking out nine, walking one and allowing only one earned run among two allowed.

“They did make him work and he started to labor a little  bit right at the end of the sixth,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “His pitch count got up, but nine punchouts and, combine that with what he did his last start, that’s pretty impressive work.

“Every time James Shields is on the mound and we get a couple of runs and we get a lead, I feel good.”

It was a little more frustrating in the other dugout.

“Unfortunately, he’s pretty much the same every time you see him,” Francona said. “He pounds the strike zone, very difficult to run on. He can cut his fastball, he can throw it into lefties, he can change speeds off of it and he competes. That’s why he’s one of the best.”

HOME: As a result, the Indians only scored two runs on the night. That said, there were some silver linings within an otherwise dismal offensive showing overall.

Michael Bourn showed signs of life, coming through with two hits, including an RBI single. Swisher collected a pair of hits, including a double, and drew a walk. Yan Gomes had two hits, and yanked a pitch from Shields down the left-field line with authority for a run-scoring double in the sixth. Michael Brantley stayed hot with two hits as well.

“I do think our at-bats are getting better,” Francona said. “We need to string them more together — that’s kind of stating the obvious. But those pitchers they had out there were pretty good.”

Said Swisher: “We’re trying to get on that rhythm. This team can get super hot. Sometimes we can get super cold. I think if we just keep going out there and battling the way that we know how, scrapping and fighting for every pitch, every run, we just have to get back to that. It hasn’t exactly been the start that we wanted as a team. But it’s still early in the season and we’re going to keep grinding, I know that.”

On deck:

Royals (10-9) at Indians (9-11)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field


Covering the Bases: Game 19

SwishSquirrelWe are exactly three weeks into the season and the Indians hold a 9-10 record. The starting pitching has been inconsistent, the defense has been disappointing and a handful of key hitters have been slow out of the gates. There have been some positives, but the Tribe certainly hasn’t found its stride, yet. It seems like a good time to start Covering the Bases again.

Final: Indians 4, Royals 3

FIRST: After the Indians dropped six of eight early last September, Justin Masterson headed into the outfield at Progressive Field during batting practice with a live chicken in tow. It wore a small cape with Cleveland’s block “C” and the team named him “Cody.”

After the visit by the Rally Chicken, the Indians won 19 of 24 games and made the playoffs.

Coincidence? Well, yes. Coincidence.

In the second inning of Monday’s game against the Royals, though, a squirrel showed up on the field in Cleveland. It ran around the outfield and then sprinted into the infield, causing a brief delay. At one point, first baseman Nick Swisher tried to catch it with his glove as the critter ran out to right field.

Marc Rzepczynski, who was in the Cardinals’ bullpen during the famous appearance of the Rally Squirrel in the 2011 Fall Classic, just so happens to be in the Tribe’s bullpen now.

“They won the World Series,” Indians setup man Cody Allen said with a smirk. “I know it’s April, but …”

OK, let’s not get carried away, but the squirrel did provide some entertainment for a home crowd that has been hoping for a spark — any kind of spark — for this year’s Tribe. For a little more than an inning, the squirrel gave them just that, to the point that the fans booed when the fleet-footed guest was surrounded and forced into the Cleveland bullpen in center field.

Indians closer John Axford sounded disappointed that he never got a look at the little guy.

“I guess he just took off,” Axford said. “Hopefully he’ll be back tomorrow so I’ll get to say hi.”

SECOND: Now that we’ve got the super important stuff out of the way…

Indians right-hander Zach McAllister gave his team another solid outing, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits in six innings. the right-hander struck out just two, but walked only one in the win. Over his last three starts, McAllister has posted a 1.37 ERA, giving up three earned runs with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 19 2/3 innings.

Given the inconsistency early on from Cleveland’s rotation, Indians manager Terry Francona has been happy to have McAllister slotted in every five games.

That’s a nice feeling,” Francona said. “I mean, this is a young kid still that I think is enjoying the responsibility and the challenges of getting better. He came into camp and he was throwing the ball so well, and he had that downward plane on his fastball. Then he kind of lost it a little bit toward the end of spring, and he’s kind of recovered through hard work and with [pitching coach Mickey Callaway].

“He feels good about himself, and he should. If you’re around Zach for five minutes, he desperately wants to be so good.”

On Monday, though, a problem that has plagued the Indians arose again. After the Indians took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, McAllister coughed up three runs in the top of the fifth. Over the past nine games, Cleveland has scored in 25 innings and has allowed at least one run 15 times in the next half-inning.

“Any time they give us runs, you want to have a shut-down inning,” McAllister said. “To give up three there was pretty frustrating for myself, especially in a game like that where runs are at a premium. To not get that shut-down inning was frustrating for me. Our guys picked me up again.”

Francona does not buy into trends, but he does feel that shut-down innings are of the utmost importance.

“I just don’t buy the trends. I think every game is different,” Francona said. “I agree, though, that when you score, the next inning is really important, the shut-down inning. And we certainly need to do better.”

THIRD: The Indians made three errors on Monday night, upping the team’s total to 19 errors on the young season. Heading into the day, Oakland led the American League with 20 errors. Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall made two errors and McAllister was charged with another. The pitcher’s came on a throw to first after fielding a bunt, helping fuel the Royals’ rally in the fifth.

“I would say it’s different probably every night,” Francona said of the errors. “I do know that we’re probably the type of team that, obviously, the cleaner we play, the better it enhances our chances of winning. We put ourselves in kind of a predicament tonight with some miscues, but I think we’re a better defensive team than we’ve shown, and I think it’ll show. We’ve just had some missteps early, for sure.”

HOME: I know, I know. You want something a little more uplifting to end on. How about the early showing for Michael Brantley?

Over his past six games, he’s launched four home runs, knocked in nine runs and hit at a .292 (7-for-24) clip. Before the game, Francona said Brantley’s lower half looks stronger this season and, because of that, the outfielder looks to have the potential to up his slugging percentage. Brantley then went out and belted a two-run homer off Jeremy Guthrie in the fourth.

Jason Kipnis came through with a two-run homer of his own in the sixth inning to put the Indians ahead for good. Over his past four games, he’s hit .385 (5-for-13) with the home run, two RBIs, three walks and four runs scored.

It was Swisher who set up the Kipnis home run with a double to the wall in left-center field. That was Swisher’s second double in as many at-bats — practically to the same spot. Since an 0-for-12 slump, Swisher has hit .333 (5-for-15) with the two doubles, plus one RBI, one run, one walk and one sac fly for the Tribe.

That’s kind of one of the first games where we’ve really kind of had the middle lineup do what we know we can,” Swisher said. “Maybe it’s bringing Big G {Jason Giambi] back to the lineup and having a presence like that again or, I don’t know what it is. It just kind of felt like we put the emphasis on today and that’s it.

“We might not be where we want to be as of right now, but if we take each day for the day, we’re going to do great, man.”

Now, the Indians will hope that Carlos Santana begins showing signs of life at the plate, too. For Monday’s game, Santana received a mental break from Francona. Expect him to be back in the lineup for Tuesday’s tilt against Kansas City.

On deck:

Royals (9-9) at Indians (9-10)
at 7:05 p.m. ET at Progressive Field



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