Manny Acta, a man with three years of managerial experience in the National League, suddenly has a team in his Indians with a National League feel to it. Sure, there’s the middle of the order threat in DH Travis Hafner that is relegated to a PH in National League parks when healthy (Hafner is currently on the 15-day DL, of course). Other than that, however, the way the Indians have been winning close games, relying on pitching, and doing the little things in a decidedly National League manner. With their 6-2 victory in St. Louis last night, the Tribe relied on a solid performance from Josh Tomlin and a small ball barrage of singles and RBI groundouts to grab an early lead that they would never relinquish. So, with the next 14 games scheduled against NL Central opponents, maybe the NL-style in this AL Central team will carry them back into first place.
Cleveland greeted former Indian Jake Westbrook by working the body over with a myriad of singles in his six innings of work. Tribe fans intimately know that when Westbrook gets hit, it’s generally in this fashion rather than a lack of control or a series of homers. Those sinkers find holes on the infield and gaps in the outfield, and before you know it, the right-hander has put his team in the hole without the other team ever tearing the cover off the ball. Westbrook, who played in Cleveland for a decade, winning 69 games, has seen his ERA rise nearly two runs in his last four starts. The Indians struck twice in the first with singles by Cabrera and Kipnis followed by a RBI double from Santana and a RBI groundout from Brantley. They tacked on one each in the fourth and fifth with a Kotchman RBI groundout and a Kipnis RBI single respectively. Johnny Damon, who appears to be heating up a bit, added a two-run blast in the sixth off reliever Maikel Cleto.
Why do I get this NL feel? Well, you look at the lineup up and down and you see increased plate discipline (4th in OBP), speed (first in AL in steals), and no 35+ home run pop (12th in AL as a team). The defense has vastly improved, and when the team jumps out to an early lead, they are largely making seven inning games for their opponents with the 1-2 punch of Pestano and Perez. On this evening, it was Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone due to the four run lead, but the recipe remains the same.
As for Josh Tomlin, maybe I should recap every game he pitches, because it seems like I never have anything bad to say about him. Tomlin was dominant in his typical “no walks, no strikeouts, just fly balls” fashion. Tomlin controlled the strike zone, and the National League failed to touch him once again. Tomlin improved to 4-0 in his career against the senior circuit, and I think I know why. Tomlin’s stuff is unimpressive at face value, and when a new lineup sees him for the first time, you can almost sense the “I can hit this guy, I’ll jump on his first pitch” vibe. Sure, some of the better hitters do just that and some of those fly balls turn into home runs, especially when Josh’s command isn’t spot on. Last night, though, all Tomlin did was keep Michael Brantley busy in the center of the diamond and keep his pitch count almost unbelievably low. In seven strong innings of work, Tomlin threw just 76 pitches, with six batters swinging at the first pitch and 17 seeing two pitches or less.
That’s not to mention that Tomlin helped his own cause with a sixth inning single on a hit and run scenario. The at-bat began with Tomlin showing bunt with one out and Lonnie Chisenhall on first base. Tomlin pulled back and took the up and in pitch. Then, Acta did something interesting and sent Chisenhall. Tomlin sent the sinker into right, allowing Lonnie to head to third. Up 4-0, it was a risk played with house money, and even though the Tribe didn’t score, it was a symbol. It was a symbol of just how tuned into his team’s makeup Manny is. With plenty of underacheiving teams to be found in the AL (Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles to name a few), Acta is doing more with less. Close games and lower scoring put the onus on the managers more when their teams can’t slug their way out of jams.
This evening, it’s Justin Masterson for the Tribe and Kyle Lohse for the Cardinals. Gametime is 7:10 PM.
(Photo: Tom Gannam/Associated Press)