Things you can set your watch by: Death, taxes, Stuart Scott annoying people on ESPN, and the Indians failing to handle left-handed starters. It seems to be a rite of passage for anyone new that has joined the Wahoos in the last two years. You show up, and you struggle against lefties. After a weekend where the Houston Astros took two of three from the first place Cleveland Indians, the same questions linger – what will the Indians do to quell this problem? Why is it that they struggle so mightily against left-handers? Will this be the thing that does them in as they chase a divisional crown?
You know what’s funny? People will be upset that the Tribe lost two of three to Houston. However, if I told you that they would go 4-2 against the Reds and Astros last week, would you have signed up for that? I know I would have.
There are plenty of hot topics today as we sit a half game out of first in the division. A tough stretch is ahead with a 10-game road trip against three teams all above .500. The Indians need to get through this relatively unscathed. But before we get there, let us look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
Time to dive right in on this left-handed problem. The pitching probables were listed and we all saw that the Astros would be throwing two lefties at the Tribe they have never seen before; Dallas Keuchel and JA Happ. Keuchel has made one career start coming in. Happ had a terrific rookie year in 2009 and has disappointed ever since. After taking the series opener Friday night, all the Tribe needed to do was get to one of these two lefties to take the series.
But then they decided to hit to their reputation against Keuchel and Happ.
The old “obscure lefty” factor reared its ugly head. The Tribe made Keuchel look like an All-Star during a complete game, six hitter. They managed just run one – an Asdrubal Cabrera solo homer in the fourth. They could never get anything going. A day later, it was more of the same as they faced Happ. The offense again could only score one run, this one coming on a Happ wild pitch in the second. They could only muster five hits in seven innings against Happ and one hit over the final two innings in a 7-1 loss.
If you didn’t notice, Keuchel and Happ are not exactly the second coming of Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine in their primes. The losses moved the Indians to 5-15 against left-handed starters. They rank dead last in the AL in batting average (.216), slugging percentage (.330), and OPS (.631) in these instances. They’ve got nothing in AAA that will come up and help stop the bleeding. The frustration is mounting.
“If you look at the stats, the splits show you that we struggle against left-handed pitchers because our best hitters hit from the left side,” Manager Manny Acta said. “And only Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley have positive splits against lefties. We do struggle against lefties.
“You can’t beat everybody and we do have a positive record against righties. And there are more righties than left-handers. Hey, we faced two tough [lefties] here and they beat us. If we’re only going to lose against left-handers, which we’re not going to lose every game, you win the division.”
Meanwhile, a potential solution was playing across the diamond and ate the Indians up all weekend – Carlos Lee. I will have much more on him later, but this is the guy GM Chris Antonetti needs to go out and get. He’s available. He hits right-handed. He’s having a nice season, and he’s a heading into free agency. El Caballo went 4-8 with two RBIs in the last two games. I would hope that Antonetti and his staff were paying close attention.
The offense as a whole spent all weekend disappointing. They put just four runs on the board on 15 hits. I won’t even get into the runners in scoring position stat because there just weren’t many runners on base to drive in.
“We struggled, big time, offensively the whole series,” Acta said. “When you score four runs in a three-game series, there are times when you don’t even win a ballgame. To win one game scoring four runs in three games, we came out OK the way we swung the bat.”
That one win came thanks to another quality start from Ubaldo Jimenez. I’ve said it a million times, so has every other Tribe pundit on this site and many others. If Justin Masterson (four starts, 1.24 ERA, 27 Ks, 6 BBs) and Ubaldo (four starts, 2.05 ERA, 25 K’s, 7 BBs) continue to pitch the way they have in June, the Tribe will be in the race until the end.
Jimenez was masterful for six and two-thirds Friday night, allowing just four hits while striking out eight. Whatever pitching coach Scott Radinsky has done with him of late has worked. You have to also credit Ubaldo himself for not getting too frustrated knowing the amount of pressure he is under to perform. He will always be known, good or bad, as the guy who the Indians dealt their two first round draft pick pitching prospects for.
“It’s a different ballgame for him right now,” Acta said. “His command issues are much better now than they were at the beginning of the season. Earlier in the year, when his command wasn’t there, he got into some situations where as soon as he gets a couple of guys on base, things just unraveled for him. Right now, he’s not panicking out there. He gets on the mound and makes pitches. He’s a guy that we need to trust and let him go out there and do it because he’s done it in the past.”
A big reason the success of Ubaldo is so important is because fifth starter Jeanmar Gomez has fallen apart. For the first four innings Saturday afternoon, Jeanmar was perfect. The Astros couldn’t reach base and things seemed back to normal for the young Venezuelan. In inning later, the chatter began, wondering whether we had seen Jeanmar’s last start in the bigs for a while.
Gomez was rocked during a four extra-base hit in five batters stretch which included back to back homers by J.D. Martinez and Jordan Schafer. By the time he could get his head around what had just happened, he trailed 4-1. Everything was up and hanging, and for a finesse pitcher like Gomez, that just isn’t going to work.
Smartly, the Indians moved Zach McAllister’s AAA starts to the same day as when Gomez (now 4-7, 5.81 ERA, 35 K’s in 13 starts) was slated to go for the big club. It is an ominous sign for Jeanmar. They way both guys are pitching right now (McAllister – 11 starts, 2.98 ERA, 52 Ks, 19 BB’s in 63.1 IP), it would be a shock to nobody if McAllister was recalled this week to take Jeanmar’s spot in the rotation.
When asked after Saturday’s game about this exact scenario, Acta didn’t exactly deny anything.
“It’s a problem that can be fixed here. Or it can be fixed somewhere else,” he said.
A day later, Acta expounded. “We’re looking at how we can improve the ballclub overall. It’s out there (the possibility of replacing Gomez), but we haven’t made any type of decision yet.”
So what’s next for the offensively challenged Tribe? A date with the Bronx Bombers in New York. The Yankees are one of the hottest teams in baseball, but the good news is they will miss former Indians ace CC Sabathia during this three-game set that starts tonight. Josh Tomlin (3-4, 5.12 ERA) gets the ball from Acta. He will face off against right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (6-7, 3.57 ERA)
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)