We have been talking about it for weeks, pointing towards it even. Some would even say counting on it. The soft September schedule arrived just in the nick of time. After taking the final two of the three-game set with Baltimore, the scheduling Gods smiled on your Cleveland Indians as the dead-end New York Mets came to town with their AAA lineup in tow. With 20 games to go and the Indians clinging to Wild Card contention, these are the kind of games they HAVE TO win. Every game matters that much more right now. The Yankees, Orioles, and Rays are all going to be beating each other up over the next three weeks. You can throw the red hot Red Sox into that mix – who should be your second favorite team until October might I add.
The time is now for the Indians. They can’t afford any missteps. They are on the cusp of the playoffs if they can just take care of their own business and beat the teams they are supposed to, they can get there. While they are a horrific 4-15 record against their division foe in Detroit, the Tribe is 21 games over .500 against the rest of the league. They can do this. The arrival of the Mets was the perfect tonic for a team looking to pickup some easy wins. They would end up taking two of three, but they really should have completed the sweep. Regardless, if the Indians win two out of every three the rest of the way, October baseball should be in our midst.
So while everyone was so worked up about the Browns season starting this weekend, the Indians were playing important games. The Indians. You know, the team that actually has a chance to make the playoffs this year? Remember them? So as we do every Monday, let us take a look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
An offensive awakening?
The Indians opened the weekend with two big wins, combining for 17 runs on 21 hits. They got runs home with sacrifice flies, with hits, with home runs, any way you slice it, the offense looked good Friday and Saturday. The biggest contributor was one of the guys who has under-performed most of the year, first baseman Nick Swisher.
Everyone knows that Swish has been big in the clubhouse and in the community, but has come up short on the field all year, but if now he finally ends up getting hot, it is going to be huge for this team. Swish’s power stroke has started to show since the All Star break. He has eight homers since July 22nd. The power wasn’t really the problem. It has been the consistency. Nick hit just .225/.301/.396 in August and entered the weekend on a 1-18 slide. Then inexplicably, Swish just exploded.
He went 5-12 over the weekend, highlighted by Friday night’s game-clinching Grand Slam in the eighth inning that ignited the Progressive Field crowd. Swisher rounded the bases to the Ohio State fight song and gave the fans an “O-H” as he entered the dugout. About 22 hours later, his RBI double got things started in five run first inning. In his next at-bat, the Buckeye hit his second homer in as many nights, extending the Indians lead to 6-1. After a season long struggle, you know it felt good for Swisher to have a big weekend at the plate.
“I think that will go a long way toward helping Swish relax a little bit,” Francona said of after Friday night’s grand slam. “He’s been trying so hard. Sometimes, guys grind too hard.”
But as always, it is all about the team for Swisher.
“It seems like we’re doing the right things at the right time,” Swisher said. “I wasn’t here last year, but going from a team that lost close to 100 games to the atmosphere we have now is tremendous. We’re super-, super-confident about our chances. We’re not out of this.”
And now, a word about Asdrubal…..
Readers of this space and my Twitter account know that I am close to the end of my rope for the Indians shortstop. Asdrubal Cabrera’s efforts both with the bat and with the glove have left a lot to be desired. As frustrating as Swisher has been at times this season, he is nothing compared to what Cabrera has given us.
We’ve seen the deterioration of his defensive skills coming, but its the poor at-bats and lack of hustle that have really been troubling. No matter where he has been in the lineup, the big spots seem to find him and rarely has he come through when the team has needed him to. When he does make an out, he either slams his helmet or bat down in frustration or jogs down the line to first.
While the offense put up eight runs Friday night, it easily could have been more if not for Asdrubal who went 0-4, stranding seven runners. Yes, he broke open a 6-4 game Saturday night with a three-run blast in the seventh, but it broke a 0-17 drought. In the series finale, Cabrera had two chances to play hero. With the bases loaded and two out in sixth, Asdrubal was drilled with a pitch forcing home a run to tie the game at 1-1. But his biggest at-bat of the weekend would come in the eighth.
Again, the big spot found him. The score was tied. The bases were again loaded. A sweep was there for the taking. Facing Frank Francisco, Cabrera rolled one over as he has done so many times this year, for an absolutely demoralizing 4-6-3 double play. At this point, Francona has no choice but to stick with him and hope that he can catch fire for a few weeks, but I just don’t see it happening. The bigger issue is his $10 million deal for 2014. Nobody is going to want a declining skilled overpaid shortstop with poor defensive prowess.
Another weekend, another solid batch of starting pitching
If the Indians are going to do this, it will be because of their starting pitching. This group has carried the Indians most of the season and is now without ace Justin Masterson, possibly for the rest of the season. The next men up this weekend all took care of business. Scott Kazmir has been shaky in three of his last four starts and looked as if he was starting to wear down. After all, this was a guy who was pitching Independent League baseball last year.
“It does feel different compared to all the other seasons late in the year,” Kazmir said. “Normally, I’d feel a lot stronger later in the season. Now, it seems like it’s going in waves a little bit, where you really have to make that extra effort to do everything you can recovery-wise consistently every single day. But, it’s paying off.”
However, if Friday’s start was any sign, the dead arm period he was going through may be over. Then again, maybe it was the sight of the team that originally drafted him and traded him that made Scott see red.
Francona and pitching coach Mickey Calloway have been smart with the way they have handled Kazmir and they continue to do so even in September. He went only six innings Friday night, despite the fact that he dominated the Mets. The lefty powered his way through with scoreless work, striking out a season-high 12 without walking a batter. He was simply magnificent.
“We’re playing for a playoff spot right now,” Kazmir said. “That’s the one thing that I’m thinking about when I go to the mound. It’s great that it was against the team that drafted me, but that definitely wasn’t going through my mind. Just being able to go deep into the game and throw up zeroes…I think that was the important thing.”
Saturday saw the return of arguably the most important piece to the rotation the rest of the way, Corey Kluber. For most of the season, Kluber was the surprise of the 2013 Indians, but the dreaded finger sprain derailed his season. He missed a key month of the Tribe’s drive to the playoffs, but he made his triumphant return. The Tribe’s clutch right-hander still has to build back up his arm strength and with the extra arms in the pen, it is not as big of an issue to protect him. However, the quality of what comes behind him just won’t measure up.
Francona lifted Kluber one batter into the sixth with a 6-1 lead after just 64 pitches. The plan was to keep him around 75 pitches. He had no problem throwing his breaking stuff and pitched like he had most of the season, striking out five and giving up two runs on five hits. He walked just one. It was obviously a nice shot in the arm to see Kluber back in form.
“He looked pretty much like he hadn’t skipped a beat,” Francona said. “For a layoff like that, that was outstanding.”
Said Kluber: “Once I got into the flow of the game, I didn’t feel like I had missed any time. I didn’t think about the finger. I haven’t thought about it since the first bullpen during rehab.”
Without Masterson, Kluber’s return takes on a much bigger role of importance. Like Kluber, Danny Salazar is limited on his pitches as well, but it is obviously for a different reason. While they need him badly to continue to look like the future ace of the staff, the rookie sensation is at most a five inning pitcher.
He took the ball Sunday and while he wasn’t as sharp as we have seen him, he still managed to keep the Mets at bay. Salazar only went four innings because he threw 80 pitches, but he struck out eight, giving up just one run – a Justin Turner solo homer – and four hits and two walks. It was a bit of a struggle for him, but that strikeout stuff always helps him in the end. Salazar knows there is a method to the Tribe’s madness in regards to his workload.
“I don’t get frustrated by that because I can’t control it,” said Salazar. “Today I felt excellent. My whole body was loose and my arm was strong. I threw too many pitches and I was up in the strike zone a little.”
Salazar got a no-decision in the 2-1 loss, but he did his job. The three Wahoo starters allowed three earned runs in 15 innings over the weekend. As we said before, those type of performances are going to be needed for the Tribe to get to October.
Dice-K finally shows up at the worst possible time
Perhaps the most frustrating thing from the weekend (other than the Browns O-line and Brandon Weeden) was watching Daisuke Matsuzaka slice up the Tribe. You remember Dice-K. The former Red Sox overhyped and overpaid right-hander spent all season in AAA Columbus trying to work his way back to the majors. The Indians, along with the rest of the league, never gave him a look in the bigs, and that says something with every team constantly on the look out for starters.
The Indians granted Dice-K his release in August per his request as it was clear he would not be added to the 40-man roster for a September call-up. The Mets scooped him up because of all of the injuries in their rotation and naturally he came back around to face the Tribe yesterday. He had made three starts since joining the Mets and was 0-3 with an ERA of 10.95 (15 earned runs in 12.1 innings). If there was a team that should have had a great scouting report on Matsuzaka, it is the Tribe right? Well somehow a guy who they knew all too well and hasn’t fooled anyone in the majors the last three weeks held the Indians to one run on three hits in five and two-thirds. The lone run was forced in when reliever Vic Black hit Asdrubal Cabrera with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth.
“We watched him all year in Triple-A,” Francona said. “This was the best by far his command has been with his breaking ball.”
The Mets took the series finale 2-1 after Chris Perez gave up a two-out RBI double to Eric Young Jr. in the ninth. Dice-K had to have gotten some satisfaction out of this one, though he downplayed it after the game.
“I wasn’t able to get an opportunity in Cleveland up here,” Matsuzaka said. “But they are the team that gave me a chance early on in Spring Training, when they signed me. So all I can say is that I really appreciate that opportunity they gave me. Other than that, there was no extra motivation.”
Where they are today
With yesterday’s loss and Tampa Bay’s win in Seattle (Eric Wedge did his old team a nice favor, taking two of three), the Indians (76-66) sit two games back of the second Wild Card spot, tied with Baltimore (76-66). The Yankees (76-67) are a half game behind. The Tribe, Rays, and Orioles have 20 games left. The Yankees have 21. The remaining schedules still favor the Indians.
Indians: Kansas City (3), at Chicago White Sox (4), at Kansas City (3), Houston (3), Chicago White Sox (2), at Minnesota (4)
Tampa Bay: Boston (3), at Minnesota (3), Texas (4), Baltimore (4), at New York Yankees (3), at Toronto (3)
Baltimore: New York Yankees (4), at Toronto (3), at Boston (3), at Tampa Bay (4), Toronto (3), Boston (3)
New York: at Baltimore (4), at Boston (3), at Toronto (3), San Francisco (3), Tampa Bay, at Houston (3)
The Indians now meet up with the last remaining team on their schedule with a record over .500, the Kansas City Royals. Things get started tonight with Ubaldo Jimenez (10-9, 3.79 ERA) taking on Ervin Santana (8-8, 3.33 ERA). The right-hander has faced the Tribe twice this year and allowed just one earned run in 14 innings.
(photo via Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)