It was just another ho-hum weekend series in Tampa. Your Cleveland Indians may have finally turned the corner after taking two straight series from division foes in Chicago and Minnesota. Two poor outings from the closer turned a potential 7-0 homestand into 5-2. Still the Indians looked to have possibly righted the ship.
The starting pitching has been outstanding and the bullpen, save for one mustached closer, continued to do stellar work. Yes, the offense continued to leave a lot to be desired, exploding for a game here and there, but for the most part keeping the Indians in close games with their lack of hitting with runners in scoring position. But this weekend in Tampa we saw a better approach in two of the three games. Friday night’s 6-3 and Sunday’s 6-5 wins showed the Indians are capable of the big inning.
Manager Terry Francona is continuing to tinker with his lineup that is missing All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. The right combination has been hard to find, but the same guys have been delivering for the most part; Michael Brantley, Mike Aviles, and Lonnie Chisenhall. But lately, others are starting to join the party, namely Asdrubal Cabrera and Yan Gomes. Nyjer Morgan has even continued to show his value with a three-hit Sunday which included a big home run while making his first start of the season next to Michael Bourn in left field.
Taking two of three in Tampa was a nice shot in the arm. The 18-20 Indians are now in that bunch of four teams that sit five or five and a half games behind the division leading Detroit Tigers. So how did they do it? As we do every Monday, let us take a look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
John Axford and his “temporary” removal for the closer role
It was only a matter of time before this happened, I just figured it wouldn’t be this soon. It took just over a month and the man the Indians brass thought would be the answer in the ninth inning has already been replaced. Terry Francona can tell us all he wants that this is a “temporary” move, but trust me, the writing is on the wall; John Axford will no longer be closing games for the Indians.
Said the skipper: “We told him that, ‘Hey, man, for now, we’re going to kind of get you out of that role and try to get you in some situations where we can get you on a roll again.'”
That role is going to have to come in middle relief, where Axford was put last season after losing his closer’s role in Milwaukee. That’s now two April’s in a row that Axford essentially couldn’t make it out of. Makes you wonder why the Indians, who aren’t big players in the free agent market, would give $4.5 million to a shaky commodity to begin with.
I wrote this back in December when the Tribe signed Axford:
Antonetti seems to be putting his eggs in the basket of a guy who is coming off of close to two seasons of big time step backwards. Since 2012, he blew 16 of his 51 save chances, posted a ERA of 4.35, and watched his strikeouts go down and his walks go up. His hits per nine innings also went from under eight to over 10. Essentially, Axford regressed in every statistical category in 2012 and 2013.
I tried to talk myself into the signing, but then I thought….
The Cardinals, perhaps the model franchise in pro sports, allowed Axford to walk with three years of control left on his deal. Yes, they have a pen loaded with options, but even still, you don’t just drop pen arms for nothing if you think the guy can still bring it for you. Usually, the Cardinals don’t make mistakes.
“Obviously, it’s pretty disappointing,” Axford said. “Things didn’t go very well for a week. Not only not very well, they went bad. Hopefully this is just a good opportunity to take a step back and get things back to where they were.”
They way there were wasn’t good enough either. In March/April he made 12 appearances and only four of those – one being a one batter save – Axford made a clean performance. How is that a good thing? The move of Axford out of the closer role this soon is the correct move. The last thing the Indians need is someone who can’t be trusted pitching after their rock solid set up crew.
The issue now is that 38-year old Scott Atchison has become a key member of the bullpen, rather than a Matt Albers-middle relief/pitch when the team is trailing kind of guy. Atchison has been a pleasant surprise thus far (13 appearances, 1.80 ERA/0.67 WHIP), but counting on him to be this good all season could be an iffy proposition. On top of that is the closer by committee situation the Indians are now in.
The first two save chances since Axford has been deposed have gone to Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. According to Francona, Atchison and lefty Marc Rzepcyznski will also get save chances. As out own Jon Steiner said on Twitter yesterday, the decision by Francona is the correct one, but tell me the last time the closer by committee thing actually worked?
Tito and his all of a sudden love for the bunt
If you follow me on Twitter, you know one of my taglines: Bunting is for losers. I have watched small ball types like Kansas City’s Ned Yost hand over outs for no good reason and laughed. Now, I have to watch the manager of the team I know and loved do the same.
It is one thing to bunt in the eighth or ninth inning with your light-hitting ninth place batter to get the tying run into scoring position. It is another to do the same thing in the sixth inning. On Friday night with the Indians trailing 2-1 in the sixth, Francona called for Mike Aviles to bunt with Yan Gomes and Lonnie Chisenhall on base with nobody out. Aviles is one of the hotter Indians hitters (8-11 in the previous three games). Why take the bat out of his hands? He laid down the bunt successfully, but it was to no avail. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon called on his best reliever, lefty Jake McGee, who came on and K’d Michael Bourn and got Nick Swisher to fly out.
An inning later, Aviles swung away and hit a three-run homer to left to increase the Tribe’s lead to 6-2.
On Sunday, once again Francona was in the process of having Aviles bunt in the sixth inning with a one-run lead. This time he was bailed out when pitcher Brad Boxberger wild pitched Nyjer Morgan over to third. Instead Aviles delivered a sac fly.
Yahoo! Sports baseball writer and Cleveland native Jeff Passan put out the definitive tweet that sums up bunting to a T in regards to Mr. bunt himself, Yost:
Run-expectancy truths. Runner on 1st, 0 outs: .83 runs. Runner on 2nd, 1 out: .62 runs. Why does Yost insist on giving away outs via bunts?
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 9, 2014
I understand that this offense isn’t exactly scoring a lot of runs and manufacturing them with bunts is something that Francona is trying to do, but to me taking the bat out of the hands of guys like Aviles and Lonnie Chisenhall when the are hot and giving up outs just doesn’t make sense. Then again, that is why he is the manager and I am just a lowly unpaid scribe.
Cabbie continues to school me
Hiding behind my criticism of Asdrubal Cabrera is not something I am going to do. I make no secret of the fact that I cannot wait for the Asdrubal era to end and for the Francisco Lindor to begin in 2015. My hope was that the Indians could get one last good year out of their shortstop and watch him move on. But the start of the season was a lot like the guy we watched last season; zero patience at the plate and little range and concentration in the field. But in one week, Cabrera has seemingly turned it around.
Cabbie can be streaky and we are in the midst of one of those hot runs. He dominated the during the Minnesota series with nine hits in his last 11 at-bats, and then went three for four with a homer Friday night in Tampa. Cabrera also made two big defensive plays in Sunday’s 6-5 win.
I’ve said this many times, but if the Indians are going to contend, Cabrera and Carlos Santana are going to have to wake up. It seems as if Asdrubal has begun, shooting his batting average up .41 points in the last six days.
Then there is the odd off the field behavior. After his 4-5 Thursday afternoon where his last double wasn’t ruled the triple that would have given him the cycle, Cabrera looked at the media waiting at his locker and said “no point in sticking around for me.” A day later in Tampa he was more than happy to plead his case for the cycle, which I found to be weak.
“It’s a thing you want. Before I hit it, Murphy was the one who got a hit with two outs. I just wanted an opportunity to see. He hit a single, so I said, ‘All right, I got my opportunity now, so let’s see.’ As soon as I hit it, I said, ‘Oh, I can maybe do it.’There’s nothing I can do,” he said.
In the meantime, Santana’s glove at third continues to look above average, but his bat has still remained ice cold. Entering Sunday’s game where he went 2-3, Carlos was 3-32 (.094) in May. Francona and the hitting coach duo of Ty Van Burkleo and Matt Quatraro continue to work with Santana and the hope is that the two hit Sunday will be the start of the awakening, but having a cleanup hitter who has become a walk or out guy is not going to help this slumbering offense.
Tito has little choice but to leave Santana where he is, especially with a lineup devoid of key right-handed bats. He has to break up the lefties with the two switch hitters – Santana and Swisher – neither of which are delivering much of anything these days. If somehow Carlos can turn this around and get hot, it will change everything and despite the fact that the offense needs improvement, the Indians have still won three straight series and seven of their last 10.
Getting one hit in six innings by Eric Bedard should tell you all you need to know about the offense and where it is right now.
The Indians have a day off today and head to Toronto for a three-game set with the Blue Jays. Thanks to that off day, Francona has re-shuffled his rotation with Justin Masterson going Tuesday, Corey Kluber now jumping to Wednesday, and Danny Salazar getting the start Thursday.
(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)