The Cleveland Indians (4-4) continue to sputter when it comes to scoring runs as they lost on Tuesday to the Chicago White Sox (3-4), 2-1. Starting pitcher Danny Salazar had a rough start to the game but managed to close strong with an effort that deserved better (6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 11 K, 106 pitches). Boone Logan, Dan Otero, and Zach McAllister continued the early season dominance from the bullpen with three shutout innings.
The expected offensive fireworks from the Indians have thus far been muted. The Tribe is now 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position (RISP) in their home opening series. Overall, the team is hitting 8-for-61 with 11 walks and 21 strikeouts as they have split the initial two games against the White Sox (.131 batting average, .222 on base percentage). The only run on Wednesday coming on a weak grounding fielder’s choice to first.
One of the struggling bats has been the prize free agent signee, Edwin Encarnacion. He is a meager 5-for-29 with 12 strikeouts though he does have a double and home run among his few hits (.172/.273/.310). The cleanup hitter has also come up empty when there are runners to knock in as he is now 0-for-7 with two walks with RISP. Tuesday’s game was a personal nightmare for Encarnacion as he twice grounded into inning ending double plays with bases loaded and one out. Michael Brantley’s 10th inning walk-off heroics bailed him out.
Wednesday would offer a chance for redemption when Lindor stood on third base with the Indians down by a single run in the eighth inning and only one out. A deep sacrifice fly would suffice. Encarnacion struck out, and the last threat would end with a Jose Ramirez ground out.
There is no reason to panic about the slow start, but it is instructive to break down Encarnacion’s latest RISP opportunity. Here is that at bat in detail.
First Pitch: Foul, 0-1
The at bat was almost over on the first pitch. Reliever Nate Jones left an 89 mile per hour slider hang belt-high over the meat of the plate. Encarnacion took a strong swing and sent it for a ride, but his timing was a bit off as he sliced it foul.
Second Pitch: Ball, 1-1
Lindor was almost able to score again as Jones not only threw a slider in the dirt but well into the left-handed batter’s box. A fantastic effort by catcher Omar Narvaez of not only blocking it but keeping the ball in front of him was required to keep Lindor on third base.
Third Pitch: Whiff, 1-2
Jones sticks with the slider as his arsenal is almost exclusively sliders and a two-seam fastball that has much more velocity than sinking action. With Encarnacion a fastball hitter, the White Sox have elected to stay away from those similar to the Indians gameplan against him in the 2016 ALCS. The third offering from Jones had better late dropping action compared to his other pitches, which had Encarnacion swinging through air for the whiff.
Fourth Pitch: Foul, 1-2
For the third time in four pitches, Encarnacion almost finds a way to get the job done. Poor luck is encapsulating this plate appearance. Another slider, another belt-high job with no break just like the first pitch. Unlike the first foul ball, mere inches separate this batted ball from finding fair territory. First baseman Jose Abreu gave chase but was not going to catch up to it. The slice was barely enough to stop the Indians from tying the game.
Fifth Pitch: Ball, 2-2
For the only time in this at bat, Jones threw his two-seam fastball. He pitched it belly high in an attempt to entice Encarnacion to swing, but the patient hitter saw it traveling far outside the strike zone.
Sixth Pitch: Whiff, Strikeout
The previous ball might have been a mere setup for the closing pitch. Jones started the path of this pitch on a similar plane to his fifth pitch two-seamer. However, he went back to the slider and got fantastic breaking action from it. There was an initial appearance that it would come back over the plate and Encarnacion (in protection mode with two strikes) committed to his swing. Unfortunately, Jones was able to obtain vertical drop on this offering late, which ended the break towards the plate and made Encarnacion whiff at air to complete the strikeout.
The 2017 MLB season is still in its infancy. Past Terry Francona Cleveland ballclubs have struggled out of the gate as he has yet to finish an April with a winning record. He has yet to finish a season in Cleveland with a losing record. Encarnacion has also had his share of April struggles as he slashed .239/.303/.394 in April from 2014-2016. He has finished those seasons at .269/.361/.544. The weather will warm, and the bats will warm with it. Until then, the Indians will need to continue to find ways to scrape out wins so that they are in position to trampoline over division rivals who have been surprisingly competitive in the incredibly early stages of the season.