Presented with a golden opportunity to (a) get above the .500 mark for the first time since early April, and (b) move within a fairly exciting three games of a Wild Card spot, the Cleveland Indians and returning ace Corey Kluber instead walked head-first into a merciless club-swinging buzz-saw named Omar Rafael Infante. The veteran Royals second baseman — who entered Thursday night as arguably the least impactful offensive player in Major League Baseball — collected three hits and a career-high seven RBIs as Kansas City (86-60) cruised to an 8-4 win, splitting the four-game series in Cleveland and pushing the Tribe (72-73) one step closer to mathematical armageddon.
Just in case you thought I was dipping into hyperbole in that first paragraph, Omar Infante truly has been a staggeringly bad ballplayer in 2015. The 33-year-old has had a solid career (including a career-best slash of .318/.345/.450 with Detroit just two years ago), but among all MLB players with at least 450 plate appearances this season, not a one has a lower OPS than Infante’s .555. Yup, dead last. His -1.0 WAR also ranked fifth worst in all of baseball heading into Thursday’s matchup with the reigning Cy Young winner Kluber, back after two weeks recovering from a mild right hamstring injury. The Indians could not afford any rust on the Klubot. And while he looked a tad human early on, it was another somewhat questionable Terry Francona decision that eventually put the ace on ice.
An unfortunate Gio Urshela throwing error in the second inning laid the groundwork for the first big KC rally of the evening, as Kluber (who’s now 1-4 vs. the Royals on the season) surrendered an immediate single to Alex Rios followed by a legitimately unrealistic three-run bomb to left field from Infante — just his second home run of the year. The Indians of late spring / early summer would have curled up like a wooly bear at that point and called it a day. But this exceedingly more watchable version of the team answered back swiftly in the bottom of the second, backing their ace by plating a pair of runs off fireballer Yordano Ventura with two outs — courtesy of three straight singles from Jose Ramirez, Urshela, and Jason Kipnis. Kluber responded by striking out the side in the third. The tide appeared to be turning.
With the score still 3-2 Royals in the fourth, Kluber got out of a jam after a leadoff double, stranding Alex Rios at third base with his 61st pitch of the night. To everyone’s surprise, it would be his last. In the top of the fifth, Francona — who admitted after the game that he may have been a bit “overprotective” — elected to pull the recovering Kluber in favor of Kyle Crockett. “I don’t want to apologize for it,” Tito said. “I thought it was in his best interest.” And maybe he’s right. As for the best interests of a team teetering on the brink of being excluded from ESPN’s “Wild Card Race” ticker boxes, however, it might not have been the best course of action.
Crockett got into hot water quickly. Mike Moustakas walked, Kendrys Morales singled, and Eric Hosmer doubled. 4-2 Royals. Tito, feeling antsy, made the emergency call to the mighty Jeff Manship, whose recent infallibility was due for a dent or two. He walked Rios to load the bases, setting up another showdown with the worst hitter in the league. And as you could easily surmise by this point, Infante delivered again, lining a two-run double to left to extend the KC lead to 6-2, draining much of the energy out of the ballpark (and you better believe there was SO much before that!).
Cleveland loaded the bases twice in the bottom of the fifth but only managed to push one run across, and by the time Infante delivered yet another two-out, two-run single in the seventh (this time off Gavin Floyd), the absurdity of the night’s events left little doubt as to the outcome. This wasn’t going to be the Tribe’s night.
C-Cap Recap Custom Box Score
September 17, 2015
Royals 8, Indians 4
Green Highlight (as in “Great”): Citing the many ways in which Omar Infante has been terrible this season is certainly easy enough. It’s not as if the Royals haven’t noticed. Since the acquisition of Ben Zobrist at the trade deadline, Infante has taken on the limited bench role for which he probably is best suited at this point in his career. That being said, this isn’t the first time Infante has touched up the Indians. Last summer, he had the pleasure of ending a Kluber no-hit bid in the seventh inning. And over his career — spent largely in Detroit — Infante has driven in 53 runs against Tribe pitching. That’s 22 runs more than he’s produced against any other team.
Yellow Highlight (as in “Almost Green”): How about some weird Carlos Santana numbers for ya? Everybody loves those. Last night was Santana’s first multi-hit game in September (15 games in). But if you think he’s been slumping, that’s not quite the case, either, because he’s had at least one hit in 13 of those 15 September games. The result of this consistent okay-ness is that Carlos’ batting average held steady between .232 and .234 for almost three consecutive weeks until finally jumping up to .237 with his three-hit night. Overall, Santana is hitting .260 since the All-Star Break with a BABIP around .300. In the first half, he hit .221 with a .242 BABIP. His slugging percentage, unfortunately, hasn’t made the same jump, hovering at an almost identical, and meager, .382 mark.
Red Highlight (as in “Stop, You’re Bad”): Crockett had a bad third of an inning, but we’ll just take this time to harp again on managing for a playoff spot vs. managing cautiously with a mind for player protection. Unless Kluber came directly to Francona with concerns about his hamstring after 61 pitches — which it doesn’t appear he did — the manager chose to go with his gut by deciding on a fairly arbitrary point at which a guy might be entering the “danger zone.” Apparently, despite recovering from completely different injuries, both Kluber and Carlos Carrasco were deemed able to pitch exactly four innings in their first games back. Maybe it’s because studies have been done. Maybe it’s because going five innings puts a pitcher in line for a possible win — which is too stressful for a guy with a nagging ache or pain. The world may never know. Would Kluber have shut down the Infante Express before it tore through the rest of the station? Unfortunately, we’ll never know that either. We only know that the Astros lost again, and it sure would be nice to get a closer look at their fading glory in the standings.
On September 18th two years ago, the Indians lost for the last time in the regular season, rattling off 10 straight wins to close out the year and earn a Wild Card spot. They were only 0.5 games back when that streak began, however, and they finished with 92 wins. Right now, they’re at 72.