Josh Tomlin pitched four no-hit innings on Sunday, only to leave with an injury before starting the bottom of the fifth.
Calling a series in late July against a last-place team a “test” sounds hyperbolic, but in several ways, that’s what the Indians were facing this past weekend in Chicago.
Fortunately, they passed that test, even as another comes right behind it.
Tribe fans know what happened to this team as it returned from the All-Star break with a record of 47-40. They played their worst baseball of the year, going 1-5 on a six-game road trip against two last-place teams, the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants. After that debacle, the question may not have been which trades needed to be made at the deadline – but whether there were too many holes to make any one transaction meaningful.
The club responded with a resounding 7-0 homestand, manhandling their 2016 ALCS opponents, the Toronto Blue Jays, and the (California) Angels. Suddenly, the 2017 Indians, who so clearly had superiority over the AL Central on paper, finally seemed capable of showing it on the field for longer than a few days. The starting pitching was stout, with a resurgent Danny Salazar and the “good” version of Trevor Bauer making their presences felt during the week. There was plenty of timely hitting, punctuated by Edwin Encarnacion’s game-ending grand slam that beat the Angels.
And so it came to pass that the Indians were riding a seven-game winning streak when they took the field Friday night at GuaranteedRate Field. We had to wonder if the Indians would stay focused for their three games with the Pale Hose. So often in this strange season, the club had played down to its competition, by turns lacking energy, and then pressing, over the course of the same nine innings.
On Friday night, Jose Ramirez and Danny Salazar played the key roles as the Tribe bounced Derek Holland and the hapless Chicago White Sox 9-3.
With the bases loaded in the fifth, Ramirez lined a ball down the left field line that scored Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor, making it 4-0 Indians. Meanwhile, Salazar kept up the intensity that marked his outing against Toronto, holding the White Sox to two hits and no runs through six.
A defining moment for Salazar came in the fifth inning. After allowing the first two Sox hits of the game to catcher Omar Narvaez and right fielder Alen Hanson, Salazar recovered to strike out shortstop Tim Anderson and center fielder Adam Engel to end the inning, wasting little time in doing so.
Santana and Brantley also homered for the Indians, who pounded out 16 hits.
On Saturday night, the club came away with a 5-4 victory, and more than one observer said it was the kind of game a team needs to have to sustain a long streak. Corey Kluber struggled with his command all evening, even as he struck out 12. Nemeses Melky Cabrera – who was 4 for 5 on the night – and Jose Abreu kept the White Sox in the game after the Tribe had raced out to a 4-0 lead. Abreu’s three-run bomb to left made it 4-3, and galvanized his young team. Over the next 3 2/3 innings, Kluber had to bob and weave.
Andrew Miller, who had been treated to two days off (after Francona had pressed him into service in three straight games), was tenacious in extracting the Tribe from a two on, one-out dilemma in the seventh. It should be remembered that the problem stemmed from one of Francona’s favorite gambits: trying to “steal” a couple more outs from a tired, embattled starter in the late innings – Kluber in this instance — rather than letting a reliever start the frame. Miller hit Moncada to load the bases, but then struck out Davidson and pinch-hitter Kevan Smith to douse the fire.
After a three-run third, the Cleveland offense functioned as if a switch had been turned off. Suddenly in the fifth, after Michael Brantley’s leadoff double, Encarnacion and Ramirez struck out. Lindor was stranded in the seventh after his leadoff single, and in the eighth, the Indians couldn’t begin a rally until two were out, as two men were left on when Brantley popped to left.
Much was said about the winning tally coming in when Greg Infante hit Gomes and then Brandon Guyer to force in run No. 5., but the entire inning really didn’t develop until there were two outs. Bad sequencing is one of the things that has killed the Indians all year, and that pattern nearly sent them into the bottom of the ninth in a tie game – always a daunting task for any team on the road.
This was, of course, the situation the Indians found themselves in on Sunday, after the offense mustered only one run against Carlos Rodon and two relievers. Whatever the outcry is about Bryan Shaw allowing Davidson’s two-run walkoff bomb in the 3-1 loss, a very solid case could be made that Cody Allen should have been in the game, protecting a two- or three-run lead at that point.
The Tribe went 0-for-7 with men in scoring position, and left eight men on base. Francona was quick to praise Rodon, who has always been a nemesis, but this was part of the test the club faced over the weekend. Could they consistently take a good approach? Manufacture runs? Battle to get the two-out hits that every good team must get, against a vastly inferior club? Derek Holland had beaten the Indians twice this year with an ERA below 1, and yet they belted him around.
Rodon racked up nine strikeouts, as guys took funky swings all afternoon. After Lindor led off the third with a home run, Jackson singled to left, and fans dared think something significant could be brewing. But as he would so often, Rodon induced a weak flyout from Ramirez, and Encarnacion pounded into a 5-4-3 double play, leaving one to wonder if the play at first could’ve been close if he had run full-speed. The Indians slept through the fourth and fifth innings, going down in order with four strikeouts. Though they made Rodon labor – he had 93 pitches at the end of the sixth – they never came close to landing a haymaker.
Josh Tomlin was at his very best during his four innings of work, striking out five without allowing a hit. When he left the game in the bottom of the fifth with a hamstring injury, it looked like a traditional bout of Indians luck. Nick Goody picked up where Tomlin left off. In his two innings, he struck out the first five batters he faced, only to make one bad pitch that allowed Leury Garcia to tie the game with a blast to right. This is the trouble with one-run leads. Dan Otero – and yes, Bryan Shaw, toiled effectively until the fateful ninth. When Zimmer struck out, rendering Roberto Perez’s two-out double useless, it was hard to see the Indians winning. And they didn’t.
Though the streak ended at nine, the Indians did take two out of three against this rebuilding club. Since anything less would have been a debacle, they did pass the weekend’s test. If there was a simple solution to the inconsistency with RISP, they would surely have found it by now. We can only hope the streak, having brought this strong team closer to its expected level at 10 games over .500, can provide fuel for its battles against playoff contenders in August, including the Red Sox, Yankees and Royals.