Second Thoughts Game #32: Twins 1, Indians 0
After perhaps the most brutal loss of the season, the Indians welcomed the Twins into town for a series of four. This game, while not quite the gut-punch, played out in a similar fashion: not enough offense, and a great starting pitching performance nullified by the closer.
Familiar starter dominance
Two weeks ago, I called Zach McAllister "perfectly adequate." It was, by no means, an insult, but perhaps it is time to rethink such a safe label. As he is only 26, maybe we are seeing him enter his prime. Maybe he is more of a middle of the rotation starter than a backend one. It would be a wonderful development, particularly with the departure of Justin Masterson seeming very real.
In this particular game, he did what he usually does: throw a great deal of fastballs, many of which don't end up in the middle of the plate. This approach usually works more than it doesn't for him, and against a light-hitting Twins team, it shut them down. Most of his work was stress-free, but he did pitch his way out of a couple of spots, including having a runner on third with one out in the sixth. Two consecutive strikeouts took care of that threat. His eight on the day tied a career high.
McAllister is not unlike his rotation mates, in terms of gameplan. Indians starters throw a ton of fastball varieties (fourth-most in baseball). While he doesn't quite have the movement or the electric secondary offerings of Masterson, or Danny Salazar, he really is quite similar to Corey Kluber. If we see the same kind of emergence from McAllister over the full season that we started to see from Kluber (who is a year and a half older) in 2013, the rotation will be in an excellent place now (and would have been, if not for the worst defense in baseball), and in a capable place without Masterson.
Familiar closer woes
While McAllister did everything he could to get the Indians a win, like Kluber on Sunday afternoon, he was on the wrong end of a John Axford letdown. Axford, pitching for a third consecutive game, came into the 0-0 tie in the 10th and promptly served up a home run to a prototypical Twins middle infielder that doesn't hit home runs.
Yes, a closer in a non-save situation. No, it isn't a good excuse. I think traditional bullpen roles are awful and oppressive, but if your "closer" can't mentally handle the idea of performing in a non-save situation, he shouldn't be a late-inning reliever of any kind (generally speaking, as Axford himself said that it doesn't matter).
For many, the two blown saves were the first sign of trouble from him all season, but that really isn't the case. His propensity for walks is terrifying, his groundball and flyball rates are trending in the wrong directions, he has been very lucky thus far, and his velocity is down. All of those things point to a closer that is going to lose his job, which I expect will happen.
Familiar offensive woes
To be fair, Axford isn't most responsible for this loss. The Indians had a 3-1 lead when he gave it away on Sunday. In this game, the offense managed exactly zero runs, and just six baserunners, none of which reached third.
So, here we are again, expressing concerns about the team's ability to score runs. Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher are underperforming. Asdrubal Cabrera is a shell of his former offensive self, and his lack of plate discipline often makes him look like an overmatched minor leaguer. Michael Brantley is showing that he isn't capable of shouldering an offense like he did for the first few weeks (not a surprise, or an insult). Lonnie Chisenhallonly plays against right-handers. Jason Kipnis is hurt. Michael Bourn is hurt again. So on and so forth.
What can be done? Well, as is often the case, there really is no easy fix. Personally, I am a huge proponent of eradicating this team of Cabrera and letting Francisco Lindor be great a little sooner than expected, but he isn't quite a right-an-offense kind of player. Neither is Jesus Aguilar, who many seem to be clamoring for. As is also often the case, the Indians don't have a lot of in-house options on the hitting side of things.
Francona could choose to expand Chisenhall's role. While I have been a fan of deploying him exclusively against right-handers, it is probably worth investigating. I have also long been a fan of George Kottaras, who made his presence felt in no time. His performance on Sunday was no miracle. He isn't going to collect hits in bunches, but he tends to make a high number of the ones he does get go for extra bases, and he has an elite skill of drawing walks (second-best walk rate since 2012, among players with at least 300 plate appearances). The problem with him is his position and his handedness limiting his potential, even part-time playing time (if he even survives today's impending roster move).
Right now, the best hope is that certain hitters start to trend upward and play like they should, and injured players return as soon as possible. It is only the first week of May, of course. But if the problem continues much longer, along with the dreadful defense that will absolutely continue until Lindor arrives, the Indians may find themselves discussing trading away players in a few months, not trading for them. Proactivity is key, and it is only "too early" for so long.
- Mike Aviles made one spectacular play and another really good one at second base. The spectacular one, a rangy, sliding stop and throw from one knee that left him about eight feet onto the grass in short right field, was the best from an Indians infielder all season that I recall. As defense-starved as this team has been, it was a very refreshing performance.
In order to reactivate Yan Gomes from the paternity list, Jason Giambi was placed on the disabled list with his calf cramp. This "injury" was said to be nothing serious, and he was even allegedly available to pinch-hit on Sunday, so this is likely a convenient stint to further sort out the roster.
And there is plenty to sort out. A move is necessary to activate Josh Tomlin today, Nick Camino's sources have hinted that an Aguilar promotion is in the near future, and a disabled list trip for Bourn and his never-ending hamstring issue remains a possibility.
Up next: The return of Josh Tomlin, who will make his first Major League start since July 27, 2012. The Twins will counter with Samuel Deduno.
More offense and a closer we can rely on can't happen soon enough.
No runs.. no W. The Tigers, with a six game winning streak are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay ahead now.. It must be time to panic !!
And the little cowboy goes tonight.. his low to mid 90's fastball and Greg Maddux like control should make another SP performance worthy of the ticket price..
Let's score some runs !!..
I said, "not quite the gut-punch." They had a 3-1 lead on Sunday. Last night, it was a 0-0 tie. One seems far worse to me. I don't know.
Not sure if Aguilar is the answer, given his struggles on the road, but he or Moncrief can't hurt.