The Greatest Summer Ever: Eric Plunk
Steve Eby | On 23, Jun 2012
Each week through the 26 weeks of the 2012 regular season, DTTWLN will profile and break down the roster of arguably the most exciting sports team that Cleveland has ever seen; the 1995 Cleveland Indians. The ’95 Tribe won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144 game schedule, won their first Central Division title and made the playoffs and World Series for the first time since 1954. Six players made the American League All-Star team, eight players batted .300 or better, and the pitching staff had the lowest ERA in the American League. The players have been ranked from the most important to the Tribe’s success to the 26th. This week breaks down #15 Eric Plunk.
In 1995, everybody in Cleveland was an Indians fan. Everybody loved the team that was as fun to watch as any other team in recent Cleveland sports memory and everybody was just waiting for this team to break the city’s curse. The town had Tribe fever and everybody was in on it.
Just because everybody was on the bandwagon didn’t mean that everybody agreed on everything, though. By 1995, there were two kinds of Indians fans…those that loved Eric Plunk and those who hated Eric Plunk. Both sides had their arguments and both sides always made good points.
On one hand, the Plunk-lovers said that Eric had been a solid contributor to the Indians bullpen for several seasons and always had good numbers. He pitched in a ton of games every year and his ERA was almost always below 3.00. He won more games than he lost and he led the team in saves in 1993…good points.
On the other hand, the Plunk-haters said that Eric was a bum…another good point.
Nobody could argue that Plunk didn’t have good numbers because he certainly did. Since signing with the Indians for the 1992 season, Plunk had posted ERA’s of 3.64, 2.79 and 2.54. Over those same years, Plunk pitched in 58, 70 and 41 games so it wasn’t like he was someone who rarely got into games. Plunk’s numbers were very good, but never before did somebody have such good stats and have so many haters.
The anti-Plunkers would say that watching him pitch was often just too damn frustrating. It seemed so often that Plunk would come into to the game with runners on base and allow the runs to score. The runs would be charged to the pitcher that Plunk replaced, so Eric’s ERA would not go up. Plunk also had a tendency to throw too many wild pitches. In 1994, Plunk was charged with 7 wild pitches in 71 innings. If he were a starter, that would be an average of about one each game. Plunk also seemed to have a flair for pitching poorly at the worst possible times. For his Indian career, Plunk’s postseason ERA was just a shade under 9.00.
Regardless of what the fans loved or hated about Eric Plunk, he was certainly one of manager Mike Hargrove’s favorite options out of his outstanding bullpen. Plunk appeared in 56 games in 1995; third most on the club and only one behind set-up man Julian Tavarez. One of the most exciting games in which Plunk pitched occurred on June 19 when the Indians hosted the Boston Red Sox at Jacobs Field.
The matchup of starting pitchers that hot Monday night was Dennis Martinez for the Indians against Boston’s knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. It was a classic battle between two first place teams and two pitchers that were in the middle of the best seasons of their careers.
The game started out simple enough, with both pitchers holding the opposition scoreless in the first inning, but Boston broke through in the top of the second. After getting the first two batters out on a total of six pitches, Martinez allowed back-to-back singles to Mike Greenwell and former Indian Mark Whiten. Whiten’s hit was a short dribbler just to the side of the mound, but the veteran Martinez was unable to make a play on it. The next batter, catcher Mike Macfarlane, hit the ball a bit harder.
MacFarlane laced Martinez’s 2-2 pitch into right field and all the way to the wall. By the time right fielder Manny Ramirez fired the ball to the infield, both Greenwell and Whiten had scored and MacFarlane was standing at second base with a 2-RBI double. A fly out deep down the right field line ended the inning on the next batter, but the Red Sox had a 2-0 cushion.
After the Indians were baffled by Wakefield’s knuckler in the bottom half of the inning, Boston widened its advantage in the top of third. With one out, Indian killer John Valentin took an 0-2 pitch from Martinez out of the ballpark for a 3-0 Boston lead. It seemed as though Valentin took an Indians pitcher yard every game that he played against them in his career.
The Indians were able to get the run that they had just given up back in the bottom of the third. After back to back singles by Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel, Lofton stole third and came into score on a sacrifice fly by Albert Belle. The Tribe had cut the lead to 3-1.
From there, Martinez settled in and was dominant. He shut out the Red Sox from then until he exited the ballgame after the seventh inning, striking out three and setting the side down in order twice.
Meanwhile, the Indians were able to tie the score on two solo homeruns. Third baseman Jim Thome crushed a Wakefield knuckleball into the right-centerfield stands to lead off the fourth and Albert Belle knotted up the game at 3-3 when he blasted Wakefield into the bleachers with two outs in the fifth.
In relief of Martinez, Julian Tavarez shut down the Boston bats in the eighth and ninth innings. Unfortunately for the Tribe, Boston relievers Rheal Cormier and Ken Ryan were doing the same thing to the Indian hitters. With the score still tied at 3-3, the contest moved into extra innings.
Tavarez stayed in the ballgame to start the top of the tenth. He allowed Valentin to work his anti-Indian magic by singling on a 2-2 pitch on a line drive into right field. With the Tribe right hander already having pitched two innings, Hargrove turned back to his bullpen and lefty Paul Assenmacher to face the left handed hitting Mo Vaughn. Vaughn responded by lacing a single down the right field line, moving Valentin to third base with nobody out. Boston manager Kevin Kennedy subbed in pinch hitter Rich Rowland to face Assenmacher with the game on the line.
Having not given up a run all season to this point, Assenmacher dug deep and struck out Rowland when he swung and missed at the fifth pitch of the at bat. Having been given new life in the inning and hopes of a possible double play, Hargrove decided to go back to his bullpen and called on Plunk to face the right-hander Tim Naehring.
Plunk answered Hargrove’s call by striking Naehring out on a 1-2 pitch. With the Jacobs Field crowd cheering on their spectacled reliever, Greenwell dug into the box. Greenwell drove Plunk’s second pitch deep into the right-center gap, but a sprinting Ramirez was able to track the ball down and end the inning. For this day, Plunk-lovers everywhere had a smile on their face.
Ramirez led off the bottom of the tenth inning against Ken Ryan. Manny worked the count full before Ryan threw the payoff pitch. Ryan’s pitch was quality, a breaking ball low and on the outside corner that most hitters would be lucky to flick into right field for a single. However, Manny Ramirez was no ordinary hitter.
Ramirez muscled up and golfed the ball into the 90 degree night air to the opposite field and the ball sailed deep into the right field bleachers. Ramirez trotted around the bases as the hero for the night, sending Ryan and the Red Sox back to their hotels with a sour taste in their mouths. When Ramirez reached home plate, the rest of the team pounded his helmet in celebration, knowing that the Tribe had increased their already big lead in the American League Central. The Indians had hit another walk-off homerun, and the Jacobs Field crowd was buzzing with love for Manny and for their Tribe.
The winning pitcher for the evening was Plunk, who was the unsung hero. Plunk was able to work out of a giant mess created by Tavarez and Assenmacher, and he gave Ramirez his chance to end the game. If Plunk gives up a base hit or even a fly ball this game would have ended differently.
Plunk remained solid for the remainder of the 1995 season. He finished with a 6-2 record with a 2.67 ERA in 64.0 innings. He struck out more than one batter per inning, fanning 71, giving the Plunk-lovers around town more bragging rights. But the Plunk-haters got their ammunition in the playoffs.
In his first two playoff appearances for the Indians, Plunk had gone a total of two scoreless innings. It was his third game, however, that Plunk-haters everywhere love to hang their hats on.
In game three of the American League Championship Series against the Seattle Mariners, Plunk was called into the game in the eleventh inning with a runner on first base and one out. Plunk got the second out of the inning when Edgar Martinez fouled out, but future Indian Joey Cora was able to steal second during the Tino Martinez at bat. Plunk, as ordered by his manager, intentionally walked the left handed Tino to face the right handed Jay Buhner. Buhner wasted little time by crushing Plunk’s 0-1 pitch into the right field bleachers. Come to think of it, Buhner hit that ball so hard and so high that it still may be orbiting over the Earth today. The Indians lost that game 5-2, and trailed in the series two games to one.
After 1995, Plunk pitched the next two and a half seasons for the Indians until he was traded at the July deadline in 1998. Plunk was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for Doug Jones. This was Jones’ second time pitching for the Indians.
Plunk pitched well for the Brew-Crew to finish the ’98 season, but struggled to a 5.02 ERA in his final season of 1999. This was Plunk’s highest ERA for a season since his rookie season with Oakland in 1986.
Eric Plunk has the distinction of being traded for the same Hall of Famer twice in his career. When the Yankees wanted to get their mitts on All-Star Rickey Henderson, they traded Plunk to Oakland as part of a big package to get him. When the Yankees grew sick of Henderson and the A’s wanted him back, Oakland sent Plunk back to the Bronx as a part of the deal. When Henderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010, Plunk became the answer to a trivia question.
Plunk pitched for four teams over the course of his 14 year career. His career ERA finished at a respectable 3.82. Besides being remembered for the Rickey Henderson trivia question, Plunk will be remembered as a member of the most exciting Indian team in history. How he will be remembered, however, depends on who you ask.
Next Week: Paul Sorrento