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Return of the Mac

Return of the Mac

| On 21, Jul 2013

With an eye scouring Major League rosters for potential starting pitching help in the rotation, the Cleveland Indians have also been watching a familiar face carefully working his way back from injury.

Right-hander Zach McAllister successfully completed a bullpen session in Minnesota on Saturday afternoon and has been cleared to start for the Indians on Tuesday in Seattle against the Mariners.

The timing on the return of McAllister could not be any better, as the team had seen a minimal amount of success from those trying to replace one of the Indians’ most productive starters throughout the first two months of the season.

Carlos Carrasco has pitched in five different games since McAllister went on the 15-day disabled list. He was 0-3 in those five starts and the team just 1-4. He threw 25 innings and allowed 22 earned runs, good for a 7.92 ERA. In three of the five outings, he was unable to finish the fifth inning. His control was a huge issue, as he walked eleven while striking out 13. He averaged more than two base runners per inning, due in part to allowing 40 hits.

Trevor Bauer made one extremely ineffective spot start while McAllister was out, lasting two-thirds of an inning in the first game of a doubleheader in Chicago. He allowed six hits, walked a batter, hit another with a pitch, and had five of those base runners cross home plate successfully. Two balls left the yard off of White Sox bats.

Only Danny Salazar made a truly beneficial contribution to the rotation filling in during McAllister’s absence. He took a no-hitter deep into the game and pitched six innings in total, allowing just one run on two hits while walking one and striking out seven of the 21 batters he faced in his Major League debut.

Between those three, they went a combined 1-3 with a 7.96 ERA, although only one of the doubleheader starts by Bauer and Carrasco would have counted as McAllister’s replacement.

On Thursday, McAllister made his second minor league rehab start and pitched six strong innings at Triple-A Columbus. He finished with a pair of strikeouts and allowed just two hits and two walks before handing the ball over to Salazar, who pitched the final three innings to earn the save while completing work on his regular day in the rotation. The Clippers beat the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, 3-2.

The 40-pitch bullpen session from McAllister on Saturday finished off his rehab. He was reported to be in good control and used all of his pitches.

It was originally thought that McAllister would need two to four weeks of rest after a sprained right middle finger sent him to the disabled list on June 8th. He had last pitched in a June 2nd start against Tampa Bay and easily had his worst start of the season against the Rays in that game, getting tagged with a loss after lasting just four and one-third innings and allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits. He walked four batters, just one short of his season high, and failed to strike out a batter for the first time in his Major League career.

For those watching closely that day, they could see that McAllister was avoiding the curveball, an essential pitch in his repertoire. He had experienced pain throwing that pitch and opted to not use it at all in the outing. It was the pitch that he also avoided throughout the throwing program he utilized while on the DL. He reintegrated the pitch into his regimen over the last couple of weeks and used it in both his Thursday rehab outing and during his bullpen session on Saturday.

The Indians have exercised patience with McAllister throughout his rehab process, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence of the injury and not having to deal with it again this season or later on down the road in his career.

McAllister was on the DL for a full month before he saw intensive game action, throwing three innings in a simulated game at Progressive Field against hitters from Lake County, the team’s Single-A affiliate. In that game, he threw just fastballs and changeups to the five players present.

The team has kept a watchful eye on him and consistently asked if he is pitching without pain. Major injuries on the throwing hands of former top prospects Adam Miller and Alex White were undoubtedly considered as the team expanded on his original two-to-four week healing window.

“He’s so tired of us asking him. We ask him about every ten minutes,” said Indians manager Terry Francona in an interview July 8th. “There’s times I’ll walk down to him during the game and say something. He knows that if he gets through this and it goes away, he’s going to be fine. But he also knows that this is something not to mess around with.”

McAllister returns with some solid numbers buried underneath a deceiving won-loss record. In his eleven starts this season, he is 4-5 with a 3.43 ERA. Until his second loss to the Rays, he had completed at least five innings in every start on the season and had not allowed more than three earned runs in any one start.

In April, he averaged six innings in his five starts and allowed just 2.2 earned runs per outing, good for a 3.30 ERA through the month. He earned decisions each time out, although he was three times a tough luck loser and finished the month at 2-3.

May fared equally well, as the Indians won four of his five starts and he again was durable and reliable in the rotation. He started the month with seven and two-thirds of scoreless baseball against Oakland on the way to a 1-0 shutout. In each of his last four starts in the month, he allowed three earned runs or less and finished at least five innings. He allowed nine walks for the second straight month.

Regardless of the efforts of the other players around him, McAllister gave the Indians a chance to win every time out.

Last season, McAllister finished 6-8 with a 4.24 ERA in 22 starts. His emergence last year was a surprise to some, especially through his first eight starts, when he posted a 4-1 record and a 3.17 ERA. As the season dragged on, his numbers slowly inflated, especially after losing seven of his final 14 starts with a 4.91 ERA.

McAllister’s return to the starting rotation could not come at a better time for the Indians.
With the team running out several ineffective starters from their minor league options (Carrasco, Bauer) and one stellar start from the unproven rookie Salazar, Cleveland clearly needed an upgrade within the starting rotation.

The market for starting pitchers at the trade deadline has already appeared very thin, and therefore the asking price on the few guys thought available has reportedly been exorbitant.

Rumors regarding Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza had mentioned Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, a move the club would be unlikely to negotiate for a rental like Garza.
Other younger and less established pitchers, including Bud Norris of the Houston Astros and Yovani Gallardo, may command too high a price because of their age and the years remaining on their contracts. More known quantities, like Cliff Lee, are not thought to be on the market yet because of the sudden resurgence of the Phillies in the National League East. The White Sox’s Jake Peavy, like Lee a former Cy Young winner, has a well documented history of injuries and is only just returning from a rib injury that kept him off of the mound for a month.

While the return of McAllister does not necessarily end the Indians’ search for starting rotation help, it may allow them to focus their attentions elsewhere, as both the bullpen and offense have shown that their first half struggles have not necessarily been left in the past.

If McAllister can bounce back from the injury and return to his form from earlier in the year, his addition to the rotation could have long-lasting effects on the organization, especially if the club no longer needs to seek the services of a Major League starter, at the cost of several young top prospects, to supplement the starting staff.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images