Kluber, Brantley Among Key Aspects Needed to Contend with Tigers in Second Half

The Cleveland Indians are entering the second half of the season with a 51-44 record, playing at .537 and currently 1.5 games behind Detroit (52-42) in the American League Central Division.

The 1.5 game lead that the Tigers hold is not an impossible margin to overcome, especially when looking at teams who made it to the playoffs in years past. Last season, the Tigers overcame second-half start at third place in the division to clinch a playoff spot and make a World Series run in October. I’m not saying I think the Indians will make it all the way to the Fall Classic – I think they still have a lot of kinks to work through this season – but a playoff run, at the very least, is not out of the question.

That is, if the Tribe can compete with the Tigers.

The Tigers have long been a division rival for the Indians, with Detroit’s proximity to Cleveland playing a major role in the cities’ competition. Moreover, their similar records in recent years have led them to constantly vie over for leading spots in the Central Division.

So what does Cleveland have to do in the second half of this season to contend with the Tigers, and possibly even emerge in front of them?

First, they can play their upcoming schedule to their advantage. After the break, 45 of the Indians’ 67 games are against teams that have losing records, including 13 of their first 16 games – games against the Twins, Mariners, White Sox and Marlins. If the Tribe can manage to come out of these opening games with a winning record, it could not only boost confidence heading into the rest of the second half, but could give them a cushion should they hit any slump when playing more difficult teams.

One of those difficult teams will prove to be the Tigers. Although they have bullpen woes similar to the Tribe, the Tigers have still proven to be a formidable opponent to the Indians this season. The Indians are currently 3-9 against the Tigers this season, struck down by the powerful bats of Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera.

The Indians face the Tigers twice more in the season, during a four game series August 5-8 and a three game trip to Detroit the runs from August 30-September 1.

When facing Detroit on the field, as well as other teams throughout the second half, the Indians must continue to rely on the things that have been working for them thus far and improve on their weak spots.

Detroit lacks a strong bullpen, similar to the Indians this season. Although starting pitching had been the main concern for Cleveland going into the season, the bullpen has struggled in ways most fans did not fully anticipate. Vinnie Pestano lacks his usual dominance, as evidenced by recent outing such as his July 7 appearance against Detroit. Pestano entered the game in the eighth inning, with the Tribe up 6-3, and gave up a three-run homer to Torii Hunter to tie the game. Although the Tribe eventually came back to win, it’s bullpen struggles such as this are what the Indians need to improve upon in order to truly contend with the Tigers going forward.

The Detroit bullpen isn’t much stronger, either, although they have recently found a somewhat promising combination of Drew Smyly and Joaquin Benoit as eighth and ninth inning guys. Overall, however, the Tigers bullpen is still rated as 27th out of 30 in all of Major League Baseball. Therefore, if the Indians can improve on their own bullpen struggles – perhaps by sending guys such as Nick Hagadone to the minors for a bit to improve his skill, and removing Rich Hill as an option completely – they will be able to continue to play not only late in the game, but late in the season.

Detroit has some of the strongest names in starting pitching this season, including Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Verlander is 10-6 o the season with a 3.50 ERA, while Scherzer boasts an impressive 13-1 record and 3.19 ERA. Luckily for the Tribe, the dominance of these guys does not do much to threaten them on the field. Scherzer did not get the decision in Detroit’s 4-2 win over the Indians on July 8, and allowed two runs and seven hits in seven innings. The game continued into the 10th inning, with rain playing a factor in the Indian’s ineffective base running. Factors outside the team’s control allowed them to continue the battle with the Tigers late in the game, demonstrating their ability to compete with some of the strongest names in baseball despite Cleveland boasting a significantly lower payroll.

Starting pitching for the Tribe is another facet in which they need to maintain consistency to contend with their rivals in Detroit. What started as an extremely shaky rotation has developed into a pattern of some sort of consistency. Ubaldo Jimenez seems to be settling in with the fact that he is not the same pitcher he was a few seasons ago in Colorado, and despite his most recent subpar outing, Jimenez has spent most of the season as a decent starter for the Tribe, currently at 7-4 with a 4.56 ERA. Scott Kazmir has been slightly rougher, but still posts similar numbers to Jimenez with his 5-4 record and 4.60 ERA.

Tribe ace Justin Masterson is one who needs to consistently stay on his game in order to contend with the Tigers later in the season. Masterson is 10-7 on the season, posting a 3.72 ERA. When Masterson is on, he’s really on. But when he struggles, as he did on July 5 when the Tigers shutout the Indians 7-0, teams capitalize on his inconsistency. Masterson is 2-8 with a 5.86 career ERA against the Tigers.

One name that seems to continue to shine, both against the Tigers and in general on the mound, is the young Corey Kluber. On July 7, Kluber pitched a career-high 10 strikeouts against Detroit in his 6 1/3 innings pitched. His solid starts have been consistent throughout the season, including his eight innings pitched on June 11 against the Texas Rangers to break the Tribe’s 8-game losing streak. Kluber, 7-5 with a 3.88 ERA, has been one of the most impressive parts of Cleveland’s first half, a trend that will need to continue should the Indians hope to stay at the top of the ALCD rankings.

The fifth spot in the Tribe rotation is still questionable, much as it was in the beginning of the season. Zach MacAllister has been out with a blister, and options such as Danny Salazar have filled in with much promise. There’s no telling who will continue in the fifth spot, but whoever it is will need to stay at a consistent level throughout the second half. As long as it’s not the shaky Trevor Bauer filling in, the Tribe should have the ability to develop a strong fifth starter.

Kluber has proven to be one of the few strong pitchers on the Tribe roster to dominate the Tigers, as he helped lead them to their 9-6 victory on July 7. Also effective in that game was left fielder Michael Brantley, another name that will need to continue its dominance as the Tribe moves into the second half.

Brantley is hitting .279 on the season so far, an average above that of Tigers’ power hitters Martinez (.258) and Fielder (.267), although he trails Cabrera (.365). Brantley has proven to be a key player in clutch situations, such as the July 7 game where he hit two home runs and drove in a career-best five runs against Detroit. Not only does Brantley dominate against the Tigers, he has proven his worth against teams like the Orioles (driving in four runs on June 24 to lead Cleveland to a 5-2 win over Baltimore) and assisted in starting a seven-run rally during the Indians sweep of the Reds in late May. He has seven home runs on the season, has hit 48 RBI and stolen 10 bases. On the field, Brantley is equally as impressive, as he has no errors on the season.

Jason Kipnis will also prove to be a crucial bat for the Tribe as the season continues. As we’ve covered, Kipnis had one of the hottest Junes in the Majors, and is currently hitting .301 with 13 homers and 57 RBI. He is joined by strong hitters such as Carlos Santana (.275, 11 HR and 43 RBI) and a developing Lonnie Chisenhall (.243, 25 RBI and 6 HR, including a recent grand slam) as players who will have to step up at the plate if the Indians want to continue their hard-hitting ways. Mark Reynolds, who started out the season as one of the strongest bats on the team, has been slumping as of late, and an improvement from him can help the Tribe hold onto their strong position in the AL.

Trades have also been discussed, with names such as Matt Garza floating around and the notion of trading Asdrubal Cabrera being considered. While mixing up the team wouldn’t be detrimental, it’s the advancement of players currently on the field, and continued strong performances from top guys, that really need to be capitalized upon in order for the team to be true contenders with the Tigers the rest of the season.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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