Youthful Pitching Staff Struggled in Biggest Moments

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians’ 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

The Cleveland Indians are a team with very little experience playing in big games. Most of the players on the club have played in one or less postseason games. For the majority of the roster, the lone postseason exposure comes in the form of one game – the 2013 Wild Card loss to Tampa Bay.

This lack of experience in high-pressure situations is especially true for the Tribe’s pitching staff. Veteran lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who was with the Cardinals until August 2013, has logged 10.2 postseason frames. The rest of Cleveland’s pitchers, combined, have tossed six innings of playoff ball. Danny Salazar has four of those stanzas having started and pitched four innings in the Wild Card contest. In that game, setup man Bryan Shaw pitched 1.2 frames, while closer Cody Allen pitched to two batters.

It is that lack of tense games that may very well have done in the 2014 Indians more than anything.

The pitching staff was tremendous in August and September when the Tribe made a push for its second straight American League Wild Card nod. The team fell short by three games. Despite boasting one of the best ERAs in baseball over the season’s final two months, it was actually Cleveland’s pitching that let the team down in several key games that could have stemmed the tide helped the Indians get to October baseball.

It was the best of the Indians pitching staff that got touched up at the worst possible times and during some of the bigger games against other playoff contenders.

The bad losses in big games actually started with the Tribe’s ace, Corey Kluber. After an 18-9 August saw the Indians get to within striking distance of the Wild Card and the Central Division, the Tribe welcomed the Tigers to town for three games. The Tribe had a chance to make some noise and put heat on both the Tigers and Royals, especially Kluber starting off the series.

Instead of pitching an ace-like game against the hated division rival, Kluber had one of his worst outings of the year in a 12-1 loss. The Indians No. 1 starter lasting only 2.2 innings, surrendering five earned runs.

The next night, the Indians had a chance to rebound from the tough loss. Cleveland held a 2-1 lead in the ninth with its best reliever, Allen, on the mound. Instead of slamming the door as usual, the Tribe closer coughed up three runs and game. Let down by its best two hurlers, the Indians had lost two straight and any momentum the club had had to that point.

Still, the Indians went on to win four of their next five and get back on track. The team had swept the White Sox in three straight to open a seven-game homestand. The best team in baseball, the Angels, came to town and exposed the Indians weakness against top teams, yet again. This time the Tribe fell, with a thud, 12-3. Salazar, who had recovered from a bad start to the season to have a terrific second half, had one of his worse outings of the final two months. He went 4.2 frames, allowing six earned runs. Another starter had taken a beating against a playoff-caliber squad.

Even with that rough loss to the Angels, Cleveland managed to win two of the next three against Minnesota and was still alive heading into a weekend series, Sept. 12-14, with the Tigers. It is there that the final nails in the division coffin got hammered in as the Tribe was swept away.

Carlos Carrasco, another starter who was brilliant in the second half, got lit up in the first game, allowing four earned in 6.1 innings. The next night, like the previous series with the Tigers, the Indians appeared poised to put the beating behind them. The Tribe led the second game of the series 4-3 in the eighth with one of the best back-of-the-bullpens in baseball in Shaw and Allen poised to close out a win. This time it was Shaw who was snake bitten in a big moment. Giving up a two-run eighth inning bomb. The game and the division was essentially lost on one pitch.

Cleveland finished the season strong, at 8-5, after that sweep, but it was just a few too many blown opportunities too late to matter. A pair of losses to a Kansas City team that is now headed to the World Series were the real end of the road for the Tribe in the final week. However, the pitching was strong in all but three of the games.

All told, the carnage of good teams hitting the Tribe’s pitching in important games got three of the Tribe’s top four starters and the top two relievers. The question is whether this is a case of Cleveland’s pitching getting fat on bad teams or a young, inexperienced group wilting when the lights are brightest.

The answer likely leans closer to the latter, as bad team will hit bad pitching. The Indians really do have good, young, talented hurlers. The problem is they are green behind the ears when it comes to pitching in big games, in front of large crowds.

The Indians have now won 92 and 86 games the last two years. They are no fluke as playoff contenders. However, what they likely need to get over the hump is good, veteran experience in the starting rotation and bullpen.

Cleveland is not likely to break the bank on free agents this year. The good news, at least pitching-wise, is the Indians really do not have to. They have an ace, closer and setup man in tow. There is a good amount of veteran pitching on the market that Cleveland could bring in to help a young staff.

On the starting side are guys like Aaron Harang, who was with the club last spring training, Wandy Rodriguez, who could be a bounce-back type of guy, Jake Peavy, who could be looking to reprove himself after a few down years and J.A. Happ and Chris Young, who have both been steady starters, but never great. None would be very expensive. Francisco Liriano is a guy the Indians could look at if they are will to throw $8-$10 million at starter who is 30 and has had a pair of successful seasons with the Pirates in 2013 and 2014.

Relief pitching, as always, has a plethora of available players. Francisco Rodriguez would be an intriguing name, but would be costly and is an unneeded closer. In terms of verterans who could be looking for bounce-back type seasons are Craig Breslow, J.J. Putz and Matt Belisle. Interesting names like Toronto’s Casey Janssen and the Angels Jason Grilli are available. They were both closers last year, but were not lights out. If the Indians are willing to spend $4 million or so on a reliever, one of them could share setup duties with Shaw.

However you cut it, the Indians are a team that is close to being a perennial playoff squad. They are probably a few key pieces away. Most importantly, they may be a few key veterans in the pitching staff away from really putting it all together. They need some guiding hands to get over those big-game jitters that doomed them this season.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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