Indians Need Back of Pen to Step Back to Forefront

Last year if a game got into the latter stage with scored tied or the Indians ahead, Tribe fans felt pretty good about the situation.  With Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen slamming the door in the final innings, opposing teams simply were rarely scoring late, back-breaking runs.

The duo has not been as dynamic in the early stages of this season. Allen already has blown a save and lost two games. He has had a pair of outings in which he gave up four runs. He had not given up that many tallies in an appearance before this year. He surrendered a quartet of scores on April 11 against the Tigers, a game that was 5-5 when he entered in the ninth. Most recently, this past Monday, he turned a 3-0 Indians lead against the White Sox into a 4-3 loss. After striking out the first batter in the ninth of the save situation before allowing the next seven batters to reach base. His ERA over his first six outings, covering five innings, is a dismal 14.40, with three saves in four chances.

Shaw has not been as bad, but is not putting up his normal numbers so far, either. He has allowed a pair of runs in four innings, eight appearances. On April 11 against the Tigers, he allowed two inherited runners and a third run to score on three straight hits with two outs. It wiped out a 3-2 Tribe lead, in the seventh, at that time. That was also Allen’s first poor outing, as he gave up four ninth inning runs after Cleveland tied the game at 5-5 and the team eventually lost 9-6. Both star relievers had a hand in that loss, the second home game of the young season.

Shaw gave up another earned run last Friday. It was in the 11th inning in Minnesota. It was the game-winner as the Tribe fell 3-2 to the Twins and began a lost weekend series loss against the perennial AL Central bottom dwellers. The Tribe lost 2 of 3 to a team that it really should have been able to handle, partly because of the late-game collapse in the series lid-lifter.

Shaw’s ERA is 4.50. While not horrendous, it is not at his usually dependable number of the 3.04 he has been at over the last four seasons. In 2014, he was at 2.59 in 80 games, 76.1 innings. Allen is even further off his strong career mark of 2.84 he has had since making his debut in 2012. Last year he had an excellent 2.07 ERA while saving 24 games. Last year, Shaw, who is 27, and Allen, 26, were as good of a setup-man/closer combination as their was in baseball.

The good news is, it’s early. There is plenty of time for the pair of late-inning specialists to rebound from starts that have helped Cleveland get off to a slow start to the 2015 campaign. No season is ever sunk after 14 games. It is better to have your bad outings in April than blow a key game, down the stretch, in September.

Numbers are often skewed early in a season with one or two bad outings for a pitcher or one or two tremendous games for a hitter. That said, it is too soon to panic.

It is fair to wonder, however, if the heavy lifting Allen and Shaw have done the last couple years is catching up. The right handers have both logged a lot of innings the past two years in leading a bullpen that played huge roles in above-.500 clubs in 2013 and 2014.

In the previous two years, Allen appeared in 153 games and pitched in 140 innings. Shaw has pitched in 150 contests, covering 151.1 frames in that time period. Add in the 2012 season and his last three campaigns are 214 outings, 250.2 stanzas. That is a lot time on the mound for two young relievers.

Relief pitchers can be yo-yos, as it is. Many are good one year and bad the next or vice versa. Throw in extended work on an arm that is not expected to throw a ton of innings and that has a history of having an averse affect the following year. Many a great relievers one year, soured the next simply because of overuse.

Tribe manager Terry Francona has said that he doesn’t think his top two relief hurlers are battling any sort of fatigue. He is confident they two will figure things out and lead the bullpen again through this season.

He could very well be correct. Despite the workload the two have had in their short careers, youth is on their side. They are not veterans in their 30s and neither has had a history of arm injuries in the past. They’ve each been pretty healthy. That is all good news and can lead one to believe the bad stretch both are on is just that – a bad stretch.

Francona has exhibited his confidence in both, putting them back on the mound shortly after shaky outings. For Allen, it was the day after his blown save on Monday. He was back out for the ninth inning of a 6-2 game Tuesday night. It was not a save situation, but he got the bad taste out of his mouth, retiring the White Sox in order, striking out a pair. He threw 11 strikes on 18 pitches. It was a major step up from the night before and what Indians fans are accustomed to seeing.

Shaw has come back to pitch 1.2 frames of shutout ball in three appearances since his disappointing fame last Friday. Both relievers may well be back on track.

The Indians and their fans are sure hoping that is the case. With those two going strong, the bullpen is one of the best in the game. If those two are not going well, it will really hurt Cleveland’s chances to do anything this year.

The Tigers are a team that can get away with a bad bullpen because their offense is built to outhit their mistakes. The Indians are not built that way. They depend so much on pitching, and protecting slim leads late in games is a major part of that. Chances are Allen and Shaw are just in slumps that are magnified by the fact it is early in the season.

We can talk more, of course, if those slumps linger, but for now let’s not yet panic.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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