Rotation Shines as Fifth Starter Question Answered by Anderson

Indians rookie starting pitcher Cody Anderson has been welcomed into the rotation by his offensive teammates with the same lack of run support afflicting several of his new pitching teammates.

It is not the only similarity for Anderson with his new staff cohorts, as he has been as locked in on the mound as the other four have been, not over the course of this last week, but for the majority of the season. The rotation has carried the team all year long and this week’s 5-1 record heading into the finale with Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon can be directly linked to the staff’s utter dominance at nearly historic levels.

It all started with Anderson on Monday.

Less than 24 hours after the Indians dropped their third straight and the second game of their doubleheader in Baltimore against the Orioles, things were looking incredibly bleak for Cleveland’s hopes for the 2015 season. Mired in a three-month stretch of inconsistent play, most notably at the plate, the team was defying the preseason odds set forth by Sports Illustrated and others whom looked at the young hard-throwing Indians pitching staff and considered them capable of making a hard charge in an American League Central Division thought to be very much up for grabs.

A team meeting that preceded Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays may have righted course of the ship, even if in the end it turns out to be just temporarily.

Anderson made his second start of the season and, oddly enough, was able to make it against the Rays for the second consecutive time after his start against the O’s on Saturday was rained out. After allowing just one walk and six base hits in seven and two-thirds scoreless innings in his Major League debut on June 21st, he followed it with an outing that chased perfection.

Through six innings, no base runner had reached. After a groundout to start the bottom of the seventh, Grady Sizemore homered to right to end the perfect game and the shutout, but he would finish out the inning and the next, ending his outing with a swinging strikeout in what would become a 7-1 Indians win. He allowed just two hits in the game, and the team allowed just three as a whole.

He had the same kind of dominating performance on Saturday afternoon against the Pirates, throwing a complete game loss, despite allowing just one run on six hits in eight innings in the game. The Tribe’s offense was shut down for the first time since that doubleheader defeat on Sunday, limited to just three hits by lefty Jeff Locke and closer Mark Melancon.

Anderson’s arrival and the success that has followed was a bit of a surprise for the 24-year-old righty who had struggled mightily at the Double-A level in 2014.

In his first full season with the Akron Rubber Ducks in 2014, Anderson slumped to a 4-11 record with a 5.44 ERA in 25 starts. He averaged 2.3 fewer strikeouts, 0.6 more walks, and 2.4 more hits per nine innings after spending the 2013 season with Carolina of High-A and three games with Akron while winning the Indians organization’s Bob Feller Award winner as the club’s top minor league pitcher.

Just two months into a new look physically and lessons learned from the hardships faced, the righty nicknamed “Big Country” seems to have locked himself in to the troublesome fifth spot in Terry Francona’s rotation.

Now, through his first three starts, he has matched a club record by allowing no more than one run and one walk while logging at least two outs in the eighth inning in each of those efforts, becoming just the seventh such occurrence in team history back to at least 1914, joining the likes of Corey Kluber, Cliff Lee, Greg Swindell, Sherry Smith, and Stan Coveleski. In doing so, he also is the first MLB rookie to begin his career with three straight outings of seven and two-thirds innings or more since Tim Wakefield for the Pirates in 1992.

It has to be a big sigh of relief for the Indians staff, one that has rotated player after player through the back end of the rotation looking for someone to catch on.

Gavin Floyd’s season ended before it could truly begin as injury reclaimed his pitching elbow and has him shelved for the year. The same could be said for veteran Josh Tomlin, who needed shoulder surgery to correct his discomfort. Zach McAllister lasted one start before he was removed from the rotation and placed into the bullpen, a la Carlos Carrasco last season, and has possibly found a new calling as a late inning relief option. T.J. House got an extended look as the lone lefty in the early mix and was dealt four losses in four starts with an ugly 19 earned runs on 21 hits with 12 walks in just 13 innings, good for a 13.15 ERA and 2.54 WHIP. After a trip to the disabled list, he found himself back in Triple-A Columbus and on their disabled list there to boot.

A pair of aged veterans, 38-year-old left-hander Bruce Chen and 33-year-old right-hander Shaun Marcum, each took turns with mixed results. Chen went 0-1 with a 12.79 ERA in two games and subsequently retired after his release by Cleveland. Marcum was 3-2 and had some good outings, but the bad outweighed the good and he has since settled back into the Clippers rotation after clearing waivers. He is 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA in seven games for Cleveland and 4-1 with a 1.95 ERA in six starts for Columbus.

Even Toru Murata, a 30-year-old righty with some experience pitching in the minor leagues in Japan, got a call for game two of Sunday’s doubleheader, but five runs on four hits in three and one-third innings ended his Major League debut with a loss.

Where all of those options have failed, Anderson has delivered to the tune of a 1-1 record with a hard-fought loss on Saturday and a 0.76 ERA. He has allowed just two runs on 14 hits, walked one, and struck out ten over his first 23 2/3 innings.

Danny Salazar followed Anderson’s first start of the week and second of his career with a two-hit beauty, allowing just one hit and a pair of walks over seven and two-thirds innings in a win. He improved to 7-3 with a 3.80 ERA in 14 starts this season and eclipsed the 100-strikeout mark for the second straight season and was the second Indians pitcher this season to do so. His seven wins are a career high and he is well on pace to surpass his career bests across the board. He has done is all by increasing the number of groundball outs he has had while limiting opposing hitters to a .234 average. He is 3-0 in four day games with a 2.49 ERA.

When Carrasco takes the mound on Monday against Houston, it will be his first start since taking a no-hitter within one strike of completion in Wednesday’s win over the Rays. The shot from Joey Butler, who had ended Carrasco’s perfect game bid with a walk one plate appearance earlier, cleared a leaping Jason Kipnis and ended his night at 124 pitches. Lost in what nearly became the first no-hitter thrown by an Indians pitcher since 1981 was his 13 strikeouts, which equaled a new career high for Carrasco, who has been in the Majors since 2009. The win pushed his new career high total to double-digits for the first time, and his ten this season are tied for most in the AL entering play Sunday. He has been the pitcher of record in all 16 of his games, and his 10-6 overall record with 110 strikeouts and a 3.88 ERA in 97 1/3 innings could and should give him some consideration for a trip to Cincinnati for the All-Star Game, especially considering where he has come from since last season, when he was lost to purgatory in the Cleveland bullpen for a stretch to find himself because he was out of options and unable to be sent to Columbus safely without risking losing his hard-throwing arm.

Reigning Cy Young winner Kluber fell behind early in his start on Thursday in the finale against the Rays, but after settling down, he worked eight strong innings, allowed seven hits and a walk, and allowed just three earned runs in a quality start. After going 0-4 in five June starts, despite pitching effectively and with no run support throughout the season, he has not let it affect his performance on the mound. He struck out 14 batters on Thursday, marking the sixth time this season that the staff ace has eclipsed double-digit K totals in one game. He currently sits in a three-way tie for the most strikeouts in the AL at 141, deadlocked with Chris Archer and Chris Sale.

And then there is Trevor Bauer, pitch variety master and apparently the master of batting stance impersonations. After pinch-hitting Kipnis, Ryan Raburn, and Mike Aviles for himself during a walk against Pittsburgh in a rain-soaked game on Friday, he completed one of his stronger outings of the season that was only cut short by the two-hour stoppage that was called with one out in the seventh inning. He earned his seventh win, also a career-best, and allowed just two runs on three hits while striking out three.

The rotation is clicking and the bats had come back to life until Saturday’s three-hit effort. But where the offense has been absent, the staff has remained strong.

As a whole over their last six starts, they have limited the opposition to a .135 batting average and just 21 hits in total over the half dozen ball games. The starters have a 1.74 ERA and are averaging more than six strikeouts per walk in that span.

All season long, it appeared that the Indians were due for a long streak – either an impressive season-altering winning streak or a tough, season-ending type of losing skid. A five-game win streak this year is hardly a long enough effort to change the course of the season, but continued strong play from the team as a whole could be enough to get the Indians back into the fold and make the final three months of play exciting. With Anderson settling in quickly in the fifth spot in the mix, the question mark every fifth day could become one with an answer.

Through the first half of the season, the starting pitching has kept them in ball games and should take little of the blame for the sub-.500 record they still are battling to get out from under. They will continue to ride those arms as far as they take them, which will hopefully be somewhere closer to the top of the division and in the playoff mix than nearer to the bottom, where they still reside today.

Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

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