The Greatest Summer Ever: Julian Tavarez

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #9 Julian Tavarez.

The Cleveland Indians have had four Rookie of the Year Award winners in their franchise history.  Herb Score was the first Indian to win the award in 1955, Chris Chambliss won it in 1971, Joe Charboneau in 1980 and Sandy Alomar most recently in 1990.  Chambliss, Charboneau and Alomar were all bright spots on some pretty bad teams their first seasons, with Chambliss and the ’71 squad losing over 100 games.  Score, on the other hand, helped to lead the ’55 Tribe to a strong 93-61 record.  The southpaw was fantastic, winning 16 games with a 2.85 ERA and striking out 245 batters which was tops in baseball.  The Indians finished in second place, three games behind Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and the New York Yankees, but Score’s impact was certainly felt in the AL pennant race.

It had been since Score’s ’55 season that an Indians rookie had a big impact on a contending team.  The real problem was that the Indians didn’t have many contenders from the 50’s through the mid 90’s, but a rookie presence like Score’s had not been felt in Cleveland in four decades.

That string stopped in 1995.

Julian Tavarez was a starting pitcher when the Indians worked him up through their farm system in the early 1990’s.  Tavarez was signed as a rookie free agent in March of 1990 and dominated at every level of the Indians system from 1992-94.  He spent some time in the Indians rotation in 1993 and came up for one start in ’94.  The early results for the young right hander were not great, as Tavarez had a record of 2-3 with a 7.22 ERA in his first two stints in the Majors.

Before the start of the 1995 season, GM John Hart and manager Mike Hargrove worked to change the Indians bullpen and put some new faces at the back end.  The ’94 pen had struggled and needed a facelift.  They decided to move Tavarez into the bullpen for a chance to make the ballclub and breathe some new life into his career.  The decision worked brilliantly.

Tavarez did not win the 1995 American League Rookie of the Year Award (he finished in sixth place), but his presence was undeniable.  Tavarez won 10 games for the Indians that summer with only two losses.  He pitched 85.0 innings and had a crisp 2.44 ERA.  He solidified the back end of the bullpen and with him and closer Jose Mesa the Indians had a dynamic one-two punch to end games.

Unlike most setup men, however, Tavarez was not just a one inning guy.  Looking back at Indian setup men over the last 20 years, it is tough to find anyone else who regularly went more than an inning and was effective.  Steve Karsay and David Riske were productive relievers, but they only went long on rare occasions when the Tribe bullpen was tired.  The same goes for Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez and Vinnie Pestano; they too would occasionally go longer than one frame, but those opportunities were few and far between.  In 1995, Tavarez was quite the opposite and that is what made him so valuable.

Manager Mike Hargrove would often call on his converted starter to pitch more than one inning at a time.  Even when Tavarez became the primary setup man midseason, Hargrove’s philosophy did not change.  Out of the 57 games in which Tavarez appeared in ’95, 31 were for more than one inning.  23 of those 31 were games in which Tavarez went two or more, really making him the last Indians multiple inning setup man.

Tavarez’s ability to work multiple innings allowed him to vulture a lot of wins in 1995.  The Indians had become known for late inning comebacks and Tavarez was often the beneficiary.  Not only did this help Tavarez’s stats, it also helped the Tribe starters.  With Tavarez slated to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and Mesa scheduled for the ninth, the starters really only needed to work six innings to make their start an effective one.  That is precisely what happened on June 14, too.

A sold out Jacobs Field was looking for a sweep of the Orioles that day, as the Indians were winners of three in a row and the Orioles had lost the previous three.  Jacobs Field had also been sold out the previous two nights against the O’s and it would continue to sell out the following 452 home games.

Rookie Chad Ogea was slated to start for the first place Indians and he was matched up against Ohio native Scott Klingenbeck.  Both pitchers sported 1-0 records on the season and were looking to keep their clubs in contention.  Ogea started the game well by throwing a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the first.  The Indian offense then went to work on Klingenbeck.

Centerfielder Kenny Lofton led off the bottom of the first for the Tribe by grounding weakly to third.  Baltimore third baseman Jeff Manto, who was an Indian multiple times in his career, charged the ball but was unable to throw out the lightning fast Lofton.  Omar Vizquel followed Lofton with a single of his own, but it did less damage than it could have because Lofton was caught stealing second the pitch prior.  Carlos Baerga followed with a weak groundout to first, moving Vizquel to second.  Albert Belle walked and Eddie Murray lined a single back up the middle scoring Vizquel and giving the Tribe a 1-0 lead.  Ogea held the Orioles scoreless again in the top of the second before the Indians went back to work in the bottom half.

Indian right fielder Manny Ramirez led off the inning with a walk and followed it up by stealing second.  Paul Sorrento then grounded out, moving Ramirez to third.  With one out, Tony Pena had a chance to drive in the game’s second run.  Pena did not come through, however, as he struck out and Klingenbeck was one out away from getting out of the jam.  The Oriole right hander got the following batter, Lofton, to fly out, but not before he launched a wild pitch, scoring Ramirez.  The Tribe now led 2-0 and they were able to add another run in the third when Belle launched a two-out homerun into the left field bleachers.

The Indians took the 3-0 lead into the fifth inning, when Baltimore finally answered.  After two straight hits started the inning off of Ogea, future Indian Brady Anderson drove home catcher Chris Hoiles with a one-out sacrifice fly.  They added another run in the top of the sixth, when Rafael Palmeiro launched a solo homerun on the first pitch of the inning.  Klingenbeck, meanwhile, had settled in a bit and shut out the Indians in the fourth and into the fifth inning.  Lefthander Mark Lee replaced Klingenbeck with two outs in the bottom of the fifth.

The longtime minor leaguer, Lee, did not fare well.  After the O’s had cut the lead to 3-2, Lee gave the Indians their two runs right back.  Lee walked the leadoff man, Jim Thome, and then immediately gave up a single to Ramirez to put runners at first and third.  Sorrento drove Thome home with a sacrifice fly and Ramirez stole second on the next batter.  After a Tony Pena groundout moved Manny to third, Lofton drove home the Indians fifth run with a single into left field.  The Indians now had a 5-2 lead going into the seventh and gave the ball to their awesome setup man.

Tavarez’s day started out a little rocky, as he allowed Manny Alexander to ground a single through the left side to lead off the inning.  A swinging bunt by Curtis Goodwin followed for the first out, but it moved Alexander to second base.  Anderson followed with another single through the left side and Baltimore had something cooking against Tavarez with runners at the corners, one out and future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken coming to the plate.  Undaunted, Tavarez struck out the Iron Man on a 3-2 cutter that Anderson stole second base on.  With two runners now in scoring position, Tavarez got Palmeiro to fly out to right.

Normally that would have been the end of the day for a setup man, but not for Tavarez.  Julian came back out for the eighth inning and dominated.  He struck out the first batter in the inning, Jeffrey Hammonds, and then allowed a bloop single into left from Harold Baines.  He followed by striking out Manto and getting pinch hitter Kevin Bass to ground out weakly to Sorrento at first, ending the inning and, with Mesa warming up, his day.

Mesa pitched the ninth allowing only a one out walk to Goodwin before getting Ripken to pop out to end the game.  The Indians had won by a score of 5-2, their 33rd victory of the season compared to only 11 losses.  They were winners of four in a row and sent Baltimore out of town without a victory.

Tavarez did not get the win (Ogea did) nor did he get the save (Mesa).  He wasn’t the hero and he wasn’t the player of the game.  What Julian Tavarez did this game was what he did all season; he kept the game in control and helped the Indians win.

Tavarez’s fantastic pitching continued all season.  Hargrove continued to go to his rookie in more and more pressure situations and Tavarez always answered the call.  His domination also continued when it mattered most…in the postseason.

Tavarez pitched in 12 games in the playoffs and had two holds and a 2.61 ERA.  He did not allow a run in five World Series appearances and had a 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio.  Tavarez was surprisingly dominant all of 1995 and is a main reason that the Indians summer was so magical.  He was the true unsung hero of the team.

Tavarez pitched 14 more seasons in the Major Leagues, but only one more with the Tribe.  After struggling through most of 1996, Tavarez was traded to the San Francisco Giants along with Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino and a player to be named later (Joe Roa) for Matt Williams and another PTBNL (Trenidad Hubbard).

Tavarez pitched pretty well during his time with the Giants, but became a journeyman after leaving there in 1999.  He spent time in Colorado, Chicago (Cubs), Florida, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Washington before retiring in 2009.

Over the course of his career, Tavarez got a reputation as a bit of a headhunter.  Primarily a reliever, Tavarez hit 96 batters with pitches which places him 90th on baseball’s all-time list (a relief pitcher!).  It wasn’t uncommon for Tavarez to plunk his former teammates with a ball and then talk trash to them as they hobbled down to first base.  This brash brand of baseball caused multiple bench clearing brawls while Tavarez was on the hill.

Other than being remembered as a troublemaker, Tavarez should also be remembered as a fantastic reliever.  Tavarez won 88 games out of the bullpen over the course of his career, which places him 20th on that list in baseball history.  He had multiple good seasons with multiple teams.  His best success statistically came during his years with the Cardinals, but without question, his best season came in 1995 with the Tribe.

Tomorrow:  Eddie Murray

Previous Entries:

#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy

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