Despite a rotation that spent the first half of the baseball season striking out batters at a near-record pace, the Cleveland Indians found themselves sellers at the trade deadline.
Granted, what the Tribe parted with was not a lot. However, a team that Sports Illustrated predicted could win the World Series was jettisoning off veterans for prospects, rather than bolstering the roster for a stretch run and postseason appearance.
Even though the Indians determined it was time to look at the future – they were 11 games under .500 at one point – the club entered September very much alive for the second Wild Card spot. The team was four games out of a playoff appearance at the end of August. They are now five back of Texas for the American League’s final postseason nod after Tuesday’s loss in Toronto.
The Indians are in striking position as the final month of the regular season begins partly thanks to their dynamic pitching. Of course, that pitching could only carry the team so far. The Tribe went 16-12 in August, including winning 9 of its last 11 games last month because of an offense that finally woke up.
Cleveland’s hitting seemingly slept-walked through the first four months of the campaign, wasting some pretty strong performances from the starting pitchers. For a while, Corey Kluber was getting the worst run support of all starting pitchers in Major League Baseball.
With a little more hitting – specifically with runners on base and in scoring position – the Tribe may have been sitting a lot prettier at the July 31 trade deadline. Kluber may be in the discussion for his second straight Cy Young award with some more offense. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco may have even more gaudy records than they slightly above .500 ones they currently carry.
At any rate, the offense finally showed up to the party in August. More specifically, the top of Cleveland’s batting order showed up. The Tribe’s number 1-2-3 hitters got hot in the final half of the month and helped lead the charge back into postseason contention.
Leadoff hitter Jason Kipnis has been carrying the load much of the season. The Indians lone all-star this season, the second baseman has been hot ever since manager Terry Francona entered him into the leadoff spot at the end of April.
Kipnis missed the first half of August, nursing a sore shoulder. Granted, he only hit .241 in 13 August games in his return. However, he hit safely six of the final seven games of August helping carry the way for the Tribe’s hot stretch.
2014 MVP candidate Michael Brantley, Cleveland’s number 3 hitter, got blisteringly hot in August, hitting .406 with three home runs and 17 RBI. He pushed his season totals to .323, 12 and 74. Brantley’s stretch, should it continue, probably put him in the MVP conversation for a second year in a row.
Brantley could very well earn player of the month honors for August, joining Kipnis who won that award in May. He could well keep fellow teammate and Indians number two hitter Francisco Lindor from garnering the August honor.
Lindor, Cleveland’s rookie sensation at shortstop, had an amazing month of August. After struggling at the plate in his first month in the big leagues, Lindor caught fire in late July and August. In August, the 21-year-old hit .370 with two home runs and 12 RBI.
Cleveland’s top three hitters have certainly come alive over the last month. With that the offense has gone form dormant to fairly exciting on a lot of nights.
Guys like Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes are still hitting below expectations. However, they are sprinkling in contributions here and there. With the Tribe’s top three hitters performing as they are, however, contributions here and there are all that is really needed from the rest of the lineup.
When Cleveland gets a big hit from someone other than Kipnis, Lindor and Brantley, it feels like icing on the cake these days. The Indians, in fact, are getting contributions from other spots. Gomes has hit some key home runs of late. Trade deadline acquisition Abraham Almonte, though not lighting the world on fire, has contributed big hits and runs as well.
However, it is the top three in Francona’s lineup that is igniting the offense and needs to ignite the offense. As those three go, so to will go the rest of the lineup and runs being scored. Cleveland’s first three hitters not only hit well, but can all run the bases well, adding an extra dynamic. All three are a threat to steal a base at any point and get inside a pitcher’s head.
If the Indians are going to continue to win at a high rate and push for a postseason berth over the final five weeks of the year, the starting pitchers will certainly going to need to continue carrying the way. Those five still need to continue to limit the opposing team’s runs and give their team a chance to strike. After all, it is impossible to expect Kipnis, Lindor and Brantley to hit well every night.
However, Cleveland’s offensive igniters will need to keep the spark going as much as possible. We learned in the first half that the team is not very good if the starters are dominating, but the batting order is a one-man (Kipnis) show. It once was said the Indians would go as fart the rotation could carry them. It is a lot more accurate, now, to say the Indians will go as far as the pitching and top of the lineup will carry them. The team proved too heavy for the pitching to carry alone. Give the rotation just a few extra hands – on offense – and the Tribe could find itself playing meaningful games in October. And not just three October games against the Red Sox to close the regular season.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images