Mike Clevinger was impressive during this past spring training, opening the eyes of many in the Cleveland Indians organization. No way was the young starting pitcher going to crack the Tribe’s Opening Day roster, with the wealth of pitching the club had entering the season. However, he was certainly on the radar of management as well as Indians fans.
A bit of disaster struck Cleveland’s starting five early in the year as Cody Anderson came nowhere near replicating his impressive rookie showing of 2015’s second half and the squad’s number two starter Carlos Carrasco went down with a hamstring injury. Demoted starter Trevor Bauer was able to leave his new bullpen role and fill one of the voids. However, Cleveland would have to look to Triple-A Columbus to fill the rotation’s second vacancy.
There awaiting a phone call was Clevinger. The Tribe put its 25-year-old top pitching prospect on a Major League mound for the first time on May 18 against the Cincinnati Reds. Clevinger did enough to keep his team in the ball game, allowing four runs in five and one-third innings and the Indians went on to win 8-7. Overall, an okay debut. He struck out five and walked just one batter, avoiding the wildness that sometimes can accompany the first big league game jitters.
Clevinger would get two more starts in May before being sent back to the Clippers. It was clear in his first MLB go-round that he had some work to do to become a reliable Major League starter. In those three outings, he surrendered 14 earned runs in 14 1/3 frames for an 8.79 ERA.
As the rotation was starting to get healthier and stronger, especially in the month of June, the Indians bullpen was showing signs of sputtering and having holes. Tribe management, figuring Clevinger was at least a year away from earning a regular spot in the starting five, decided he could fill in one of the bullpen gaps as a pitcher who could throw in both short and long relief. The rookie hurler could perhaps serve his team well, after all, in what was and still is shaping up as a final month chase for a Central Division championship.
Clevinger made his relief debut in a 12-1 rout of the Detroit Tigers on July 5. He showed well for himself in front of a large Progressive Field crowd. He did not allow a run in two innings of work against a tough Tigers batting order.
However, the Indians’ deep thinkers felt there still was not quite enough work to be given to a pitcher who they really wanted to get a steady workload, so he was again sent back to the minors.
Clevinger was called back up at the beginning of August when starter Danny Salazar was put on the shelf with a bad elbow and the back end of the bullpen was in a constant state of motion. It is since that most recent promotion that Clevinger has shown that he just might have what it takes to stay around a little while at baseball’s highest level.
Clevinger’s last two outings have been strong signs that the the rookie may be putting things together at the big league level. On August 13, a start against the Los Angeles Angels, he earned his first career win. It was not a perfect effort, but a strong one, nonetheless.
Cleveland’s young hurler tossed a no-hitter through five and two-thirds frames before surrendering a hit. He walked three batters, but limited any damage with his efforts of keeping the Halos hitters from connecting with their swings. The Tribe earned a 5-1 victory.
The youthful pitcher with the long, flowing mane had perhaps an even more important outing on Thursday, the 18th of August. That night was supposed to be the celebrated return of All-Star starter Salazar. After more than two weeks away, Salazar was rusty and issued three walks to the White Sox, putting the Tribe in a 3-0 first-inning hole.
Lefty Kyle Crockett relieved in the second and tossed a scoreless frame. Manager Terry Francona inserted Clevinger in the third inning, hoping his rookie pitcher could eat up some innings and save the majority of the relief corps for the coming weekend series with the first place Toronto Blue Jays. Clevinger did that and then some for the Tribe. He delivered four frames of one-run ball. He did not earn a win, but he kept his club in the game. His efforts allowed the Tribe to enjoy a ninth-inning walk-off win, sending the Progressive Field crowd into a state of delirium.
The right-handed youngster now has a successful start and relief appearance under his belt and appears as though he may make himself an integral part to what should be a September pennant race for the Indians.
Clevinger also is falling in line with past pitchers who have come onto the scene strong for Cleveland in the second half of seasons. In 2014 it was T.J. House who came out of nowhere and dazzled down the stretch. Last year, Anderson was a big part of the Tribe’s final-month rally into late-season Wild Card contention.
Unfortunately for both the pitchers and the team, neither could keep the momentum of their initial showings going. House and Anderson each struggled in their second seasons. This year, both have bounced from Columbus to Cleveland. In the past couple of months, the organization has experimented with each of them as relievers at the Major League level.
Part of that is the need for a successful long reliever. As strong as the Indians’ starting five is, those pitchers have struggled at times with the need for an innings-eater from the ‘pen. Zach McAllister filled the role well last year, but has struggled this season. House and Anderson have not been the answer, either.
Clevinger is slowly becoming an arm Francona can trust. The more he pitches, the more he seems like a guy with staying power in the big leagues.
Unlike House or Anderson, who seemed to be pleasant surprises, more was expected from Clevinger. He was a fourth round pick in the 2011 amateur draft by the Angels. While first round selections are more considered sure things, a fourth rounder is certainly considered to be a strong bet as a future Major League contributor.
Just look to this past Cactus League season in Arizona. Clevinger popped up on everyone’s radar before this season even began. If not for the fact that the Indians had such a strong crop of pitching, the first-year big leaguer could have begun making his mark on Opening Day.
Instead, the rookie is making that mark at a more crucial time. Clevinger could become a key player in Cleveland’s chase for its first division crown since 2007. He can be Tito’s trusted middle reliever in both short and long innings situations. He can also serve as a starter when needed.
The Indians certainly have enjoyed pretty good durability to their rotation. Carrasco missed a month and Salazar about two weeks. Former Cy Young winner (and current candidate) and ace Corey Kluber, as well as Josh Tomlin and Bauer, have yet to miss action. Still, there is the dreaded thought that a key starter could succumb to injury, but Clevinger has proven to be a capable starter when pressed into action.
Cleveland may have had too many quality arms for Clevinger to make an impact on day one of the 2016 season. However, he now has a chance to make an impact on days 100-162, which is an even bigger deal. He also could find himself pitching on day one, or Game 1, of a playoff series for the Indians. It is a real possibility now for both the squad and the player. It is a place some may have thought the Indians could be come October and few thought Clevinger would be a part of. Yet, here we are, and the rookie hurler is well on his way to a prominent role in a September division title race.
Photo: Ron Schwane/Associated Press