Maybe all is not lost for the Cleveland Indians starting rotation after all.
It sure seemed bleak eight days ago when No. 2 starter Carlos Carrasco was struck by a line drive and pronounced out for the season with a broken bone in his pitching hand. That came eight days after No. 3 man in the starting five and 2016 All-Star, Danny Salazar, left a game early with tightness in his right forearm. He was not deemed a total loss for the year, but if he can get back for any of Cleveland’s possible postseason appearance, it would likely be as a reliever rather than in his starting role.
Even with ace Corey Kluber pitching well enough to be in the conversation for his second career Cy Young Award, the state of the Tribe’s pitching staff sure seemed dire one week ago.
All of a sudden, Cleveland was looking a situation where it was Kluber and then a moundful of questions after that. Trevor Bauer, who has been lights out at times this year, yet shelled at others, is now the team’s new No. 2 starter. That is quite the jump from the No. 4 spot he was in just over two weeks ago. It’s an even bigger climb from the bullpen spot he held to start the season, following a rough spring training and miserable end to the 2015 campaign.
At least, for the Indians, Bauer had been a guy that they had counted on for much of the year as a starter. To replace Carrasco and Salazar, the Tribe was going to have to dig deep. The best answers, at least a week ago, did not feel like playoff-caliber answers. Cleveland was going to turn to Josh Tomlin, who’d been demoted to relief work after a horrible month of August, and rookie Mike Clevinger, whom Tribe manager Terry Francona had hoped to have as a long reliever for the stretch run and what is now an increasingly probable postseason.
Those two were about to become the No. 3 and 4 hurlers for a first-place team with real World Series aspirations. The rotation, once thought to be the backbone of the club, appeared to be in shambles, aside from at least having as good a No. 1 starter as any team in the league.
Hold the phone, though. It does seem now that talk of the starting five’s demise may have been a little exaggerated or premature. Over the past couple of weeks, Tomlin and Clevinger have shown that Tribe fans may not have to fear a loss when they see one of those names as the scheduled starter for a game in the final week of the regular season or a potential playoff outing.
Tomlin was inserted back into the Cleveland’s rotation after Salazar went down. He had been in a bullpen that Francona was using to its fullest. Even before the loss of the All-Star starter, the Indians were basically playing with a four-man rotation. When Tomlin was pulled from the starting five after a miserable one and two-thirds innings start on August 30, Cleveland did not feel there was anyone really worthy to replace him and started going with bullpen days every five games. A starter (actually it was usually Clevinger), would go a couple innings and then relievers would follow basically each frame thereafter.
Needless to say, when Salazar was placed on the shelf, Francona had to get Tomlin back in the rotation. Two bullpen days out of five games were not going to cut it and could have been a recipe for losing a grip on the A.L. Central Division lead.
Tomlin, who labored through six August starts with a hideous 11.48 ERA, has answered the bell since rejoining the rotation. He has looked more like the Tomlin of April – July who was pitching a near All-Star level. After a strong seven-inning outing on July 30, the Little Cowboy was 11-3 with a 3.43 ERA. He was arguably the best back-of-the-rotation pitcher in baseball. Then, the wheels simply fell off.
Tomlin has a history of falling apart in the second half of seasons. His smaller frame is not necessarily built for the grind of 162 games. When he toed the rubber on September 14 as a starter, it was his first time in that role in 15 days. He had pitched one inning of relief in that time. The break to work on mechanics and rest his arm and body appears to have been quite therapeutic. Tomlinc has pitched well in two starts.
In outings against the White Sox and Royals, he has tossed 11 2/3 innings, with no walks and allowing just two earned runs. He has a win and a no-decision since rejoining the rotation. It seems he can again be trusted to get the job done every five days. A little time off may have done wonders. Due to experience and the ability to go deeper into games, he likely has the leg up on Clevinger to be the team’s No. 3 starter in the playoffs, should the Tribe clinch the division. He would be guaranteed a start in the postseason.
As for Clevinger, he has worked hard simply to get back into starting form. In July, when the rotation was humming along at full speed, Francona decided to have the rookie move to the bullpen to fill a needed long-relief spot. At the time, it did not look like Clevinger would be needed as a starter this season and certainly would be more useful out of the ‘pen in a pennant race and the playoffs.
However, when Tomlin struggled and was out of the rotation to start September, Francona had his young pitcher start again. On September 5, Clevinger kicked off the first of what has been a few Cleveland bullpen games. He only tossed one and two-thirds innings of one-run ball, as Francona handled him with kid gloves.
As the starting five has thinned with injuries, Cleveland has had to get Clevinger stretched out again and working towards starter innings and pitch counts. He is getting there. Clevinger pitched four innings each on September 10 against Minnesota and September 15 against the White Sox. However, his pitch counts rose from 62 in the first game to 85 in the second. He also surrendered just a combined two earned runs, despite the abbreviated appearances.
On Thursday, Clevinger upped his innings total to five while throwing 80 pitches. He allowed just two runs against the Royals. Overall, in three starts, Clevinger has pitched pretty well and kept his team in the ball games.
In the end, that is really all that is needed out of Clevinger and even Tomlin. They need to simply get through five or six innings, pitching decently. The way the Indians are built, that is really enough. With a vaunted bullpen, headed by Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw and the unheralded Dan Otero, a Tribe starter just needs to keep his team in a game for a handful of frames and the relievers, along with a good late-game offense, are plenty capable of putting things away from there.
Is it optimal that the Indians are without Carrasco and Salazar? No, it is not. However, it is looking like the end is not drawing near on the team’s postseason chances either. Tomlin and Clevinger have proven to be able to pitch into the middle innings over the past two weeks. Tomlin gets another chance Sunday against the White Sox to show that he is fully back. More importantly, there is a chance Tomlin could be the one steering the Indians toward a division title as they have a chance to win the Central crown Sunday for the first time in nine years. That would seem like truly sweet redemption for Tomlin.
No, all is clearly not lost for the Tribe when it comes to the starting five. In fact, it seems to be regaining some steam as some of the biggest games in nearly a decade await this Indians squad.
Photo: Ron Schwane/Associated Press