Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 64 – Tom Kramer

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Countdown to Opening Day – 64 days

When asked to recall Tom Kramer, a fair number of Cleveland Indians fans are going to draw a blank. Those slightly more in tune with some bad Indians teams in the early 1990’s may remember a gem he threw on May 24, 1993, against the Texas Rangers, when his stat sheet had just one blemish that kept him from the history books and it came courtesy of an old friend of the feather.

Kramer had long been a starter in the minor leagues for the Tribe until 1991, when he was thrown into the bullpen at Double-A Canton-Akron. It would be his later return to a starting role that would help him make his claim to fame.

When Kramer was selected by the Indians in the fifth round of the 1987 draft, it gave him an opportunity to pitch in his home state. Born in Cincinnati, he attended Roger Bacon High School in St. Bernard, Ohio, and later attended college at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

Kramer posted good numbers during his minor league days. He was 7-3 with a 3.01 ERA with two complete games and a shutout in 12 games in his first pro ball action in 1987 at Burlington. He was even better in his first full season of A-ball, posting a 14-7 line with a 2.54 ERA in 27 starts while throwing ten complete games and two more shutouts. He split the 1989 season at Kinston and Canton-Akron, going 10-11 with a 3.50 ERA in 28 games, but those marks were tainted by a 1-6 record and 6.23 ERA in his first Double-A action.

The right-hander split the 1990 season at the two levels again and performed better; he ended the year with a 13-7 record and 2.91 ERA in 28 combined games. His 1.13 WHIP was the best of his minor league career, but was not far removed from his career norms to that point.

The Indians rotation for the 1991 season had a lot of moving parts, with veterans Greg Swindell, Tom Candiotti, Eric King, and Dave Otto in the picture, as well as homegrown options in Charles Nagy and Rod Nichols. Kramer found himself thrust into relief pitching on a regular basis at Double-A and in his first action at Triple-A in Colorado Springs. He put together a nice 8-3 record and a solid 2.18 ERA in 45 games with ten saves and in September, he joined the MLB roster to wrap up the ugly 57-105 season the Indians were suffering through.

In four outings while wearing the number 64, he worked four and two-thirds innings, striking out four, walking six, and allowing nine runs on ten hits for a lofty 17.36 ERA. He faced three batters in his debut game for manager Mike Hargrove, making a 6-2 Indians lead over Baltimore much closer after giving up back-to-back doubles to Cal Ripken and Sam Horn, then walking Randy Milligan before he was hooked. Steve Olin relieved, allowing two more runs to score but earning his eleventh save of the season in a 6-5 nail biter.

Kramer spent all of 1992 with the Colorado Springs club. He made three starts, but appeared in relief 35 more times while saving three games. He finished with an 8-3 record and 4.88 ERA, but he did not join the Tribe for the final month of that season.

Tragedy struck the team in the spring of 1993. The boating accident on Little Lake Nellie claimed the lives of relief pitchers Olin and Tim Crews, while starting pitcher Bob Ojeda was seriously injured. Kramer made the depleted relief staff out of spring and worked in that capacity for all of April and most of May.

“I think Tommy Kramer will develop into a fine major league pitcher,” pitching coach Rick Adair shared in a story in The Plain Dealer on May 20, 1993.

He made his first start on May 4 as the club struggled to find a fifth option in the rotation behind Nagy, Jose Mesa, Mike Bielecki, and Jeff Mutis. Scott Scudder started the season on the disabled list with a torn muscle in his right arm pit. The team tried Mark Clark, acquired prior to the season, and veteran lefty Matt Young in the role, as well as third-year left-hander Cliff Young, who would become a third member of the team to die that year after crashing his truck while trying to light a cigarette in November.

“Right now he’s done a good job as a reliever,” said manager Hargrove of Kramer in the same May 20 story, “and we want to keep him there.”

Despite mixed results (four innings, three runs allowed, four strikeouts, and three walks) in his first start, Kramer returned from the bullpen to make a second career start on the 24th against the Texas Rangers. It would become a game many would not forget.

The 17-27 Indians, eleven games out and in seventh place in the AL East, welcomed in the 23-19 Rangers, in second place in the AL West and just a game and a half out of first. Kevin Kennedy’s club had a balance of young up-and-coming talent (Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer) coupled with established veterans (Jose Canseco, Julio Franco, Rafael Palmeiro). On that day, it did not seem to matter as he faced off against Kevin Brown.

Kramer, wearing the number 29 at this point of his career, sat down the side in order in the first, striking out Canseco to end the inning. A two-run homer from Paul Sorrento in the second paced him to a lead and Albert Belle’s RBI-single in the third gave him a 3-0 advantage. The Rangers had gone ten-up, ten-down to start the game before the long-time Indian Franco sent one over the fence to cut into the Tribe lead. His trip around the bases, or to any base for that matter, would be the first and last of the day for the Rangers.

Through six, Kramer faced one over the minimum with five strikeouts. He struck out Franco to start the seventh, then sat Canseco down looking before a Gonzalez fly out ended the frame. He needed just ten pitches in the eighth and, after another homer from Sorrento to make it a 4-1 game, breezed through the ninth, striking out Doug Dascenzo for his eighth K of the game while needing just eight pitches that inning to end the ball game.

Kramer faced 28 batters, just one over the minimum, with one mistake to Franco separating him from a perfect game. Instead, he earned a one-hitter and a win in just his second career start and the Rangers were one-hit for the second time in the first two months of the season.

Asked after the game about his performance, Kramer was still stunned by what had occurred. “It just set in. I came one pitch from a perfect game,” he was quoted in the Associated Press’ recap the following morning. “All I can say is: Wow!”

“He pitched a good game and we helped him a lot,” Texas first baseman Palmeiro said in The Plain Dealer recap on May 25. “We swung at a lot of bad pitches, but I think he deserves a lot of the credit. When you shut down a lineup like ours, you’re doing something.”

“He had a good fastball and we had trouble laying off the high one,” said third baseman Palmer. “We were swinging at a lot of them, he realized it, and kept throwing it there. He definitely did a heckuva job. He had some real good stuff.”

“We played his game instead of making him play ours,” said the Rangers’ lone producer of the day, Franco. “We could have had ten walks if we laid off, but we didn’t. He pitched a good game. I was lucky. He hung a curveball and I hit it.”

While Franco was lucky, Kramer would not be. He allowed six runs in his next start, then four more in a relief outing. In his fourth start, he allowed four more runs. He remained in the rotation until mid-August, when he was shelled for four runs on a hit and three walks to start the game. Back-to-back free passes were followed by a Roberto Alomar blast for Toronto, and a walk to Joe Carter ended his game after four batters.

He would make just one more start over his final eight games and finished the year with a 7-3 record.

He started the following season at Triple-A Charlotte, but in May he was traded to his hometown Cincinnati Reds for minor leaguer John Hrusovsky. Back as a starter, he was 12-1 for the Reds’ Double-A Chattanooga affiliate to begin the 1995 season and was dealt to the Detroit Tigers, who used him in six games in Triple-A Toledo.

He spent his final three seasons of pro ball full circle back in Colorado Springs, the home of the Triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, never again reaching the MLB level.

Photo: Plain Dealer file

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