A Healthy, Rested Kipnis Could Be Major Boost For Stretch Run

Jason Kipnis has had a rough go this 2017 season. Cleveland’s two-time All-Star second baseman and team leader has had two stints on the disabled list and had not totally seemed like himself at the plate when healthy.

He missed the beginning of the season with an oblique injury and appeared to be a little bit rusty upon his return in late April. Just when it seemed his bat was coming around, he injured his hamstring in a game against Detroit on July 8. He has not played with the Tribe since.

Out on a minor league rehab assignment in Akron and Columbus this past week, Kipnis is finally expected to return to the Indians Sunday. His reinsertion into the every day lineup should be a big boost to the Tribe, especially if his month away has helped to get healthy and hopefully pain-free, at last.

Without Kipnis, the Indians have done well enough. They’ve maintained their lead in the American League Central Division and had a nine-game winning streak that ended just a week ago. However, Cleveland can only be better off with Kipnis back and playing second base on a daily basis.

The 30-year-old and seven-year veteran was an┬áintegral part of the Tribe’s run to the World Series last year. He will be needed again down the stretch this year if the Indians hope to get back to the Fall Classic.

With healthy Kipnis, contributing at full capacity, the batting lineup takes on a whole different and upward look. Erik Gonzalez has held his own in Kipnis’ stead, but the Indians will be better off if Kipnis can reclaim his strong presence in the batting order and Gonzalez, a better fielder than Kip, can be used as a utility infielder/late-game defensive substitution.

Kipnis, when he is going right, can be a good hitter anywhere in manager Terry Francona‘s lineup. A guy with 25-steal ability, he can naturally hit leadoff. Able to hit for a good average, produce runs, and be a 20-homer hitter, Kipnis is a natural fit hitting anywhere from 2-6, as well. A year ago, Kipnis hit for career-bests 23 bombs and 82 RBI while hitting .275. Cleveland will gladly take that player in its batting lineup during the coming stretch run.

Kipnis, through only 66 games this year, has not been that player of a season ago. When he went on the DL for a second time, he was hitting only .233. Despite the low batting average, his other numbers were about on part with his career totals. He had 19 doubles, eight home runs, and 26 RBI.

The veteran second baseman was finally starting to come around after a tremendously slow start to his 2017 campaign. It should be forgivable that Kipnis did not come roaring out of the gates. After missing nearly the first three weeks of the season, his return was almost like his spring training. He had to get back to game speed and game shape.

It took a while for one of Cleveland’s emotional leaders to get into a rhythm. In eight April contests he hit a mere .161. After an 0-for-4 game on May 13, Kipnis was hitting just .155 through a little less than a month of action. In a sense, that is about the time he would have had with a full spring training to get the cobwebs off his bat. He started turning the corner the next night with a four-hit game, including two jacks. It started an eight-game hitting streak that raised his average to .226. That’s more than a 70 point raise in a little over a week.

Kipnis hit .248 for the month of May and then .244 in June. Neither are normal Kipnis numbers but are certainly more palatable than the .155 he was at. Some wondered it he was still feeling the effects of the oblique injury that kept him out of the first portion of the schedule.

Kip got off to a slow start in July, but seemed to be gaining steam, just before injuring his hamstring. He had at least one hit in each of his last three games, a total of four. All four hits were doubles, a sign that his power, that had dipped to two homers and eight doubles, was coming back around. Unfortunately, just as it seemed he was going to become a double-machine that he is capable of being, he got hurt for a second time.

Now Kipnis is finally expected back Sunday and the Indians are certainly ready to welcome him back with open arms. The hope is, with a month away, Kipnis may finally be totally healthy. Along with allowing his hamstring to heal, perhaps his other lingering ailments are also completely gone.

Time away has worked wonders for other Indians players this year. Corey Kluber gave his back a month to heal and has come back as good as ever and now a Cy Young contender. Danny Salazar was out for a couple months and his first two starts back have seen him resemble the guy who was an All-Star in the first half of 2016.

Maybe Kipnis will be the latest to take time off and come back as good as ever. Last season’s World Series campaign was a long one for everyone in a Tribe uniform, so some time away really can not hurt an individual so long as it does not hurt the team. So far, the team is just fine and positioned to be back where it was last year. Perhaps Kipnis is, too.

In 2014, Kip played much of the season through a minor oblique injury and languished through the worst year of his career, to this point. He hit a career-low .240. The career .269 hitter has some work to do this year to get back to his normal batting average by season’s end. However, if he is not playing through pain, he could well do it. In healthy seasons, he has either been an All-Star as in 2013 and 2015, or put up career-best power numbers, as in 2016.

Adding a healthy Kipnis to the batting order in early August has the potential to be like adding an All-Star acquisition to the lineup for the key games of the season. Kipnis can help make the rest of the batting order hum by giving the opposing pitcher another hitter to worry about. A vocal leader in the clubhouse, he can help to spur on his teammates to reach their potential heights.

The Indians have done well of late without Kipnis. Heading into Sunday’s game, they had won 11 of 15 games. However, they are still better off with Kip in the everyday lineup than not. That just means other teams better buckle up as an already-solid Tribe lineup is about to get a little better.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Getty Images

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