Since May, Corey Kluber has been pitching at a level even greater than when he won the 2014 American League Cy Young Award. Despite a few hiccups, Carlos Carrasco has been a strong No. 2 pitcher this season. Beyond that, however, the Cleveland Indians rotation was a giant question mark during the season’s first half.
The starting five figured to be a strength of the team for the Tribe before this season. Carrasco and Danny Salazar were set to come back from injuries that kept them from playing in the 2016 postseason, in Carrasco’s case, or making any significant impact in Cleveland’s run to the World Series, in Salazar’s scenario. Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin were supposed to reprise their 2016 roles this season as two of the game’s better back-of-the-rotation hurlers.
Instead, Salazar spent the first half battling confidence issues as well as the injury bug. Bauer and Tomlin simply were not very good. Before the All-Star break, it was Mike Clevinger who was pitching like Cleveland’s third best starter. However, the second-year pitcher never seemed to have the complete confidence that the veterans could inspire when going right. Many wondered if his good stretch in June was a mirage or if he really was coming around. He was becoming a master of the Houdini act in getting out of rough innings and tight spots, never a recipe for long-term success.
For half a season, it was hard to feel good about a game that was not started by Kluber or Carrasco. That has changed of late as some of the Indians’ longer-tenured starters have begun to come back to form.
Salazar returned from the disabled list a few weeks ago and has made four strong starts, looking like the guy who was selected to be a part of last year’s Midsummer Classic. Bauer, though, is on a more sustained run.
The 26-year-old has been throwing like a true No. 3 pitcher since the middle of May and has shown ace-like stuff over his last four starts.
Since May 14, Bauer is 8-4, raising his season record to 10-8. He has lowered his ERA from an unsightly 6.92 to the 4.97 it now stands at. He has only had two really bad starts in his last 16 outings, twice giving up four runs without getting to the fifth inning. In the other 14 contests, he gave up four or less and pitched five or more frames in 13 of them. He had one start that was going well in which he left early due to injury.
Bauer, almost quietly, had a quality 3.82 ERA in June. Other than one hideous start in July (four runs in two-thirds of an inning), he has a very good month then as well. Bauer’s last three starts have been truly great. He has given up one earned run in each of the trio of impressive performances. He pitched eight frames once and seven twice in those appearances against the Angels, Yankees, and Rockies. The latter two are playoff contenders.
Bauer has always had the stuff to be a very good starting pitcher. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was highly touted as an amateur. Skill has never been the question. Known to be a little head-strong, his overthinking may be what has often gotten in his way.
Fans were ready for the Tribe to put Bauer in the bullpen when he had his start of less than one inning and four runs allowed on July 16. He’d pitched well leading up to that, with a 3.57 ERA in his prior five games. Since that forgettable appearance, he has been even better with a 2.00 ERA in the four starts. Take out that hiccup of a game and Bauer has an ERA of 2.83 in nine of his last ten starts.
That is not a really small sampling. That is nearly one-third of a season in which Bauer has been a really good pitcher. He has given Tribe fans and his teammates confidence that a win is possible when Kluber and Carrasco are not toeing the rubber.
Bauer has given the Indians a true No. 3 pitcher this year after half a season of not knowing who could be trusted after the starting five’s top two. It appears that man is Bauer.
Along with Salazar, Bauer has really started to help make the rotation hum. Salazar has been nearly dominant in his quartet of outings since his return to the Indians and is probably on the verge of being viewed as Cleveland’s third starter, especially if there is a postseason to worry about again this season.
However, Bauer is back to where he was last year. Even if he slides back to the fourth arm in the pecking order, there are not many No. 4 starters better than Bauer right now. As he did a season ago, he can be depth in a rotation if injury strikes, as it did in 2016.
The rotation over the past few weeks has started to regain its look as a backbone of the team. That starts with Kluber and Carrasco. However, it is at its best when its other starters are pitching well and giving teams reason to worry on a nightly basis, rather than 40 percent of the time.
The return to prominence in the starting unit began with Bauer’s resurgence. It has reached a crescendo with Salazar’s seeming return to All-Star form. Clevinger has fallen back of late, as almost expected, but looked sharp Saturday in his first start since July 31. Tomlin, just as he seemed to be rounding into form, got hurt and is on the DL.
Still, Bauer’s long stretch of solid pitching gives Cleveland hope that it is playing with a stronger rotation than it has all year. If Bauer can continue to be a consistently good starter and give his team a chance to win nearly every start as he has since mid-May, the rotation is going to be fine. It will go three or four quality starters deep as it did a year ago until the September injuries wrecked the ends to Carrasco’s and Salazar’s campaigns.
Bauer does not need to be and never has needed to be an ace on this pitching staff. He just needs to pitch like a dependable back of the rotation hurler. Lately, he has done that and then some.
Photo: David Maxwell/Getty Images