We are approaching the one-year anniversary of a game better left forgotten.
Last September 17, a line drive off the bat of Ian Kinsler struck Carlos Carrasco in the right hand. The second pitch of that mid-September game broke the pitching hand of Cleveland’s No. 2 starter. At the time, it seemed it would shatter the long-term playoff hopes of a Tribe team that was already destined to win the American League Central Division.
The effects of losing their second best starter were not evident immediately. An injury-depleted rotation carried by 2014 Cy Young winner and ace Corey Kluber and a top-notch bullpen spearheaded by Andrew Miller and Cody Allen gamely pitched the Indians to the doorsteps of what would have been the team’s first World Series championship since 1948. Of course, it was not to be as the Tribe lost Game 7 of the Fall Classic to the Cubs in extra innings.
What might have been with a healthy Carrasco, though, is the biggest unknown of all from last year’s postseason run. The Tribe was able to get through the ALDS against Boston and the ALCS against Toronto with little problem. However, the pitchers doing the heaviest of lifting were clearly tired by that final game against Chicago.
With Carrasco healthy and pitching in his spot after Kluber, the Cleveland ace probably would not have had to throw on three days rest three times in the playoffs, including twice in the World Series. Perhaps the bullpen does not get used nearly as much and Miller would have slammed the door on the Cubs in Game 7. We will never know how a healthy Carrasco would have changed Cleveland’s 2016 playoff fortunes.
The Indians are hoping to find out how he may affect their 2017 October slate. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, the Tribe is marching toward a second straight division crown. It is a near certainty Cleveland will be back in the ALDS the first week of October.
Kluber is again pitching at a Cy Young level, maybe even better than in 2014 when he won the hardware, or last year when he finished third for the top pitching prize. Trevor Bauer is a near lock to be in the postseason rotation, as he was a year ago until a self-inflicted pinky wound diminished him to cameo appearances in the ALCS and World Series.
Right now, Carrasco is healthy. The Indians are heading down the stretch, with all eyes on the postseason, with its excellent one-two starting rotation punch in tact.
Like Kluber, Carrasco is pitching better than ever of late. He is coming off of one of the best games of his career this past Wednesday. Thanks to a pair of double plays, Carrasco got to within one out of facing the minimum 27 batters against the White Sox. The 27th hitter he saw belted a home run, ending Carrasco’s shutout and bid to be the first Indians since Len Barker‘s 1981 perfect game to face the least amount of batters possible. Still, it was an amazing outing as he struck out nine batters for his first complete game of the year.
Cleveland’s second starter has turned in a number of gems of late. In his last three starts, he has allowed two earned runs in 23 innings. Only once in his last six starts has the pitcher known as “Cookie” surrendered more than one run. That was against a tough Red Sox batting order that seems to have his number this year. Overall, he is 14-6 with a 3.53 ERA. The win total matches his victories from 2015. That year, though, he had 12 losses to go with that. His ERA is not as good as the 3.32 he had before the injury of a season ago. However, he may be pitching better. Throw out a couple rough outings against Boston and Carrasco’s numbers would look a lot better.
Cookie is strkiing out 9.97 batters per nine innings with an opponents’ batting average of .231. Both are slight improvements from last year when he really started etching his name as a true No. 2 starter with ace-like potential.
For the 30-year-old, this is his third real full season of full-time starting duties for the Tribe. He was a full-time starter in 2011, but only pitched 21 games and was only so-so. Tommy John surgery held him out of the 2012 season entirely. He spent 2013 and 2014 bouncing between the rotation and bullpen, trying to find the stuff that made him a top prospect when Cleveland got him from the Phillies in the 2009 Cliff Lee trade deadline deal.
It was not until the final two months of 2014 that Carrasco finally started finding his groove as a starter. He has kept that groove ever since, becoming the perfect second pitcher to Kluber.
Last year, the Indians and their fans were really hoping to see what one of the better one-two starting pitcher combos in the big leagues could do in a five- and seven-game playoff series. Of course, the fluke line drive ended that dream.
The dream is alive this year. Baseball’s regular season ends three weeks from today. The Tribe is marching toward another slate of October games and a chance to make another run at that elusive World Series trophy. Fans were hoping to see their top two pitchers perform in the playoffs last year. Now they are salivating at the idea.
With Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer all pitching with their “A” games right now, the Indians are a hard team to beat – as testament to the 15-game wining streak they carried into this weekend’s series with the Baltimore Orioles, one that has grown another two games to a franchise-best 17 games before the series finale with the O’s on Sunday.
Last year, Kluber was the only one of the three truly left standing at the end of the playoff journey. At least Bauer started the trek with him. The Indians’ October hopes look so much brighter if Carrasco’s name appears on Cleveland’s ALDS roster rather than on the disabled list.
We will never know how a healthy Carrasco could have helped the Indians in their quest for a world title in 2016. Here’s to finding out what he will do to help end baseball’s longest championship drought in 2017.
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