As he takes the mound Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, Cleveland Indians starter Carlos Carrasco is sure to hear plenty of boos from what can be raucous and loud crowd for visiting teams to deal with. This New York crowd is sure to be extra amped up for their home team, returning from the first two games at Progressive Field, with the Tribe holding a commanding 2-0 series lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series. Those Yankees fans will not want to see Carrasco pitch like an ace, as he has done so many times over the past few seasons.
All of that will be perfectly fine to Carrasco. He will be simply happy to be pitching in a playoff game Sunday after an excruciatingly long wait. One of the longer-tenured and certainly talented Indians players, Carrasco had to sit idly by while his teammates enjoyed the breakthrough success of winning and A.L. championship in 2016.
Last September, the Indians were humming along, well on their way to winning the American League Central Division championship and well on their way to the playoffs. Cy Young winner in 2014, Corey Kluber, and Carrasco were primed to form a formidable one-two postseason punch that would be hard for any team to topple. Then, disasaster struck for the Tribe’s No. 2 starter.
Cookie, as Carrasco’s teammates call him, was on the mound to take on the Detroit Tigers on September 17. On his second pitch of the game, Ian Kinsler smoked a line drive right at Carrasco that stuck his pitching hand, causing a fracture that would end his season. In a matter of moments, Carrasco and the Indians went from flying high to being in a rough spot with the playoffs a mere two weeks away.
We all know the story by now. Even with three of their five regular starters ailing by the start of the American League Championship Series, the Indians went on to face the Chicago Cubs in what turned out to be a classic seven-game World Series. The Tribe, even without Carrasco, was one run away from its first world championship since 1948.
Questions will always be raised about how things would have turned out last year had Carrasco been healthy and able to take his turn in the rotation behind Kluber, who basically carried the starting rotation through last October. The answer to that will never be known.
What we will find out, starting Sunday night, is how the Tribe’s fortunes will turn out this season with Carrasco following Kluber in the playoff rotation.
One would expect that Cookie will do well. He’s been amazing all year long. He had a career-high 18 wins against just six losses. His 3.29 ERA was his lowest for a season in which he started more games than he pitched in relief. It barely topped his strong 3.32 ERA of a season ago.
Over the last three seasons, Carrasco has really come into his own and found his groove. From 2009 through the first half of 2014, Carrasco battled himself sometimes more than opposing hitters. Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2012 season and threatened to derail a once promising career as he was largely ineffective in 2013 and the first half of 2014. Then, something clicked. He started pitching well over the final months of 2014, aided by a bullpen stint that seemed to get him on track.
From 2015-2017, Carrasco has gone 43-26 with a 3.42 ERA. He has been easily Cleveland’s second best starter in that time, behind Kluber. The Indians and their fans have had the chance to witness how great he can be. Now, he gets to show it on a national stage.
Carrasco has pitched at an All-Star level the last couple of seasons, but has fallen short of selection to the All-Star Game thanks, largely, to a pitching-rich American League and a shift to have more relievers on the ASG roster.
Last October should have been his chance to shine and break out. He was robbed of that opportunity and the Indians and the Tribe faithful were deprived of the chance to see how their team could fare with their two-headed pitching aces going back-to-back.
It is a whole new tone this year. Kluber is still the unquestioned ace of the rotation and a favorite to take home his second Cy Young award this season. However, 2011 third overall draft pick Trevor Bauer appears to finally be taking his step toward becoming an elite pitcher. He had a superb second half of this season and shut down the Yankees in Game 1 of this ALDS.
Carrasco is now third in the playoff rotation instead of the clear-cut second option that he was even as of this past August 1. The Indians appear to be rolling with a three-pronged ace-like pitching machine instead of two. Certainly, this is a far better position for the team now than last year’s postseason patchwork starting pitching staff.
Carrasco is still just as important as ever. The Tribe needs its star pitcher to shine on a grand stage. He has a good shot to do that Sunday night. There will certainly be nerves in pitching his first playoff game and being in enemy territory. However, if anyone can handle that, it is Carrasco. Part of the reason that he is pitching third in rotational order is his dominance away from Progressive Field. On the road, Carrasco toted a sterling 11-2 record with a 2.65 ERA. His road numbers are truly elite.
Pitching to boos rather than cheers has not fazed Carrasco, in the least. Cookie has not crumbled on the road. He may have crumbled on the pitching mound in a mid-September contest a season ago. Now, he is whole again and pitching at his best at the best possible time. The time is now for the Indians to try and erase 69 years of seasons ending without a Commissioner’s Trophy and the time is now for Carrasco to erase the frustration that was last October and finally take his place on a postseason pitching mound. He is one more good road start away Sunday in New York from pitching his team into a second consecutive ALCS.
Popping some more champagne would be quite the way to celebrate a playoff debut.
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