The Cleveland Indians’ postseason dreams may have come to a crashing halt with the nightmare scenario of losing slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the first inning of Game 2 in the American League Division Series, one lost in five games to the New York Yankees.
They may have also started much sooner than that, despite the club winning the first two games of the ALDS.
While Encarnacion was a non-factor in the playoffs for the Tribe, one cannot put a value on the impact of his presence in the Indians lineup and the detrimental effect that his absence had on those who remained a part of the starting nine over the next three games that followed.
The loss of Encarnacion came on a bizarre play at second base with one out in the bottom of the first inning against the Yankees and former friend of the feather, CC Sabathia. The Indians had already plated a pair of runs after Encarnacion was hit by a pitch to load the bases. A single to left by Carlos Santana scored a pair to tie the game at two. Jay Bruce lined to short, where Didi Gregorius made the catch and was just late getting back to the bag to tag out Encarnacion, but as the big DH lunged back to the bag, he rolled over his ankle and came off of the base. He would leave the field with a sprained right ankle as part of an insult-to-injury double play and would be gone until Game 5 of the series.
From the time that Encarnacion left the lineup until the time that he returned, some of the most important Indians hitters were missing in action, although the club was able to will itself to a win in Game 2 in dramatic 13-inning fashion.
Most notable were the offensive weapons around Encarnacion’s spot in the heart of the order. Three-hitter Jose Ramirez went 1-for-13 in that span with a single and an uncharacteristic six strikeouts without Encarnacion’s protection behind him. Bruce went 2-for-12 with a single, a game-tying homer in Game 2, a walk, and five strikeouts, hitting cleanup in Game 3 and Game 4. Santana was 2-for-11 with two walks and a strikeout. Francisco Lindor, after hitting a grand slam to bring the Indians back into their Game 2 win, was a combined 1-for-11 with two walks (one intentional) and a pair of strikeouts.
The offensive drought hit before Encarnacion’s untimely departure, however. The Indians, as a team in Game 1, went 5-for-27 (.185), with Bruce doing the heaviest lifting with a double, a homer, and three RBI in the 4-0 win.
The loss of Encarnacion hurt, but it was a series of losses during the season that shuffled things up too much for the Tribe.
The Encarnacion injury forced Michael Brantley into the lineup. Filling in for the injured right-handed hitter, Brantley went 1-for-11 with a single, a walk, and four strikeouts. He had been on the shelf for seven weeks, dating back to August 8, while dealing with an ankle injury (that has since required surgery on Wednesday to address ligament issues). He returned for three plate appearances over the final two games of the regular season, getting a single in his first AB back, and slipped onto the playoff roster over the injured Brandon Guyer, healthy (but unproductive) switch-hitter Abraham Almonte, and Tyler Naquin as outfield options, or Yandy Diaz as a viable bat but inconsistent defender as infield depth.
The problems go back even deeper than the Brantley in-season loss, however.
Jason Kipnis started the season on the disabled list and returned twice more throughout the year (missing nearly a month starting with the second week of July into the first week of August and again just two weeks after his return). He did perform well after his activation in mid-September (after striking out in three of his first five plate appearances), but he was a man without a position.
A week before he returned from the disabled list, Bradley Zimmer was stepped on in an awkward play at first base on Sunday Night Baseball against the Baltimore Orioles on September 10. Attempting a head first slide into first base, which already comes with its own implicit risks, Zimmer appeared to face plant hard and was stepped on by the big hoof of first baseman Chris Davis, ending his rookie season at 101 games logged. Surgery was needed on his broken hand.
At the time of Zimmer’s injury, the Indians were down a former All-Star second baseman (Kipnis), an All-Star left fielder (Brantley), and a defensive highlight reel in center (Zimmer), leaving just the newly acquired Bruce, a member of the Cleveland lineup since August 10, as the lone reliable source of production on the roster in the outfield. Lonnie Chisenhall was back, rejoining the roster on September 1 after nearly two months on the disabled list, but he too would join the list of the walking wounded in just two short weeks with what would have been his fourth DL trip of the season, had the rosters not expanded (therefore eliminating the need to place him among the inactive).
Almonte, like Chisenhall, had just returned from the disabled list at the beginning of September, but a down year at the plate made his value drop. Guyer’s value had already taken a hit with a tough season of his own, but a second wrist injury of the season in the middle of September left him unable to contribute to the club. He went under the knife himself earlier this month.
Austin Jackson had put together a good season, but had dealt with missing 25 days in May and a month of action midseason. He would see left and center field plenty down the stretch, but the slew of injuries forced the infield to shuffle about. Ramirez, in the midst of putting up MVP-caliber numbers from the hot corner, scooted over to second base. Offensive liability Giovanny Urshela and defensive liability Diaz worked in tandem to plug the hole at third.
While logic would have dictated that Ramirez move back to third base when the unproductive Kipnis returned to health to reclaim his spot at second base, the lack of viable outfield options present left Terry Francona to turn to the old college outfielder Kipnis for a quick in-season conversion to center fielder. Urshela and Diaz were contributing in the lineup and in the field at third, but Kipnis had shown in the past to be a player deserving of a lineup spot.
Unfortunately, the 14-man offensive unit could not contribute in the postseason in a manner similar to the incredible 22-game run from August 24 to September 14, when the Indians established new franchise, American League, and modern day records for consecutive wins in a season.
The catching tandem of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez combined to hit .313 (5-for-16) with three walks, a double, a homer, and three RBI. Bruce hit .278 with a double, two homers, and four RBI. Santana made up for a .211 average with a .318 on-base percentage and was tied for the team lead in RBI in the series with four (joining Bruce and Lindor).
Everything dropped off from there.
Thrust into regular playing time, Jackson hit .214 with six strikeouts. Kipnis, working in center, hit .182 with eight strikeouts. Urshela, not known for his stick, was 2-for-12 (.167) in five games. Brantley, pushed prematurely into regular action, was 1-for-11 with a walk and four strikeouts. Bruce also struck out eight times around his other production.
The up-the-middle tandem of Lindor and Ramirez were kept well in check. Lindor had two hits in 18 at bats, drawing four walks and striking out six times. The hard-to-strike-out Ramirez was 2-for-20 and was cut down on strikes seven times.
How would a healthy outfield of Brantley, Zimmer, and Bruce, with Jackson and Chisenhall serving as backups, fared over the patched together trio used in starting roles? Would the infield have been better served with Kipnis at second (instead of forced into duty in center) and Ramirez back at third, with Urshela serving as a utility man instead of nearly guaranteeing little heat from the hot corner?
All of these offensive injury issues do not even begin to address the issues on the mound that affected the likes of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Boone Logan, and Andrew Miller throughout the latter portion of the campaign.
One can only wonder, but in the end, it does not matter. After 102 regular season wins and a pair in the postseason, the second-winningest squad in franchise history fell well short of its expectations and its goals, just as was the case with the other two teams to reach the century mark in 117 years of American League baseball in Cleveland.
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