Major League Baseball will kick off the 2019 season with its earliest start ever (excluding international openers) as all 30 teams will take the field on March 28. Follow along with Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down the days until Opening Day 2019. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 39 days
Where would the Indians’ bullpen have been in 2018 if not for the mid-year acquisition of left-handed reliever Oliver Perez?
Scooped up at the beginning of June as a free agent after being released from his minor league contract with the New York Yankees, the 35-year-old Perez flourished in Cleveland with one of his better seasons on the mound since becoming a full-time reliever. Despite missing the first two months of the big league schedule while working with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders at the Triple-A level, Perez put up impressive numbers of all sorts during his 16th season on a Major League mound while donning the number 39 for the first time in the Bigs.
Used in a variety of roles but primarily as a LOOGY, Perez opened his Indians career with six straight scoreless appearances before allowing a run in an unusual situation in the second inning of a game against Minnesota after Carlos Carrasco was injured on a comebacker from the Twins’ Joe Mauer. Perez made up for the one run allowed over the next month, as from June 17 to July 20, he allowed just one hit and two walks in eight and two-thirds scoreless innings over 15 outings.
Perez’s scoreless streak came to an end on July 22, when he surrendered his only home run of the year to Texas’ Rougned Odor, and two weeks later he allowed his last earned run for a while, giving up one to the Los Angeles Angels on August 3 in his only loss of the season. Following that outing, Perez put on a show on the mound as the Indians prepared for their postseason run. He made 21 appearances from August 6 to September 22, allowing one unearned run on six hits with four walks and 24 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings, earning seven holds and a win in the process. Perez’s second-to-last outing in the regular season resulted in a season high two earned runs allowed to the Chicago White Sox in a blowout in the only significant blemish on his stat sheet for 2018.
For the year, Perez allowed runs in just five contests and earned runs in four of his 51 total appearances. He ended the season with a stellar 1.39 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP to go with a 1-1 record and 15 holds (matching his previous career high set in 2014 and equaled in 2016). He struck out 43 batters in 32 1/3 innings and walked just seven (three of which were intentionally). He held the opposition to a .155 average and limited them to just three extra base hits in 120 plate appearances. In high leverage situations, he shut opposing hitters down with a .115/.172/.115 slash. Just 9% of runners that he inherited on the year came around to score (four out of 43). While he was tough on left-handers (striking out 22 and walking one with a .194 average against), he was able to limit right-handers as well (striking out 21 with six walks and a .104 average against), making him far more valuable than the typical left-handed one out guy. He rode a heavy diet of sliders (using the pitch at the highest percentage of his career) and offset the pitch with a sinking fastball. The mix proved to be difficult for opposing hitters to distinguish from one another, and Perez’s end-of-the-year stats reflected it.
Perez stabilized a bullpen that was anything but when he joined the Indians midseason during a point of desperation for the team, looking to find any ways to counter the free agent loss of Bryan Shaw, the injury to Andrew Miller, and the ineffectiveness of Cody Allen, among other concerns. His value to the bullpen a year ago was made all the more obvious when he became the Tribe’s most significant offseason signing this winter, re-upping with the club in January on a one-year, $2.5 million contract with a vesting option of $2.75 million or $3 million for the 2020 campaign (based on number of appearances this coming season).
With the losses of Allen and Miller this winter, Perez will be looked upon heavily by manager Terry Francona as one of several important arms counted on to get the ball into the hands of All-Star closer Brad Hand on a nightly basis.
The Indians have had plenty of representation on the field in the number 39 during the Jacobs Field and Progressive Field era of their club, but the best years by players in the digits came during some very down and lean years in Tribe history.
Gary Bell joined the Indians as an amateur free agent ahead of the 1955 season. By June of 1958, he was in the middle of the diamond, just 21 years old. Bell put together a solid rookie season, earning 12 wins with a 3.31 ERA. He appeared in 33 games, starting 23 of them, and threw ten complete games on the way to a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He won 16 games the next season and was an All-Star for the Tribe in 1960, but after a 12-16 season in 1961, his role with the club shifted. With a crowded starting rotation featuring Dick Donovan, Pedro Ramos, Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, Barry Latman, and young phenom Sam McDowell, Bell worked instead late in games more often than not, closing out 37 games and earning 12 saves and ten wins. He remained almost exclusively in the bullpen through the 1965 season before he jumped back into the rotation in 1966, putting up a solid 14-15 season in 40 games (37 starts). He threw 12 complete games with a 3.22 ERA and was back participating in the Midsummer Classic for the second time in his career.
Joe Adcock took over the club for 1967 and saw the bulk of the rotation return (Bell, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Luis Tiant, and McDowell). Bell, the longest tenured player on the Tribe, made three starts in April and five for the club in May with mixed results. After a rough showing on June 3 against Boston, he was traded to the same Red Sox two days later for young first baseman Tony Horton and Don Demeter. It brought an end to three years of speculation that Bell would be on the move, as his name was a frequent one in trade rumors.
“I kind of guessed I’d be traded – everybody did – and I’ve been guessing for three or four years,” said the veteran Bell in The Plain Dealer on June 5, 1967. “But when it happened, I’ve got to admit I was a little shocked.”
“Bell was the guy they always wanted,” Tribe general manager Gabe Paul in the same edition. Boston pursued Bell during the winter meetings and had tried to get Tiant the previous season. “We talked about him and Horton in Boston two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until now that Demeter came into the discussions.
“Dick O’Connell [vice president of the Red Sox] came to town unexpectedly Saturday and we talked during the game. Then we sat down this morning [Sunday] and decided upon the deal before the game.”
Bell jokingly added after the move, “I just hope the Indians continue to hit against me the way they hit for me.”
The new location did Bell some good, as he went 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 29 games for Boston and returned to the All-Star Game for the third and final time of his career in 1968. He was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft following the ’68 season and was traded to the Chicago White Sox midway through the 1969 campaign in what would be the final games of his 12-year big league career.
The number made occasional appearances on the mound for the Indians over the next dozen years on the backs of five different hurlers before the team acquired Len Barker in a trade with the Texas Rangers.
Barker was a third round pick by the Rangers in the 1973 draft, but following the 1978 season, he was traded with outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Indians for infielder Larvell Blanks and reliever Jim Kern.
After working almost exclusively as a reliever in his first three MLB seasons with the Rangers, Barker finally got a chance to start regularly with the Tribe. After going 6-6 in his first season with the club in 1979, he put up an impressive 19-12 campaign with a 4.17 ERA while doubling his previous career-best for strikeouts in a season with 187. Working solely as a starter, he led the American League in strikeouts, but also was the league leader in wild pitches.
The next season was a memorable one for the right-hander, despite the strike that cut short the season. He went 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA and was selected to the AL’s All-Star team, but the highlight of his season was on May 15, when he threw just the second perfect game in franchise history (ending a more than 70-year drought dating back to Addie Joss’ perfecto on October 2, 1908) in defeating the Toronto Blue Jays.
The perfect game and no-hitter remain the last ones thrown by an Indians pitcher to date.
Barker was 15-11 the next season with a career-high ten complete games. But after a tough 8-13 start with a 5.11 ERA in 24 games the following season, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves with cash for three players to be named later – Rick Behenna, Brett Butler, and Brook Jacoby – in a move that would help the Indians for much of the rest of the 1980s.
Barker would spend parts of three seasons in Atlanta before signing with the Montreal Expos in 1986, but he missed the season with injury. He returned briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, going 2-1 in eleven starts, missing much of the year again with injuries before ending his career.
Gio Urshela had been the most recent 39 in Indians history prior to Perez, wearing the number in 2015 and 2017 for the Tribe before he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays last May for future cash or player considerations.
The door at third base had been wide open for the taking, but Urshela’s strong glove work and arm were not enough to make up for a lacking bat, causing the young corner man to spend more time suiting up for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers than for the Indians. Putting more pressure on Urshela was his teammate from the state capital, Yandy Diaz, who was lurking in the shadows waiting for his own shot. Instead, Urshela moved north of the border to Toronto and later was purchased in August by the New York Yankees, while Diaz was dealt this offseason by Cleveland to another AL East club, the Tampa Bay Rays.
In 148 games split between the 2015 and 2017 seasons, Urshela slashed .225/.273/.314 with 15 doubles, one triple, seven homers, and 36 RBI. He made 19 appearances for the Blue Jays in 2018, putting together a .233/.283/.326 line with a double, a homer, and three RBI while helping the club out at third base and shortstop.
Photo: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire (via Getty Images)
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