Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 67
The Indians had some surprise (and needed) contributions in 2019 and one of those was the team’s one-time wearer of the number 67 (as well as the 66), Aaron Civale.
Civale, 24, found himself on the fast track to the Major Leagues as the Indians organization wasted little time progressing him through the farm system. Drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Northeastern University, he signed quickly enough to log 13 starts for Cleveland’s short-season affiliate in Mahoning Valley that summer and posted encouraging results overall (including a 1.67 ERA, a 0.82 WHIP, and a 1.9 BB/9 rate in 37 2/3 innings of work).
He split the 2017 season between the A-ball levels, opening the year at Class-A Lake County. Through ten starts there, he was just 2-4 with a 4.58 ERA, but he showed even better results in the strikeout and walk rate than the year before and was on the move to High-A Lynchburg. There, he was a dangerous weapon for the Hillcats, winning eleven times in 17 starts while posting a 2.59 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. He followed it up with 21 starts for Double-A Akron in 2018, posting a modest 5-7 line with a 3.89 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. He maintained good command of the baseball while working at his toughest level to date.
To most on the outside, Civale was not on the radar for the Indians for the 2019 season. He was not on the 40-man roster (nor did the Indians have a real reason to do so with him two levels down in the minors) and had logged just a season of work at Double-A. With a loaded starting rotation and presumably plenty of options already in place at Triple-A Columbus, Civale actually opened the year in Arizona, rehabbing a lat injury suffered late in the previous season, but he was healthy enough to rejoin the RubberDucks during the second week of May. He won four of his first five starts, allowing two runs or less in each contest with four straight quality outings, and continued to present strong numbers in terms of overall command and success. After a season-high ten strikeouts against Erie on June 2, he was on the move to Columbus.
In the meantime, the Indians starting rotation had been stalked by the injury bug. Mike Clevinger was out after two starts and would not return until midseason. Corey Kluber was struck by a line drive to open May and missed the rest of the season with a fractured right pitching arm (and later a lat strain). First man up Jefry Rodriguez sprained his shoulder, thinning the ranks back out, and Carlos Carrasco took a turn of his own on the injured list with what was ultimately announced as a battle with leukemia. For a stretch, the Indians rotation far more resembled that of the Clippers, with Cody Anderson, Adam Plutko, and Zach Plesac all up to help before the end of May.
Civale’s turn came in June when Clevinger returned to the injured list just days after being activated when he sprained his left ankle. With just two career starts under his belt at the Triple-A level, he made a gem of a spot start, blanking the Detroit Tigers in six quality shutout innings to earn his sixth straight win and his first at the big league level. He was sent back to the minors after his impressive debut, but he was back in the rotation for good in early August after the trade of Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds in part of the Indians’ roster shakeup at the deadline. He took losses in three of his first four games back, but the first three of those games were quality efforts against Texas, Minnesota, and the New York Yankees. He came up just one out short against the New York Mets of opening his career with five straight quality starts. He got back into the win column on August 28, knocking off the Tigers for the second time behind a seven-inning effort, and he defeated the Chicago White Sox on September 2 for his third win of the season. His roughest start was his last, when he gave up four runs on three hits with three walks and a pair of homers in three and one-third innings in a loss to the White Sox on September 26, ending a streak of nine straight games with two earned runs allowed or less to open his big league career.
His dazzling season marks included a 10-5 record for the year and a 3-4 record with the Tribe. He sported a sharp 2.34 ERA (that jumped from 1.82 in his final outing) with the Indians and a 2.35 mark in 13 games in the minors. He maintained comparable WHIPs, with a 1.09 rate in the minors and a 1.04 number in MLB. His walk rate in the Majors was a bit higher than normal, which could come down to some rookie jitters or just being inexperienced against higher quality and more patient hitters.
It is tough to know what the future may hold for Civale after just 84 pro starts over the last four years, but it appears as though he will get his shot in the rotation with Cleveland, especially with another vacancy created with the offseason trade of Kluber to the Texas Rangers. Now, he will likely pair with Shane Bieber, Carrasco, Clevinger, and Plesac, unless for surprising efforts in the spring by the likes of Plutko or Rodriguez. His numbers, at the least, merit future consideration and if the first showing was any indication, Cleveland may have drafted and developed yet another dynamic starting rotation arm in an already incredible run of pitching dominance on the north shore.
If Civale gets to do that in 2020 for the Tribe, he will do it in his new number 43.
Prior to Civale, the number 67 had seen an extremely limited body of work in Cleveland, with all of it coming on the back of reliever Chris Nichting in 2000. Nichting’s time in Cleveland was so short, finding a picture of him in an Indians uniform has proven to be an impossible task.
When he appeared for the Indians on the mound in September of 2000, he was the first to do so for the Indians in the number, but he was not the first with strong ties to Cleveland to wear it on the biggest stage. It had been worn by more than a dozen different players before the 2000 season began, including former Indians two-time All-Star pitcher Jim Kern while with the Chicago White Sox for parts of two seasons and former New York Yankees pitcher Dale Mohorcic (a Cleveland native). St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Gene Stechschulte (a Lima, Ohio, native drafted out of Ashland University) put the number on prior to Nichting during that 2000 campaign.
Nichting was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the third round of the 1987 draft out of Northwestern after growing up in Cincinnati. After many seasons on their farm, including two missed seasons in 1990 and 1991 due to injury, the right-handed starter became a free agent following the 1994 season and signed with the Texas Rangers while considered for a role as a reliever. He debuted with the club in the Majors in May of 1995 and played in 13 games, posting a 7.03 ERA and 2.01 WHIP to go with no decisions.
He bounced around some after that. He spent 1997 in Oakland’s farm system and 1998 with Cleveland’s. He joined the New York Yankees for the 1999 campaign and worked in the minors primarily as a starter before re-signing with the Indians. He got a September call to the Majors in 2000, working in seven games with no decisions, a 7.00 ERA, and a 2.00 WHIP. He was 2-3 with a 4.23 ERA in 47 games at Triple-A for the Bisons, working extensively as a closer, and he established a Buffalo franchise record by converting 26 of 27 save chances that season.
When he was used by the Tribe in the 2000 season, he was the 31st different pitcher to take the mound for the team that season, which extended their then-Major League record. Indians manager Charlie Manuel, always known for his way with words, noted in an Associated Press story on September 3, 2000, “My bullpen needs to relax and have some fun. Some of them might be getting a little tight. I don’t think they’re tired.”
A free agent again after the season, he joined the Cincinnati Reds, where he had his most success and longest stay at the MLB level. He earned his first MLB save in 2001 while going 0-3 with a 4.46 ERA for the Reds and splitting time at Triple-A Louisville. He was let go towards the tail end of the 2001 season and signed with the Colorado Rockies, pitching in seven games in 2001 and another 29 in 2002 for the parent club while spending half of the latter season in the minors at Triple-A Colorado Springs. They were the last of his professional appearances.
In addition to his time in the professional game and his claim as the first 67 in Indians history, Nichting can also boast about his hardware from his time in Triple-A.
“I’ve got five Triple-A championship rings,” he was quoted in the book The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds by Joe and Jack Heffron, “but nobody dreams of being Crash Davis.”
Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
Miss out on our other Countdown pieces? Check out more Indians history below!
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 99 (Daniel Robertson)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 90 (Adam Cimber)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 88 (Phil Maton)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 77 (Jack Armstrong)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 76 (Tom Magrann)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 75 (Mike Walker)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 73 (Ricardo Rincon)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 72 (Jason Giambi)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 71 (Johnny Hodapp)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 70 (James Karinchak, George Kontos)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 69 (Luis Medina)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 68 (Jefry Rodriguez, others)