Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 62

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 – 62 days

Nearly a year ago, Nick Wittgren’s baseball career took an unexpected turn when the Miami Marlins designated him for assignment after working each of the previous three seasons in regular duty in the team’s bullpen. On February 4, he was dealt to Cleveland for fellow pitcher Jordan Milbrath.

Wittgren was a young controllable right-handed reliever for the cost-conscious Marlins, but he lost his job in Miami when the club signed veteran infielder Neil Walker and needed a place on the 40-man roster. Wittgren had posted some good numbers over the course of 2018 in an up-and-down season that was marred some by a rough walk rate, a finger injury, and a flat low 90s fastball, but despite the mixed results, there was surprise by some that he was cut loose so close to the start of spring camp.

Wittgren did not make the Indians’ bullpen out of spring training, but with an option remaining, he was off to Triple-A Columbus to bide his time. He did not have to wait long, as after just two appearances for the Clippers, he was recalled and thrown into the Tribe’s bullpen.

While the bullpen has been a revolving door for most relievers with minor league options under Terry Francona’s leadership, Wittgren never packed his bags back up to head down I-71. In fact, he became an underrated component of Francona’s staff as he posted career numbers across the board in his late inning relief work.

Strong early returns from Wittgren earned him the trust of Francona. In his eight April games, he allowed a run over ten and one-third innings (0.87 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP). He allowed four earned runs in nine games in May, but he continued to keep the ball in the yard and the free passes to a minimum.

June proved to be Wittgren’s toughest battle. He struck out 13 in ten and one-third innings, but he gave up a season-high six runs while walking three and giving up a pair of homers. He gave up two more homers in July, but both were solo shots, but those accounted for half of his hits allowed in the month while he struggled more with base on balls. He got the walks back in check for August, but allowed three homers in eleven innings for the month, and September was more of the same as the walk and homer numbers were up again, but so too was his strikeout rate.

The 28-year-old ended the year with a 5-1 record, four saves, a 2.81 ERA, and a 1.08 WHIP in 55 games.

Much as in the previous season, Wittgren’s season was at times a bit of a roller coaster. While the results varied at times, he stepped up with big numbers in the second half as the Indians tried to keep their postseason dreams alive. In his 25 games of play in the second half, he posted a 2.22 ERA despite some elevated walk numbers. He fared better on the road than at home over the course of the season and he handled right-handers well, which will prove important for Francona with the new bullpen usage rules in effect for the 2020 season. He also took advantage of the first pitch strike, as he limited opposing hitters to a .185 average with 45 strikeouts in 122 such situations when getting ahead on the first pitch of an at bat. He performed nicely overall in the clutch, allowing just eight hits with runners in scoring position (in 45 plate appearances) and just four with two outs and runners in scoring position (a .154 average).

With a lot of turnover again this offseason in the bullpen (including Tyler Clippard, Nick Goody, Tyler Olson, and Dan Otero), Francona will be counting on Wittgren to serve as a reliable late inning option once again to set things up for All-Star closer Brad Hand. Wittgren agreed to a one-year, $1.125 million contract earlier in the month, avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility.

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The Cleveland Indians originally broke out the number 62 in the strike-shortened 1995 season when they signed free agent relief pitcher Jim Poole in mid-March. While he is easily the longest tenured and most successful Tribe player to sport the number, his claim to baseball immortality comes instead courtesy of one unfortunate pitch late in October in 1995. Indians fans can remember it well, because it ultimately spelled the end of the first postseason run by the club since 1954.

Poole – MLB photo file

Poole was one of two lefty options for manager Mike Hargrove out of his bullpen that season, teaming with southpaw Paul Assenmacher in the Tribe’s efforts to shut down left-handed hitters. He put together a good year for the club, going 3-3 with a 3.75 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP in 42 games (50 1/3 innings).

He appeared in the first postseason game of his career in the American League Division Series that season, entering Game 1 at Jacobs Field in the 11th inning while set to face two lefties (Mike Greenwell and Lee Tinsley) and the right-hander sandwiched in between them, Tim Naehring. The righty made Poole pay, homering to left to break a 3-3 tie. Albert Belle would knot it back up against Rick Aguilera to lead off the bottom of the 11th, getting Poole off of the hook, and Tony Pena would win it in the bottom of the 13th with his memorable and majestic blast to the bleachers.

Poole’s work in his second appearance, the fourth game of the American League Championship Series versus Seattle, was far less stressful despite his opposition. The Tribe was up 7-0 in the top of the eighth, and Poole retired Ken Griffey Jr. with a groundout before striking out Edgar Martinez and Tino Martinez.

Poole worked a perfect seventh in the 4-3 loss in Atlanta in Game 2 of the World Series, but would not have that same postseason success in Game 6 in a move that Hargrove probably still regrets to this day.

The Indians had forced a sixth game in the championship bout with a win two days earlier in the finale at Jacobs Field for the season. Dennis Martinez gave Cleveland four and two-thirds innings of scoreless baseball, but four hits and five walks had made it a difficult 82 pitches for the veteran right-hander. Poole was called upon by Grover in the fifth with runners on first and second and two outs for dangerous left-hander Fred McGriff.

Poole sat McGriff down swinging on three pitches.

In the top of the sixth, Poole’s spot in the lineup was set to bat second. The catcher and eight-hitter Pena singled to center to lead off the inning and Hargrove left Poole in to sacrifice the runner to second, despite having just one plate appearance (1990 – Double-A San Antonio) to that point on his stat sheet for his entire professional career. On the 0-2 pitch, he popped up his bunt attempt in foul territory to the first baseman. A fielder’s choice and a second pop out in foul territory ended the threat.

It would be the Tribe’s last.

Poole, having not been lifted in the top half of the inning, remained in to face the left-handed hitting David Justice and Ryan Klesko to lead off the home half of the sixth. Justice had hit .241 with more walks than strikeouts against southpaws in 1995, with seven of his 24 homers and 23 of his 78 RBI for the year coming against them. He saw a 1-1 pitch to his liking, and the rest was history as the ball exited the playing field and gave the Braves the only run that they would need. The tandem of Tom Glavine and Mark Wohlers limited the Indians to just the one Pena hit, and the series and season were over.

After his sacrifice gone wrong on the biggest stage of all, Poole would get eleven more plate appearances in his career. He went 1-for-8, with three sacrifices successfully completed, two strikeouts, and a double for his only MLB hit with the Giants in 1998.

Poole entered the pro ranks after his ninth round selection by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 draft, one year after the club picked him in the 34th round out of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Just two years and six days after signing with the club, he was already suited up for the Dodgers, making his debut on June 15, 1990, a memorable one by striking out the first and only batter that he would see on the night, San Diego Padres future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn.

Poole – Getty Images

His stay was not long in L.A., as he appeared in 16 games without a decision and was traded in the offseason to Texas with cash for a pair of minor leaguers. While his time with the Dodgers was short, his tenure with the Rangers was even shorter. After five games and his first Major League save, the Baltimore Orioles claimed him off waivers.

He had some ups and downs with the Orioles over the next few seasons, remaining in Maryland through the strike-shortened 1994 season while posting one of his better career seasons for the O’s in 1993.

The 1994 season treated him poorly before the strike, as he had a 6.64 ERA and a 2.12 WHIP through 38 games. Following the season, he became a free agent and joined the Indians in March, showing his previous year’s numbers were a fluke while serving to give Hargrove’s underrated bullpen much needed balance.

He was dealt by the Indians in early July of 1996 with cash to the San Francisco Giants for outfielder/first baseman Mark Carreon but after two seasons back on the west coast, he was released by the Giants on July 15, 1998, and re-signed with the Indians a week later. His numbers were not great over a dozen appearances, but he appeared in six games in the postseason, striking out two Red Sox in one inning of work over two games in the ALDS and striking out two more Yankees in one and one-third innings over four games in the ALCS loss.

In the offseason, he signed with the Phillies, but was released late in August of 1999 and once again returned to the Indians days later. He started the 2000 season with the Detroit Tigers and moved on to the Montreal Expos in May before re-signing a fourth and final time with the Indians after his release in June. He did not appear at the big league level, however, as he made just ten appearances at Triple-A Buffalo to conclude his professional career.

Poole has not left the game of baseball in the rearview mirror after his playing career came to a close in 2000. He spent time working as an instructor with Grand Slam Sports Center in Johns Creek, Georgia, and also served as an assistant varsity baseball coach/pitching coach for the charter Johns Creek High School Gladiators. Three of his former pitchers (Brandon Gold, Colorado; Matthew Gorst, Boston; and Connor Jones, New York Yankees) were selected out of college in the 2016 draft, with two being drafted from his alma mater. Reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 3, 2016, indicated that he was also an advisor on the MLB pension committee and that, away from the game, he worked for Buckhead Investment Partners.

Others to wear #62 in Tribe history:

Cameron Cairncross (2000)
Greg LaRocca (2002-2003)
Bob Howry (2004)
Trevor Crowe (2009)
Jose Ramirez (2013)
Tyler Holt (2014)
Joba Chamberlain (2016)
Adam Plutko (2016)

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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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)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 67 (Aaron Civale, others)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 66 (Yasiel Puig, others)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 65 (Zach Plesac, others)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 64 (Tom Kramer, others)
Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 63 (Josh Smith, others)

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