Where, oh where, have the Cleveland Indians gone?
I’ll tell you where. To the very bottom of the American League playoff bracket. Oh, and by the way, things won’t get any easier for the Tribe this week when they face off with National League Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish on Tuesday and tough left-hander Jon Lester on Wednesday in a pair of games against one of the leading squads in the Senior Circuit in the Chicago Cubs.
It’s been a bad week for the Tribe, without a doubt. Defense faltered early in the week, the offense sputtered (but this isn’t necessarily a new thing this season), and the pitching staff made the weekend set with Minnesota look more like a special Twins edition of Home Run Derby. They did their part to waken the “Bomba Squad”.
Once upon a time…well, less than two months ago…the Indians looked to be a top contender in the AL. Poised for a potential run for the division crown in a season that has diminished the importance of that achievement some, the Indians have hung around the top of the Central and even sat in the driver’s seat for awhile, but this week’s fishtail has moved the club to the back seat, at least in regards to the playoffs. With 13 games to play, the Tribe is three and a half in back of Minnesota and four and a half behind the front-running Chicago White Sox. The Sox’s recent surge on the field now has them as the AL’s top seed, if the playoffs were to begin today.
The White Sox and Twins will pair up for four this week, which may or may not help the Indians. Cleveland does get to play four with Chicago from Progressive Field next week in what may very well be a make-or-break kind of series when it comes to the division crown (not that that matters much in the overall scheme of things this season). It would, however, be most beneficial for the Tribe to finish in one of the top two spots in the AL Central, as those are the only guaranteed postseason tickets in each division.
As it stands, the Indians are tied with the New York Yankees in the overall AL standings and both teams would serve as the wild card clubs (seventh and eighth seeds) in the expanded eight-team format this season. Houston, which enters the day 23-24 and in second place in the disgusting mess known as the AL West, would slot in higher than both clubs due to the top two teams in each division getting automatic bids in. If the Indians can’t track down Chicago, Minnesota, or both, they stand a realistic chance of having to compete against one of the two best teams in the league in a three-game short set in the first round.
The Indians still have to get there. It seemed a forgone conclusion that Cleveland would be one of the 16 teams represented across the country, but the untimely six-game losing skid the team is currently marred in has made nothing a certainty. The Indians do benefit from having a four and a half game lead over the Seattle Mariners for the last wild card spot, at least.
When the season started and Tribe pitching was shutting down the opposition in an impressive string of quality starts, the talk was that the dominant arms on the staff could make the Clevelanders a difficult matchup for just about anyone come the postseason. But as this season has progressed and proven, it has become much more apparent that the Tribe’s real concerns would be tied to the offense’s inability to consistently put up runs, even just a few. The starting rotation looked to have a lot of potential on paper (and may have exceeded expectations) and the real questions were more focused on how the back few spots would perform. The batting order, and in particular those names on the lineup card in the outfield, was far more disconcerting with a lack of consistent offensive threats present at positions typically known for that. The offense has been so woeful, in fact, that falling behind just a few runs feels like an insurmountable, Grand Canyon-sized hole out of which to climb.
As a whole, the Indians are 18-2 when giving up two runs or less and 23-9 when the pitching allows three runs or less, but just 3-12 when the opposition scores four or more times. Meanwhile, the offense is averaging just a tick over four runs per game for the year (3.83 for September’s 12 games), but in almost half of the team’s contests, they have scored three runs or less while going 6-16. When the offense shows up and reaches that four-run benchmark or better, the Indians are 20-5 (two of those losses came this weekend against the Twins and a third in the last week in their game against the Kansas City Royals that started the Tribe’s current six-game badly-timed bender).
The pitching staff has, at least for much of the season, kept the ball in the yard and minimized scoring against it. The offense has been as inconsistent as it comes and September has been no different. After scoring 15 runs in the first two games of the month, the team has scored 31 over the last ten. The Tribe is, not surprisingly, 3-7 in that stretch.
The overall season numbers have not been kind to most members of the lineup, but there are numerous faces struggling over the last week as the Indians continued their fall in the standings.
Josh Naylor had two singles and two walks last week (.111 average) as the Royals and Twins worked him with offspeed stuff. Roberto Perez remains lost, with two hits in 15 plate appearances (.143). That effort includes seven strikeouts while seeing a diet of breaking balls and leaving his bat unused more than any other player in the lineup (with a team-low 19.7% swing percentage in that span of games). Tyler Naquin is hitting .158 in the last seven games (3-for-19) with seven strikeouts while seeing a team-high 79% of his pitches as fastballs as the division-wide memo circulates. Oscar Mercado doubled his September hit total in the last week with two in five games, giving him four for the month and nine for the season in 27 games. Franmil Reyes has four hits and three walks in his last 29 plate appearances with just one RBI and ten strikeouts. He saw one of the highest percentages of sliders on the roster over the week, which is hardly a surprise for those watching pitchers work him low and out of the zone frequently with the chase pitch.
Even the guys who have tallied more than a few hits have not produced in bulk. Francisco Lindor and Cesar Hernandez lead the team with seven hits each in the last seven games while swapping spots in the batting order. Lindor has scored four times and driven in three, while Hernandez has a pair of doubles and three runs scored. Carlos Santana has six hits and four walks in that span (.250 average, .379 on-base percentage) with four runs scored and four runs knocked in. Jose Ramirez has hit for a good average in those games (.353), but he missed a pair and didn’t complete two others while dealing with a left thumb bruise.
It would seem to be a good thing that the Indians have two more weeks to try to find their ways at the dish. The Tribe has six road games left with the Cubs and the Detroit Tigers, with the latter four games at Comerica Park a better opportunity for the Indians to get the bats going (Cleveland has averaged six runs a game against Detroit this year). The team returns home next Monday for its season-closing seven-game homestand against the White Sox (four games) and Pittsburgh Pirates (three games), which could drastically affect the Indians’ seeding in the playoff bracket.
It’s time for the Tribe to tighten things up and find a good groove at the plate now, or their opportunity to play meaningful baseball in October in this crazy pandemic-shortened season may be very short-lived.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images