'Stronger' Cookie in command, but bats quiet

September 10th, 2020

If they reach the postseason, no matter their final American League Central standing or playoff seed, the Indians will be an especially rotation-oriented ballclub.

Oh, sure, the offense might improve between now and then. But as demonstrated yet again in a 3-0 loss to the Royals on Wednesday night at Progressive Field -- the fourth time this club has been shut out and the 19th (out of 43 games) in which it was held to two runs or fewer -- to pine for a major awakening in that area is hope absent evidence.

It's the rotation, the rotation, the rotation. That’s what will take this Cleveland club as far as it will go. And if one were looking for a positive in this second straight loss to the last-place Royals -- a loss that, incidentally sunk the Indians to second place in the Central, a game behind the White Sox -- a big positive was standing there on the home mound in the form of .

Carrasco’s offense let him down. His defense let him down. He was saddled with his fourth loss in six decisions. But the true takeaway was that the upper-echelon “Cookie” of old -- the one temporarily sidelined by last season’s leukemia bout and this year’s three-start midseason morass -- is back:

Seven innings, one run, seven hits, no walks, six strikeouts.

“I’ve been working so hard,” he said afterward. “I’ve been doing everything I can to push myself till the end.”

When Carrasco gave up 10 runs across 12 innings in three starts from Aug. 12-23, it became fair to wonder if a Tribe team overloaded with rotation arms might return him to the bullpen, where he made his return from illness late last year.

Turns out, the team took an entirely different tack, trading away Mike Clevinger in a blockbuster Deadline deal that netted the organization abundant surplus value, but perhaps not much -- if any -- present-day boost for the bats.

That deal, combined with the 2019 trades of Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, leaves the 33-year-old Carrasco as the only thing resembling an elder statesman in this starting five. Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie have a combined 667 Major League innings to their names, or a bit more than half of Carrasco’s 1,223 1/3 career frames. And while Bieber’s status as the nonpareil of ‘20 starters makes him the sure centerpiece of the Tribe’s October hopes, Carrasco’s stuff and sophistication will be mighty important, too.

Having learned from that rough three-start stretch, Carrasco -- who has allowed just two earned runs in 19 innings in his past three outings -- is trusting that stuff more now.

“More command of the fastball, better command when he’s behind in the count,” temporary manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “He’s not picking too much anymore. He’s just attacking guys.”

Against the Royals, the only damage off Carrasco -- the 2019 Roberto Clemente Award winner, who wore Clemente’s No. 21 on the day the Pirates legend was honored across MLB -- came when Kansas City unleashed a series of singles to start the sixth. Base hits from Cam Gallagher and Whit Merrifield put runners on the corners, and Adalberto Mondesi stroked a single to right to bring the game’s first run home.

Though a wayward throw from José Ramírez on a would-be double-play ball and an error from second baseman Cesar Hernandez extended the inning, Carrasco was able to escape without further damage.

“I stopped it right then,” Carrasco said.

That the Indians will need Carrasco to stop potential big innings in their tracks come October goes without saying. They’re averaging 4.1 runs per game, 24th among 30 MLB teams. Facing left-hander Danny Duffy, they stranded seven runners in the fourth through sixth innings, leaving them loaded in the fifth when Francisco Lindor flied out and Carlos Santana struck out looking. And when the Royals added two insurance runs against reliever Phil Maton in the ninth, the three-run lead felt mountainous.

So, yes, it’s the rotation. That’s the way it’s drawn up, and the only way the Tribe’s October ride will be drawn out is if the rotation serves as the strength it is designed to be. Carrasco’s role in that rotation might have looked iffy a few weeks ago, but no longer.

Cookie’s back.

“I feel really good right now,” he said. “I feel the way I feel midseason every year except last year. I feel like every time I go out there, I feel stronger.”

Up next
The finale of a four-game series doubles as the final meeting of the Indians and Royals this season. Right-hander Aaron Civale (3-4, 3.63 ERA) will start Thursday's 6:10 p.m. ET game opposite right-hander Brady Singer (1-4, 5.58 ERA), live on MLB.TV. Civale has gone at least six innings in each of his eight starts this season, and he's coming off a strong outing against the Brewers in which he allowed just two runs on five hits over six frames.