CLEVELAND -- Indians starter Zach Plesac turned in his best start of his career, tossing eight scoreless frames with 11 strikeouts. He permitted just three hits on the night, but after he exited the game, he had to sit back and watch as the wheels fell off the cart.
Closer Brad Hand entered with a scoreless tie and exited after just one-third of an inning. The lefty was charged with four runs (three earned), permitting one hit, one walk and hitting one batter, as the Tribe fell to Chicago, 4-0, on Wednesday at Progressive Field.
Hand started the inning by giving up a leadoff double to Tim Anderson, before walking Yoán Moncada and plunking José Abreu. Yasmani Grandal pushed the first run across with a sacrifice fly and a two-strike catcher’s interference call reloaded the bases for Eloy Jiménez. The Indians turned to reliever Adam Cimber to escape the jam, but two more runs were charged to Hand as Cimber allowed a sac fly and an RBI single to give the White Sox a 4-0 lead.
“I got myself in trouble with the walk and the hit-by-pitch with nobody out,” Hand said. “Trying to get a strikeout there with the sac fly and then kind of fell apart right there.”
Despite the fact that Hand had already picked up two saves in his first two appearances of the season, he had given up one run in those two frames and his velocity has been two or three ticks lower than it usually is throughout a season. He was not nearly as sharp in the series finale against the White Sox as he was to start the season last year, but he said that the three-and-a-half month break from the coronavirus shutdown has nothing to do with some of these early-season problems.
“It’s tough to tell, obviously, because it is July, but I feel as good as I would if we were just leaving Spring Training,” Hand said. “I was ready to go coming into this Summer Camp and this season. I feel like my stuff’s ready. Obviously today, I only gave up the one hit. I kind of put myself in that jam. It’s not like I was getting hit around. Some things happened and I put myself in that jam.”
Although Hand feels like his stuff is ready, the radar gun isn’t quite backing his opinions. According to Baseball Savant, the 11 four-seamers he threw in his first two appearances averaged 90.8 mph and the 10 heaters he threw on Wednesday averaged 90.9 mph. His slider averaged 79.7 mph in his first two outings and sat around 79.2 mph on Wednesday. In 2019, his four-seamer averaged 92.7 mph and his slider averaged 81.2 mph.
“He don’t have anything that’s overpowering,” White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s just a matter of fact of getting a good swing on the ball and staying inside of it, which I did, and lead us off with a double.”
Despite the fact that Hand’s velocity has been a little bit lower than the Indians have seen in the past few seasons, Tribe manager Terry Francona is not concerned.
“Whatever [the gun is] registering, it’s about a tick or two slow,” Francona said. “So that part’s coming. That’s not the end-all, be-all. You’re looking for life, or to get some swing and miss.”
The Tribe’s offense offered no help, totaling six hits on the night and leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. While the bats have gotten off to a slow start, it hadn’t yet been too much of a problem, as the rotation continues to churn out one quality start after another.
After Plesac walked off the mound in the eighth, the Tribe had Cimber warming, but elected to turn to Hand in the ninth. While he continues to build up his velocity and sharpen his stuff, the Indians will be standing behind him every step of the way.
“I mean, there’s so much trust in him as a competitor,” Francona said, “you’ve got to be patient even when it’s not that easy.”