The Indians hit the quarter-mark of the 60-game sprint Friday night. Alas, they haven’t hit much else.
A consistent theme of the young-but-rapidly-aging season -- a theme repeated in a 2-0 loss to the White Sox in the opener of a weekend set at Guaranteed Rate Field -- is Tribe pitching holding the opposition quiet… but not quite as quiet as the Cleveland offense. It’s why the Indians are a ho-hum 8-7 despite sensational starting pitching and a bullpen that has been way better than expected.
Charitably, we could characterize Friday’s result -- in which the Tribe was shut out for the third time this season -- as an Ohio Cup hangover. After all, the Indians had rattled off 13 runs against the Reds back in Cleveland on Thursday night to clinch the Buckeye State’s big baseball prize.
But that outburst is an outlier. It accounts for 28 percent of the Tribe’s runs scored this season. Though hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo opted out of the season earlier in the day because of concerns about COVID-19, the work to get this lineup on track continues.
“One night makes a big difference,” temporary skipper Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “[Thursday] was everybody hitting and today was a tough night.”
And tough luck for Aaron Civale, the latest Tribe starter to post a “Help Wanted” sign with no takers.
Civale had some traffic in the first but pitched his way out of it, notably by summoning a ground-ball double play from José Abreu with runners on the corners and none out. When Luis Robert scored from third on the play, it felt like a blip but turned out to be a biggie. It was the only run Civale allowed in seven sharp innings, and it was enough.
That’s because the Tribe bats squandered opportunity after opportunity against Dylan Cease and the Chicago bullpen.
Cease displayed the eye-catching fastball-curveball-changeup combo that placed him on so many prominent prospect lists before his 2019 arrival. But he also walked four leadoff batters in five innings. The Tribe never made him pay for those mistakes.
Bases loaded with two out in the fifth? José Ramírez grounded out to second.
So while the walks are reflective of the Indians grinding out plate appearances, on this night the groundouts superseded the grind-outs.
“We’ve got to take advantage of those situations,” Alomar said.
There were similar situations against the bullpen. Jordan Luplow, a lefty killer in 2019 (1.181 OPS), was summoned from the bench to face Sox southpaw Aaron Bummer with two on and one out in the sixth. But Luplow -- still searching for his first hit of 2020 -- grounded into a double play. When Bummer left the game with a biceps injury with two on and two out in the seventh, Ramírez hammered an Evan Marshall changeup, but the ball sailed wide of the right-field foul pole. Ramírez then harmlessly flied out to right.
By the time Marshall escaped trouble by retiring Luplow and pinch-hitter Mike Freeman with two on in the eighth, it was abundantly clear that the Tribe’s troubles did not suddenly dissipate with those runs against the Reds.
Cleveland maintains the American League’s lowest collective batting average and OPS in a season that is admittedly difficult to evaluate. The Indians have been held to two runs or fewer in two-thirds of their games.
“Each game matters more because of the condensed schedule,” Tribe president Chris Antonetti had said before Friday’s game. “But ultimately, guys have the same number of plate appearances. Four are four, it’s not 2.6 times as many plate appearances… I don’t want to read too much into what could be a small sample.”
In the 60-game schedule, the small samples have a bigger impact than ever. A quarter of the way through that schedule, the Indians’ lineup has not done its elite pitching staff justice. That was true again Friday.