Cleveland stumbles to halfway point

July 4th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- The Indians have found themselves at their lowest point of the season at the halfway mark of the schedule, and just when it seemed like the team was going to get momentum moving back in its favor, a 10th-inning error prevented that from happening.

The Indians fought back against the Astros in the eighth with a game-tying solo shot from Cesar Hernandez that forced extra innings. Closer Emmanuel Clase appeared to have escaped his second frame unscathed in the 10th with a 3-6-1 double play, but when he failed to come up with the ball cleanly at first, a run scored. And when the offense had no answer, Cleveland walked away with a 4-3 loss to Houston on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field.

With Harold Ramirez at second, Roberto Pérez attempted to move him to third with a sacrifice bunt, but he popped the pitch up right back to the pitcher, who then doubled Ramirez up at second to halt all possible traction the offense was attempting to create.

“That one, we were gonna bunt, probably, for one strike and try to bring the infield in,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “If he gets it down, good, if he doesn’t, we probably would’ve let him hit.”

It’s a season full of peaks and valleys and at the 81-game mark, the Indians are in one of their deepest valleys, owning a season-high six-game losing streak. But just six days ago, the team was atop one of its highest peaks, bouncing back from outfielder Josh Naylor’s gruesome injury with a 13-run outburst against the Tigers.

At that time, Cleveland was on pace to win 90 games this season -- a pace few people would’ve expected entering the season, especially with all the injuries the club has had to navigate. But since then, the wheels have slowly started to fall off the cart.

The Indians found their stride in the middle of June, sweeping the Orioles in a four-game set at Progressive Field. Since then, the club lost two of three against the Pirates, split a two-game series against the Cubs, dropped two of three against the Twins, took just one of three games against the Tigers and lost all four matchups against the Astros.

Through 81 games, here’s a closer look at the Indians:

What's gone right

A big part of this team’s success has been the development of Ramirez. His impressive hard-hit rate and ability to put the ball in play has helped this offense more than expected. Entering Sunday, he led the club with a .379 average with runners in scoring position this season, something Cleveland has struggled with tremendously during its six-game losing streak. His defense may not quite be up to par with his bat, but for a team that needs offense, he’s been a pleasant surprise.

The biggest thing that’s gone right for the Indians is their bullpen. The relief corps entered the series finale with the ninth-best fWAR in the Majors (2.8), fourth-lowest ERA (3.38), second-highest strikeout percentage (10.93, highest in the AL) and the third-highest left on base percentage (78.1). In a time where receiving deep starts have been hard to come by and starting pitchers are still getting adjusted to the big league stage, the bullpen couldn’t have been more important for the Indians this season.

And when the team decided to sign Bryan Shaw to a Minor League deal at the beginning of Spring Training, it hoped that he would play a huge role out of the ‘pen, and he’s become one of the big three the team constantly turns to in high-leverage roles, along with James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase.

What's gone wrong

Injuries. This is by far the No. 1 problem that’s plagued this team all season. The team is left with three pitchers in its rotation who made their Major League debuts this season, including Eli Morgan, J.C Mejía, along with Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen, who is still trying to find his footing after a rough start to the year and then battling elbow issues in Triple-A. Without Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale, all of whom combined to pitch to a 3.50 ERA, the Indians don’t have their strong backbone.

The injury bug bit the position players, too. The team went an extended period of time without slugger Franmil Reyes and backstop Pérez. Over the last two days, they were both able to rejoin the active roster. But now, the team is without All-Star third baseman José Ramírez due to elbow soreness and has yet to win a game without him in the starting lineup.

Without Ramírez’s bat, the offense is in an even deeper predicament. The Indians’ offense entered Sunday ranked 27th in the Majors in wRC+ (87) and 29th in on-base percentage (.297). Not having the threat of Ramírez hasn’t made it any easier for the team to pull itself out of this skid.