Tough 8th slows Karinchak's recent rebound

August 28th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- Each time Indians reliever takes two steps forward, his one step back is looming. On Friday night, he blew his fifth game of the season, failing to record an out and allowing three runs in an outing that led to the Indians’ 4-3 loss to the Red Sox at Progressive Field.

Karinchak’s inning unraveled quickly. He entered the eighth with a two-run lead and walked the first batter he faced. After a mound visit, he gave up a single to Jarren Duran, putting two runners on with no outs and prompting yet another meeting on the rubber. After that, No. 9 hitter Jonathan Araúz showed bunt on the first three pitches of his at-bat before a two-strike count forced him to swing away, resulting in the deciding three-run blast.

“Fastball command,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said of Karinchak’s problem on Friday. “He got back into the count with the breaking ball, but the fastball was up in the zone because [in] the bunt situation he was down in the zone. [Araúz] had fouled it off with the breaking ball. Then the 3-2 [pitch], just trying to -- you've got to throw a strike to the No. 9 hitter there, and [Araúz] got one centered and he put a good swing on it.”

Karinchak quickly started getting more national recognition in 2020 -- and rightfully so -- as his strikeout numbers climbed to insane heights. His 53 K’s in 27 innings and a 2.67 ERA all played a large role in the right-hander receiving a handful of AL Rookie of the Year votes. When he returned in 2021, there was no doubt that he and Emmanuel Clase, who missed the 2020 season due to a PED suspension, would be a lethal one-two punch at the back end of the bullpen. But that dominance lasted just two-and-a-half months.

Karinchak owned a 0.00 ERA through his first 13 appearances of the year, and kept his ERA below 1.00 through May 22. But once the calendar flipped to June, the righty wasn’t quite as effective. Karinchak entered June 19 with a 2.37 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 30 1/3 frames. Since then, he’s pitched to a 6.38 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 24 innings. Earlier this month, he owned his struggles with execution and said his curveball has been giving him more trouble than he’s used to. 

“I’m blessed those guys still believe in me after the downs I’ve been going through,” Karinchak said last week.

“Early in the year it didn't matter who was coming up, [Karinchak] was the eighth inning, ninth inning guy, with Clase there,” Hale said. “As you go along and get past the All-Star break, you try to kind of match him up in situations where there will be some success. You know, sometimes you can't do it, either.”

Though Karinchak had gone his last four appearances without permitting a run, he’s struggled to find consistency. That marked his longest scoreless stretch since the end of June. He’s not missing as many barrels this year as he has in the past (11 barrels from opposing hitters in 2021 entering Friday night, compared to just one in 2020) and his hard-hit percentage coming into the three-game set against the Red Sox was 41.2 percent -- 6.2 percent higher than it was in last year's shortened season.

Regardless of the roller coaster he’s been on over the last two months, the Indians have not shied away from turning to Karinchak in high-leverage situations. The team knows what Karinchak’s potential can be and how quickly a reliever can rediscover the groove that once made him elite. Despite his struggles, the righty entered the night ranking in the 93rd percentile in strikeout percentage and in the 96th percentile in expected batting average, and his team does not forget that. 

As of now, the club will continue to stick to the plan of turning to Karinchak in close games, hoping that he will soon right the ship.

“We definitely know the pitcher he can be. He showed that early,” Hale said. “He's a core [player] there, and he's got to figure it out. I think his work ethic and the work he's putting in, he'll figure it out.”