CLEVELAND -- Mike Clevinger entered Wednesday’s game knowing how close the American League Central race was, and the right-hander did his best to put all his focus on gaining ground on the first-place Twins.
“Every pitch is going to mean something,” Clevinger said, “and I was trying to stay away from just trying to do well for my redemption.”
Clevinger struggled through the first two innings, but he settled in to toss six frames, allowing two runs with six strikeouts to help lift the Indians to a 6-3 victory over the Twins at Progressive Field. Though his one-run lead was blown after he exited the game, a go-ahead RBI double by Tyler Naquin in the eighth sparked a three-run inning that allowed the Tribe to cut Minnesota’s lead in the division to just half a game.
Clevinger’s goal may have been to concentrate solely on the game, but it wasn’t so simple. The man known as “Sunshine” was more reserved than usual when he walked down the halls of Progressive Field for the first time in three weeks. The last time he had been around his teammates, they were having an open discussion in Detroit about the trust that he and fellow starter Zach Plesac severed when they broke team protocols on Aug. 8 in Chicago.
“Normally Clevinger comes in and is giving high fives to everybody,” Indians temporary manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “He was more quiet today. He wanted to make sure he’s accepted by the guys, and the guys did. … I don’t know if he carried that to the mound the first couple of innings, but after a while, he settled down and was the same guy. But the guys did a good job accepting him here.”
“I’m walking on a tightrope right now, as I should be,” Clevinger said. “I’m making sure I contribute and not be a distraction.”
The second the news became public that Clevinger had flown home with the team after Plesac was sent to Cleveland via car service from Chicago, knowing he had also been out with Plesac that night, his teammates didn’t waste time in letting him know that he made a huge mistake.
“I saw the disappointment with the guys,” Clevinger said. “I don’t think I’ve ever given them a reason or I ever saw that in them at me, and I was just disappointed in myself that I didn’t let them know before I came back. … The hardest pill to swallow was that I made a really selfish choice.”
The team needed time to gain back the trust of both Clevinger and Plesac. So after the team meeting in Detroit, it was decided that the best choice would be to option both of the hurlers to Lake County, Ohio, a move that made Clevinger realize never to take a day in the big leagues for granted.
“They have really good attitudes down there,” Clevinger said of the alternate training site. “It helped bring my spirits up, as well as Zach’s, just seeing how those guys have been down there on this field wearing it in the daytime and early mornings and all over there with a smile on their faces. It really humbles you a little bit to really realize how lucky you are to be here.”
The Indians had choices in Adam Plutko, Clevinger, Plesac or a handful of other arms in Lake County to make Wednesday’s start. But after the front office determined that Clevinger would give the team its best chance to win, the 29-year-old said he wasn’t concerned that his teammates would still be holding a grudge, noting that time was the most important part of the healing process.
“We’re all professionals here,” outfielder Naquin said. “You always want to see the man next to you succeed, no matter what the circumstances. One thing Clev is going to do is he’s going to give you his all every time he toes the rubber. We’re going to play hard behind him every single time. Put this behind us and remember that we’re here to play baseball.”
The Indians need their strongest starting rotation to continue to chip away at the Twins’ minuscule lead in the division. Now that Clevinger has officially been reintroduced to the big league squad, the Indians are looking to continue their momentum by boosting the energy and enthusiasm in the dugout, which was not present before Clevinger’s stint in Lake County.
“Even being out there and hearing how vocal the dugout was,” Clevinger said, “and the dugout suite with the reserves and other guys, how vocal they were being and how locked in on every pitch everybody is. That might be the kind of silver lining we can find in this.”