CLEVELAND -- Mike Clevinger is used to taking the mound to help his team finish out the first half of the regular season strong before the All-Star break hits. Instead it's the second week of July, and he’s toeing the rubber to look in at teammate Francisco Lindor in the batter’s box in simulated games.
“Me and Frankie take that matchup very seriously,” Clevinger said. “In my mind, I don’t think I’m seeing a better left-handed bat that I’m going to face this year. And I hope he feels the same way about me. So if you really want to get some reps in and get game-ready, that’s a matchup I take very seriously. He takes it seriously, too. We were both screaming out some explicit words here and there. It was a lot of fun."
Many pitchers struggle to view these few weeks like Spring Training because they’re usually in the middle of a season at this time. And even though Clevinger is left facing his teammates until the Tribe can get in a few exhibition games a few days before the regular season begins, his mindset preparing for a shortened, unique season is no different.
“I pretty much take every one like it's a Game 7, last game,” he said. “So if anything, I think it just bodes well for guys like me that go after it every single game.”
Clevinger was sidelined for two months at the beginning of the 2019 season after straining his upper back, and nearly a year later, on the second day of Spring Training, he partially tore the meniscus in his left knee. He was expected to return to the rotation in the first week or two of the originally scheduled regular season but probably would have missed at least one start. Instead he was given plenty of time over the past three months to make sure his knee is ready to go. He said the shutdown time was much better than a stint on the injured list.
“You see something happen [when you’re on the IL], and you’re like, ‘Gosh, if I could be in there, maybe I could change this outcome or maybe I could help us,'” he said. “We only missed it by a few games, and if I’m not hurt, maybe we’re not out of it by a few games. ... You play devil’s advocate all day when you’re on the [IL]. When it’s out of your control, this is when it’s a battle of mental wits. This is more, 'How into my craft can I stay? How responsible am I?' This is more a testament of who you are as a person, I think, in this delay.”
The Indians’ pitching staff sent videos of their bullpens to their coaches during the break to continue receiving regular feedback despite working remotely, which Clevinger enjoyed.
“Yeah, that was awesome,” he said, “between the Zoom calls and sending videos of throwing in Vans and no socks in the street to the beach workouts. It’s been fun to play with the video, too, and do different angles. I tried to see if they noticed, 'What are those crazy board shorts?’ in the bullpen and change it up each time, so it was a little bit of fun to try ... and stay sane, because you’re going up against a wall waiting for the call to go.”
Now that the team has reported to camp, Clevinger is already stretched out to five innings and will be ready to go by Opening Day, on July 24. The Tribe will play 60 games, with 40 against American League Central opponents and 20 against the National League Central, including four against his good friend and former teammate Trevor Bauer and the Reds.
“I’m more excited to have an empty stadium where you can hear everything I’m saying to him,” Clevinger said. “Now we can see who’s more mentally tough. That will be fun.”
Some have wondered whether a World Series would feel the same for a team that played only 60 regular-season games. For the Indians it’s especially unique, given the fact that they have the longest drought since winning a title (1948) in the Majors. So would it mean less if they win it all this year?
“If you do it the right way, 60 games is going to mean more than another World Series I know about, so no,” Clevinger said. “This is my opinion: It’s going to be some of the most exciting baseball you’ve seen. You’ve got a 60-game race to the end. Everybody’s in it. This is going to be the time to watch baseball, I think. It’s going to get people back into it.”