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Offense stirs, but Indians' skid at 5 games

What are the keys to right the ship before postseason?
@MandyBell02
September 13, 2020

The Indians have been used to setting records, with the historic starts of some of their starting pitchers. On Saturday night, the team put together a streak that the franchise has done only twice since the 2016 season. But this time, it’s not a feat to celebrate. The Indians fell

The Indians have been used to setting records, with the historic starts of some of their starting pitchers. On Saturday night, the team put together a streak that the franchise has done only twice since the 2016 season. But this time, it’s not a feat to celebrate.

The Indians fell to the Twins, 8-4, at Target Field, extending their losing streak to five games. The only other time in the past five seasons Cleveland had lost five straight contests was in the five games to close out the 2019 season.

Box score

The loss moved the Indians to 3 1/2 games behind the first-place White Sox in the American League Central and 2 1/2 games behind the Twins, who sit in second place. As of now, the Indians are ranked seventh in the postseason standings, which would secure them the top Wild Card spot, with the Yankees just one game back. But the Indians remain confident that their chances to clinch a playoff spot aren’t slipping away.

“I think we’re just going to continue to take each day and each game,” starting pitcher Zach Plesac said. “So really just taking it a day at a time and enjoying every last day we get to spend with each other. This season is coming to the back end, and we’re trying to make a run together and we’re definitely pushing.”

If the Indians want to guarantee to be playing beyond Sept. 27 and even want to attempt to move up in the division to have a chance at home-field advantage for the Wild Card Series, they will need to figure out at least three things over the final two weeks of the regular season:

1. Can they find their offensive spark?
If the offense can still be ignited, the team will need to find someone to lead the way. Carlos Santana entered the night with a .195 batting average, which ranked sixth lowest among qualifiers this season. He snapped an 0-for-13 skid with a double in the fourth inning but hasn’t shown consistent signs of an offensive breakthrough. Francisco Lindor is trying to get more comfortable in the leadoff spot, rather than the three hole. It may come down to José Ramírez, who went 2-for-3 on Saturday with a homer in his second consecutive game after missing some time this week with a thumb injury.

“Yeah he's swinging the bat much better,” temporary Indians manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “We are very fortunate we are where we are at right now. But I think, hopefully, tonight is a step in the right direction scoring runs.”

It was the first time since Tuesday that the offense was able to muster more than one run.

2. Who will be Bieber’s co-pilot?
Should the Indians make the postseason, Shane Bieber will be their No. 1 starter. But who will emerge as the second-most-reliable starter over the next two weeks to help solidify the club’s chances of clinching a playoff berth? Carlos Carrasco has been shifting into high gear, allowing two runs over his last 19 innings. But Plesac has been making a convincing case all season, and he’ll have at least two more starts to prove he can bounce back from his season-high, five-run outing on Saturday and be Bieber’s right-hand man to give the Indians the best chance of moving forward.

“The slider definitely tightened up as the game went on. Command as well,” Plesac said. “Just pitches were better. … Just keeping that confidence and executing good pitches is important.”

3. Who will be the steady outfielders?
The Indians have been rotating outfielders constantly this season, already having 25 different combinations of an outfield trio through 46 games. But maybe all the switching has played a bigger role in their offensive struggles. The Tribe’s outfielders have posted the second-worst batting average (.186) and worst slugging percentage (.289) of all outfield crews across the Majors. When thinking about a spark, the team could desperately use a lift from one of its outfielders in the bottom third of the lineup.

“I think what’s going to happen is we’re just going to hit a spark,” Plesac said. “It’s almost just waiting for it to explode. I think we’re about to turn this thing around. Guys are still locked in. We’re still hungry, still trying to get some momentum, really. Catch momentum going into this last game and into our next series. It’s going to be important for us to do that if we want to make a playoff run.”

Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.