CLEVELAND -- The Indians have been spoiled over the last few years with above-average defense behind the dish -- something that’s so easily taken for granted that it becomes shocking when a Cleveland backstop has as rough of a night as Ryan Lavarnway did on Friday.
The Indians knew they had their hands full with a Milwaukee club that rolled into town sitting more than 30 games over .500. However, Cleveland recording the same number of errors as hits was not the recipe it needed to stay in the game, resulting in 10-3 drubbing by the Brewers at Progressive Field.
The blunders started in the first inning, when backup Lavarnway was called for catcher’s interference after using his mask to retrieve a ball on the ground following a pitch. In that situation, runners are granted a free base, and because the Brewers had a runner on third, they had an early 1-0 lead.
“The rule is that he cannot use his facemask to stop a ball. And he realized that,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “Once he blocked it, the ball was basically around the plate there. He took his mask off, but it was still moving. That is the rule. You can't use your facemask to aid in picking up a ball.”
Three innings later, with one out and the bases loaded, Lavarnway reached his mitt out a little too far and interfered with Luis Urías’ swing to hand another runner a free pass to the plate. After an infield popup recorded the second out of the frame, Lorenzo Cain mashed a grand slam to put the game out of reach.
“After the interference, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot there a little bit,” Hale said. “Thought he had a chance to get the righty out with the bases loaded, that'd have been huge.”
A huge reason Cleveland has been able to rely so heavily on its pitching staff in recent seasons is because of its defensively sound backstops. Lavarnway’s pair of catcher’s interferences was the third instance of the season in all of Major League Baseball to have a backstop record two in a single game, but it marked just the first time for Cleveland since Ray Fosse did it on June 3, 1970.
Cleveland has needed to lean on a few different backup catchers this season with all the injuries starter Roberto Pérez has endured, and the team has already had more errors from that position than it’s had in three seasons. And if the offense continues to struggle moving forward like it has over the last few years, the Indians will need to continue to prioritize defense behind the plate to help the pitching staff do most of the heavy lifting.
It wasn’t until the eighth inning on Friday that the Indians were able to match their three errors with three hits, as Franmil Reyes and Bobby Bradley each recorded singles. It allowed Cleveland to avoid being one-hit for the second time in a span of three days, as Bradley had been responsible for the only hit in the first seven innings (a go-ahead two-run single in the first). But the bats have struggled this homestand, going a dismal 2-for-28 (.071) with runners in scoring position.
The Indians, who are 11 games back of the first-place White Sox with 23 to play, know their playoff hopes are all but out of reach, but they are still hoping to use September to learn about their roster for the next few seasons. Pérez will soon return from the injured list, but the club has had time to look at its catching depth in the meantime, should the team decline Pérez’s club option or choose to trade him this offseason.
Cleveland is optimistic that more payroll flexibility this offseason will lead to a more impactful offense, but it will need to know that it can rely on whoever is behind the dish to control the pitching staff and the defense.