CLEVELAND -- Indians reliever James Karinchak stood tall on the mound with his arms spread wide above his head as if he had just thrown baby powder in the air in LeBron James fashion. As he galloped off the field in celebration after the top of the 10th inning, it was as if he knew the Indians had already secured the victory.
Cleveland was desperate for offense in the series finale against the Cubs, putting up just one run -- on back-to-back doubles by Cesar Hernandez and Amed Rosario in the sixth -- before the game went into extra innings. And just after Karinchak avoided trouble with automatic runner Nick Martini on second in the top of the 10th, the Indians got their timely hit in the bottom half of the frame on a single down the right-field line by Rosario with two outs and the bases loaded to lift them to a 2-1 win over the Cubs at Progressive Field.
“All the credit is to [the bullpen],” Rosario said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “The work they’ve been doing is incredible. It feels really good to contribute in any form and winning this game for them.”
The bullpen has been the backbone of the Indians’ success so far this season. As long as the offense scores at least three runs, the team has thrived, going 18-6 in those games, thanks to stellar pitching from the rotation and the bullpen this year. And the staff came together to give the offense ample time to push the winning run across on Wednesday, improving Cleveland’s record to 2-8 in games in which it has scored fewer than three runs.
Although Sam Hentges (4 2/3 scoreless innings in his first MLB start), Cal Quantrill, Nick Wittgren and Emmanuel Clase all prevented damage, it was Karinchak who was the star once again. Since his arrival in 2019, it’s been hard not to be mesmerized by Karinchak’s stuff and his ridiculous strikeout numbers. And through 18 appearances so far this year, nothing has changed.
The Indians have avoided using the title “closer” for any of their relievers for multiple reasons -- namely, to give them the flexibility to use different pitchers in different roles whenever they see fit, just like they did in the series finale against the Cubs. Although Clase has been the last guy to take the ball in most instances this year, the team wanted to use Karinchak with the automatic runner on base to start in the 10th.
Karinchak, the MLB leader in strikeouts (33) among all qualified relievers after Wednesday’s game, walked the first batter he faced before he got Ildemaro Vargas to strike out on a foul-tip bunt attempt to avoid moving two runners into scoring position. Joc Pederson popped out to shortstop and Eric Sogard attempted to break Karinchak with an eight-pitch at-bat.
“It was a great battle,” Karinchak said. “That's a great hitter. The guy's been doing it for a long time. I think it was seven, maybe eight, nine pitches, just kept fighting and I finally got him, man, and I was revved up.”
It took a called strike, two balls and four fouled-off pitches before Karinchak punched out Sogard on an 81.2 mph curveball that induced a celebration unlike any other.
“I have no idea what he says,” Hentges said, when asked what Karinchak yells coming off the mound. “I don’t think anyone really knows what he says. We have to get him mic’ed up at some point.”
Karinchak yells, he jumps, he raises his hands about his head, he skips off the field and excitedly pounds his catcher’s chest protector in celebration of a big strikeout. It’s emotion that’s rarely seen -- at least to that extent -- out of a reliever, and it may be one of the reasons the Indians are now sitting six games above .500 (20-14), winning eight of their past nine contests.
Sure, Karinchak’s 0.52 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 17 1/3 frames have played an enormous role in Cleveland’s success, but his energy follows suit with the youth of this roster. And instead of letting the inexperience take over, the Indians may have found a way to rely on just letting the kids play.
“I think everybody who was at the game today and who was watching it on TV loves to watch his energy,” Hentges said. “He brings it day in and day out, and it’s definitely nice to have him on our side.”