NEW YORK -- The crutches that have been leaning against Edwin Encarnacion's locker over the past few days have been an unsettling visual for the Indians. Cleveland handed the slugger the largest free-agent contract in franchise history with the October stage in mind, and a freak right ankle injury has robbed the club of any heroics he might provide.
Throughout Monday's 7-3 loss to the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan, Encarnacion could be spotted on the top step of the visitors' dugout, wearing a gray playoff-themed sweatshirt and cheering on his teammates. For two games, the Tribe has played with a 24-man roster. Two losses later, the best-of-five series is tied, with Game 5 set for 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Progressive Field.
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Encarnacion's availability for that game remains unknown.
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"I don't know yet. How do you know?" Indians manager Terry Francona said. "I would hope so. I hope."
In the first inning of Game 2 on Friday, Encarnacion rolled his right ankle badly while retreating to second base. The big slugger tumbled to the ground and immediately called for help, and he had to be helped off the field. Initially, the injury looked bad enough to wonder if Encarnacion's postseason had come to an unfortunate end. Then, the Indians announced that it was a sprained ankle, and they made no move to place him on the disabled list.
Yandy Diaz traveled with the Tribe to New York as a kind of insurance policy if Encarnacion showed no progress, but the day-to-day status stuck over the past 48 hours. A move to the DL would make Encarnacion ineligible for the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World. That would be a big blow to the Indians, and Francona said the feedback from the medical staff makes it seem possible that the slugger might be recovered by the next round.
"Or we wouldn't be doing this," Francona said. "It's not perfect, but I think that we're making the right decision."
Advancing to the ALCS has proved difficult without Encarnacion's bat in the cleanup spot.
Over the past two losses, the Indians have scored three runs combined on two swings. Carlos Santana (two-run home run) and Roberto Perez (solo shot) each went deep on Monday, following a shutout loss on Sunday. Cleveland's hitters have 25 strikeouts across the past two games, and they have struck out 36 times in the past three games.
"He's one of our leaders," Perez said of Encarnacion. "He's a big bat. He's been huge for us the whole year, and I think he'll be ready for Game 5, hopefully."
The Indians also felt that Michael Brantley could slot in as the DH in the interim, even though the outfielder is also coming off a right ankle issue. Brantley's injury kept him sidelined for most of August and September, and he only had three at-bats in the final two regular-season games. Still, Francona felt confident that Brantley, even if shaking off some offensive rust, could be a weapon for the ALDS roster.
Brantley went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and three groundouts after replacing Encarnacion in the lineup in Game 2. During Cleveland's 1-0 loss in Game 3 on Sunday, Brantley went 0-for-2 with a walk while serving as the Indians' No. 7 hitter. In Monday's defeat, Brantley came through with a single in the seventh, which ended an 0-for-26 drought for both teams' DHs in the series. The veteran finished the game 1-for-4 with two strikeouts.
"It's pretty obvious that he's not like midseason locked in," Francona said. "I still think he competes and he's intelligent. I'd bet you he'll find a way to help us win, whether he lays a bunt down or fires one into left or fights one off. There's a lot of belief in him, and I know it's not easy. He hasn't played very much."
Over the offseason, the Indians signed Encarnacion to a three-year contract worth $60 million, and he backed up that deal with an impressive showing this season. In 157 games as Cleveland's primary DH, Encarnacion hit .258 with 38 home runs, 104 walks, 107 RBIs and an .881 OPS. It marked his sixth consecutive season with 30 or more home runs, and his 38 shots were the most by a Tribe hitter since 2006 (Travis Hafner, 42).
"He drives in a lot of runs," Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "When Edwin is back, he's going to help us."
In the eighth inning of Game 3, Francona could have used that kind of offensive firepower, but Encarnacion was deemed unavailable. The manager used Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes as pinch-hitters, but the maneuvering did not pan out and the Yanks eked out the win. On Monday, when New York jumped out to an early lead and held on, Encarnacion again remained idle.
"To not have Edwin, it hurt us," Francona said. "To just write him off, if we could move on, that would be tough to do."