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Improved defense boosting pitchers' confidence

Indians' 12 Defensive Runs Saved ranks 5th in AL, 10th in MLB

NEW YORK -- The Indians' pitching staff already had the kind of stuff to blow away opposing lineups and pile up strikeouts at a record rate. Over the past three months, Cleveland's arms have had the benefit of also working with a much-improved defense behind them.

That combination that can create more confidence.

"Absolutely, I think it makes a difference," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said of the defense's effect on the pitching staff. "Guys will be more aggressive in the strike zone and trust that balls put into play are converted into outs, and they don't feel the burden of having to strike out as many guys."

The numbers back that up, too. The defensive turning point for the Indians arrived in June, when Cleveland promoted rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor and third baseman Giovanny Urshela from Triple-A Columbus to shore up the left side of the infield.

Video: [email protected]: Lindor dives to right, starts DP to end 6th

In April and May, oppposing batters had a .322 average on balls in play and the Indians' pitching staff averaged 9.79 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.69 double plays per nine innings. Since June 1, the batting average on balls in play has dropped to .276, the pitchers' strikeout rate has dipped to 8.32 and the double plays have ticked up to 0.82 per nine innings.

Video: [email protected]: Urshela fields with bare hand, nabs Hunter

"Our defense has improved tremendously now that we've got those two guys on the left side," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "You relax more. You don't take the two-seamer and think, 'I've got to throw it off the plate so they don't hit it hard.' You can attack them, let them put it in play and, if they hit it to the left side, there's a pretty good chance they'll be out."

Since he has been up with Cleveland, Lindor has accumulated six Defensive Runs Saved with a 14.9 UZR/150 in 522 1/3 innings. Prior to Lindor, Jose Ramirez handled short for the Indians, had minus two DRS and a negative 21.9 UZR/150 in 384 1/3 innings. Through 517 1/3 innings at third, Urshela had two DRS and a 15.7 UZR/150 (up from the 10.5 mark Lonnie Chisenhall had there earlier this year).

Overall, the Indians rank fifth in the American League and 10th in the Majors with 12 Defensive Runs Saved. That is a drastic improvement over 2014, when Cleveland ranked last in the Majors with minus 75 DRS.

"It's nice to have it," Indians ace Corey Kluber said. "When the ball's put in play on the ground, you know there's a pretty good chance you're going to get an out."

Worth noting

• Indians starter Cody Anderson, who is on the 15-day disabled list due to a mild left oblique issue, is scheduled to log three innings for Class A (low) Lake County in a Minor League rehab assignment on Monday. Francona said Cleveland will gradually build Anderson's innings and pitch count before he rejoins the Major League pitching staff.

• For the past three games, Francona has alternated between having left fielder Michael Brantley and second baseman Jason Kipnis in the lineup as the designated hitter. Both players recently returned to the lineup after dealing with soreness in their respective throwing shoulders. The manager will likely continue to mix both players in as a DH as they continue to recover.

• Francona originally had Ramirez in left field and Mike Aviles at third base in Saturday's starting lineup. The manager flip-flopped their positions shortly before the game after consulting with both players. The Indians want to continue to test Ramirez's versatility down the stretch this season.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Michael Brantley