CLEVELAND -- After the Superman-style lunging grab that Oscar Mercado made to salvage Wednesday night’s game against the White Sox, the term “season-saving” was thrown around the Indians clubhouse.
The play certainly turned the momentum back in the Tribe’s favor, but that electricity didn’t carry over into the series finale on Thursday afternoon at Progressive Field. The Indians came out flat, recording just one hit off Reynaldo Lopez, who tossed his first career complete game, in their 7-1 loss to Chicago. It was the first time the club had been held to one hit since Sept. 12 of last season against Blake Snell and two Rays relievers at Tropicana Field.
“We’ve seen [Lopez] throw four or five [impressive] innings against us, but not carry it through the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But it’s like all of a sudden he’s realizing his stuff is good enough to play, and they’re attacking the strike zone. [Dylan] Cease did the same thing. ... This guy had a fastball and breaking ball and he attacked and he stayed in the zone, as opposed to maybe nibbling and falling behind.”
The Indians certainly could’ve used more of the energy and enthusiasm from Wednesday’s ninth inning, which had allowed them to gain a game on the first-place Twins. But now, the Tribe sits 6 1/2 games back as they open a three-game set at Target Field on Friday night.
“You’d love to have momentum,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “You’d love to be gaining ground every single time out. But that doesn’t lessen the importance of the series coming up [or] lessen the intensity that we’ll bring and the concentration. We’ll just have to pick ourselves up and dust it off from this game, kind of forget it real fast and focus on playing a little bit better baseball.”
Cleveland has had success overall against its American League Central rivals this season, going 41-23, but it has posted a losing record against the White Sox (7-9), while the Twins have gone 11-5 against Chicago. And with the division on the line heading into this weekend’s series and the first three of the Indians’ six remaining games against Minnesota, the Tribe has shown signs of running out of gas at an unfortunate time, especially after its impressive run from the beginning of June through August.
A bullpen that was the best in baseball during the team’s hot stretch had entered the series finale having given up 12 earned runs over its last 14 innings (7.71 ERA). But on Thursday, it wasn’t the bullpen that struggled. Hunter Wood, Dan Otero and Phil Maton combined to toss four shutout innings after Indians starter Zach Plesac gave up six runs on eight hits in five-plus innings.
“When [Plesac] missed his spots, he paid for it,” Francona said. “There’s been times when he doesn’t, just because he’s got some life to his fastball, but he missed today a couple times. He tried to go down and away, and ended up middle in for the home run. Just didn’t command the ball. Sometimes he still wants to be so quick to the plate he rushes through and then he loses the ability to throw the ball where he wants to.”
Francona said prior to the game that Yasiel Puig had the day off: “He’s played basically every single inning since he’s been here. He’s kind of beat up.” Catcher Roberto Perez has been battling through bumps and bruises all season long and had Kevin Plawecki -- who was responsible for the team’s only hit -- fill-in for Thursday’s matinee. Guys like Mercado, Plesac and Aaron Civale aren’t used to playing in September. But even at this point in the season, Plesac is far from panicking.
“I mean you can kind of say people get tired, but at this point as a pitcher and a hitter, you kind of know like how you feel with your swing,” Plesac said. “You should be feeling your best at this time of the year. You’ve gone through the whole season, you’ve been able to see where you felt bad. At the beginning of the year, hitters might struggle, at the end of the year, they figure it out. Same thing with pitchers.
“I think just moving in toward this back end, I don’t think it’s put too much of a toll [on your body], I think it’s just stay sharp and be consistent with your routines and that’s what I’m gonna do. That’s what we’re doing. This is one game. We’re gonna move forward for this next series and come back strong.”