3 keys for Cleveland after South Side split

April 16th, 2021

Unlike last year, this season is a marathon, not a sprint. But when the White Sox and Twins received all the attention in the American League Central entering the 2021 season, the Indians knew their first matchup against Chicago would be crucial to remind everyone that they’re still in contention.

It may not have been as pretty as they would’ve liked, but the Indians did enough to force a series split Thursday afternoon with a 4-2 victory at Guaranteed Rate Field, thanks to a two-run homer by a struggling José Ramírez in the sixth. And Cleveland was able to escape Chicago with a share of first place alongside the Royals, giving them a 1 1/2-game lead on the White Sox.

“We’re never out of it,” Indians starter Aaron Civale said. “As long as we're giving it our best chance, I think you’re gonna see a lot of those one-swing changes.”

The first two games of the series Monday and Tuesday resembled a playoff baseball atmosphere, with the opener being determined by a fluky play by Yu Chang at first base and Shane Bieber tossing a nine-inning gem the following night. But after the club was no-hit by Carlos Rodón on Wednesday, the life was quickly sucked out of the offense. The Indians bounced back enough to walk away victorious Thursday, but they still proved that they have their work cut out for them moving forward.

How can Cleveland assure that it remains in playoff contention this year, especially with five games against the White Sox and three against the Twins scheduled within the Indians’ next 15 contests? Let’s take a look:

1. Consistent offensive production

This is nothing new for the Indians, who have struggled to consistently push runs across the plate for the last few seasons. But over the last few days, the problem appeared to be even more severe, capped with a no-hit showing Wednesday. However, with the dominant pitching staff that Cleveland has, it doesn’t take much offense in order to win, as it extended its record to 6-2 when recording at least six hits in a game (eight on Thursday).

But here’s the problem: Entering the series finale against the White Sox, the Indians held the second-worst batting average (.195) and batting average on balls in play (.211) in the Majors, trailing only the Cubs. The team average increased to .198 after Thursday, but it’s still tied for the fifth-worst in franchise history through 12 games:

2018: .170
2020: .183
1979: .191
2019: .198
2021: .198
1971: .199

2. Starters need to get off to a good … um … start

It’s hard to critique the one aspect of Cleveland’s roster that’s been so reliable, but when the offense falls into ruts the way that it’s proven it’s able to, more weight falls on the shoulders of the rotation. And for some reason, the Indians’ pitching staff -- as solid as it’s been -- has struggled to be as successful in the first inning:

First inning: 10.50 ERA
Second: 2.25
Third: 4.50
Fourth: 0.75
Fifth: 0.00
Sixth: 0.00
Seventh: 5.25
Eighth: 0.75
Ninth: 3.24

3. A spark in the middle of the order

We’ve already touched on the offense’s collective struggles this year, but the lineup is in desperate need of a leader, and Ramírez and Franmil Reyes have the two best chances of filling that role. Last season, the Indians went 17-5 in games in which Ramírez knocked in at least one run. So far in 2021, Ramírez has recorded at least one RBI in two games (including Thursday) and has turned in three multi-hit games -- all of which resulted in Cleveland victories.

And when Ramírez started to cool off in the final two games against the Tigers last weekend, Reyes kept the momentum going, leading the Indians to two more wins. But when both of their bats went silent in the first three matchups against the White Sox, the offense was only able to score five runs over three nights. It wasn’t until Ramírez snapped an 0-for-19 streak with a two-run homer in the sixth Thursday that the offense started to show some life, which proves, once again, just how crucial he’s going to be for this offense moving forward.

“There’s going to be battles throughout the rest of the year; offensively, defensively, pitching -- it’s good matchups,” Civale said. “It’s gonna be a grind for every game we play them. It’s fun to play in those games. That’s why we do the work that we do so we can compete and be a part of those games.”