The Cleveland Indians outlasted the Washington Nationals in the first of a short two-game series, 3-1.
This column features my takeaways from Tuesday’s game. If you want more baseball coverage, you can follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
The Indians went 0-for-19 over the first 6 1/3 innings against Nationals ace Max Scherzer, and other than fifth-inning walk by Tyler Naquin, the talented right-hander had Tribe hitters dancing on puppet strings.
I mean, we had definitely reached time-to-lookup-Cleveland’s-no-hitter-stats-in-the-media-guide territory.
But it’s funny how those potential no-no attempts work. Once it goes, it often goes quickly.
Luckily for the Indians, all it took was Francisco Lindor’s one-out single in the seventh to get Scherzer out of the stretch and off his game. Lindor would advance to third on a failed pickoff attempt by the Nats’ hurler, and then it was Jose Ramirez putting Tuesday’s first run on the board with an RBI double off the wall in right field.
Lonnie Chisenhall added a bloop single later in the inning, and that was all Cleveland would need to beat Washington on Tuesday night in a game the Indians desperately wanted.
2. RISPY BUSINESS
With the Indians playing in a National League park on Tuesday night, Ramirez was elevated one spot in the Tribe’s batting order, taking over the cleanup duties for just the second time on his career. And of course, it really was no surprise that Ramirez provided not one, but two clutch hits with runners in scoring position in the victory.
The switch-hitting infielder continues to be the team’s best clutch hitter in 2016, driving in two of the Tribe’s three runs on Tuesday night.
The reason for Ramirez’s success with RISP doesn’t come down to just one factor. You can make some connection to a perceived heartbeat in clutch situations or having some gene that others don’t possess, but let’s focus on the tangible things we can see.
Jose Ramirez makes a ton of contact. He’s statistically the eighth-hardest player in Major League Baseball this season (10.8 strikeout rate). Putting the ball in play, especially if the infield is drawn in, certainly helps.
But wait, there’s more… His spray charts also tell a portion of the story.
We’ve touched on this in past postgame columns, but the position hasn’t changed; Ramirez’s ability to make a boat load of contact paired with an ability to use all fields make him a difficult guy to defend. That sort of skill set would seem to make him a great candidate to excel with runners in scoring position.
Those portions of his game have certainly served him well in 2016. And the Indians are reaping the benefits.
3. NICE EFFORT
Lost for almost seven innings of Tuesday’s game was Trevor Bauer’s ability to nearly match Scherzer pitch-for-pitch.
No, Bauer wasn’t working on a no-no, but his effort was pretty similar, working his way out of a few jams but keeping the Nationals off the scoreboard long enough for Cleveland to finally break through against Washington’s ace.
The righty pitched 6 1/3 scoreless frames before the bullpen officially took over, allowing four hits and two walks, striking out four. The command, in particular, was much better for Bauer on Tuesday night, getting ahead on 18 of the 26 batters he faced in the victory.
And in a lot of ways, Bauer needed a performance like this. After all, he had posted an 8.37 ERA over his past five starts entering Tuesday’s matchup, allowing 22 runs and 16 walks in 23 2/3 innings over that stretch.
His fastball command was much better vs. Washington, and his two-seamer was particularly effective, throwing it for strikes 81.8 percent of the time to left-handed bats in the ballgame.
4. PICK ME UP
Furthermore, the Indians have put more distance between themselves and their pitching week from hell.
During the starters’ last turn through the regular rotation, the quartet of Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin allowed 29 runs in 13 innings (20.08 ERA), saved only by Corey Kluber’s recent dominance and emergence in the murky AL Cy Young picture.
However, the Tribe’s rotation has put together three quality starts in a row, provided by Kluber, Carrasco and Bauer: 21.1 IP, 14 H, 5 R, 5 BB, 21 K, 2.11 ERA.
The trio of solid efforts over the past three games seem to have calmed the waters. Josh Tomlin will look to keep those positive vibes flowing on Wednesday afternoon.
5. WHAT ROLES?
Finally, it’s extremely refreshing to see the Indians throw bullpen roles out the window yet again.
Bench coach Brad Mills subbed in for Terry Francona on Tuesday night — Francona sat out the ballgame for precautionary reasons after feeling ill prior to the matchup — but the philosophy remained the same: Use dominant lefty Andrew Miller in the game’s biggest spot.
Miller entered in the seventh and erased an inherited runner and came back out for the eighth to square off against the top of the Nats’ lineup. Despite giving up a solo homer to Jayson Werth on a hanging slider — proof that Major League hitters can make you pay for mistakes no matter how filthy your stuff is — the southpaw’s usage proved that Cleveland won’t be locking any of their relievers into mind-numbing bullpen roles.
This guy pitches in the seventh, this guy pitches in the eighth, and here is our closer. Why? Because this is just what we do!
Thank goodness, the Indians are stopping the madness. Get your best bullpen arm in to face the opposing team’s best hitters. And if that happens to be in the seventh or eighth — not the ninth — then don’t sit around waiting for the pen to meltdown.
Bryan Shaw entered for Miller in the eighth, Cody Allen recorded in the save in the ninth, and the Indians won a game that had the feel of a contest you’d see in October.
But more importantly, the relievers’ willingness to take the ball whenever called upon and the Tribe’s desire to use their best bullpen arms to leverage situations that give them the best pitcher-hitter advantage, no matter what inning the scoreboard says it is, is the sort of philosophy that could make the Indians, should they get there, a difficult team to match up against in the postseason.