CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – We know, we know. Abraham Almonte isn’t eligible for the playoffs.
It’s become one of the internet’s most tired takes recently, but it couldn’t be any more misguided or unwarranted.
Sure, Almonte’s 80-game suspension earlier this season removes him from any possibility of playing in the postseason for Cleveland in 2016, but the Indians are getting contributions from the switch-hitting outfielder now. Why in the world — with the playoffs anything but a guarantee — would you turn down production that might help you reach October first?
“He can play now,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “That’s all you can do. There’s no reason to start pouting six weeks ahead of time.”
Almonte has done quite a few things since returning from his PED suspension. Pouting hasn’t been one of them.
The Tribe outfielder knocked in Sunday’s go-ahead run, driving a sixth-inning RBI single to left-center field to help lift Cleveland to a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, completing the four-game sweep and pushing the Indians to 19 games above .500 for the third time this season.
And over the last 17 games, the 27-year-old is hitting .365 (19-for-52). Playoff eligible or not, that production matters for a club in the thick of a pennant race.
“When he first got back here, it didn’t seem like he had the same personality going yet,” Francona said. “He was joining us late and was coming from a little bit of a weird place. But, the last two-three weeks, he’s been a lot more like the Abe we remember from last year. He’s helped us a bunch.”
Of course, Almonte continues to pay the price for the mistakes he made, testing positive for a performance enhancing substance before the year began. His actions really put his club behind the eight ball, leaving them without their expected Opening Day center fielder just before the start of the 2016 campaign.
No one is suggesting that be forgotten. But nothing will change that now. All he can do is try like hell to help the Indians get to the postseason.
“I always say this — and I think I’m going to say this for the rest of my life no matter what happens from now on — the way the Indians treated me from the first day that I came to this ball club is unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve been on good teams with good people, but they made sure I felt at home right away last year. This year, when I came back, they treated me like, ‘OK, here you are, we’re waiting for you and we’re still counting on you.’ I appreciated that and it made me feel really comfortable.”
Certainly, the Indians will have some roster decisions to make should they reach the playoffs.
In the meantime, they’re content to let Almonte help them get there.
This column features my takeaways from Sunday’s game. If you want more baseball coverage, you can follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. OBLIGE HIM
Terry Francona’s usage of Andrew Miller has been a breath of fresh air.
Of course, a great deal of credit goes to the dominant lefty for telling his manager he’s down to help whenever and however he’s needed. As we’ve written before, that is not a trait every reliever shares. Luckily, Cleveland has three hurlers at the back-end in games who aren’t hung up on roles or empty stats.
But in addition to the reliever’s rare selflessness, the way the Tribe’s skipper has been able to mix and match Miller in different situations — not just limiting the dominant southpaw to one spot — has many taking notice and tipping their cap to Cleveland.
On Sunday, Miller came out of the pen to begin the seventh inning in relief of Trevor Bauer (6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HR) after Almonte’s go-ahead RBI single in the bottom of the sixth. While perhaps some were confused by the lanky lefty’s early entrance in the ballgame, anyone paying attention recently knows that when Cleveland gets a lead, anytime can be Miller time.
So far, Miller has entered once in the sixth, twice in the seventh, twice in the eighth, and once in the ninth since being acquired at the trade deadline from the New York Yankees. That sounds precisely how the club’s newest and most talented reliever should be used: Whenever the game needs his presence most.
“For me, flexibility is something that I think is a positive I can offer,” Miller said. “However Tito wants to use me, I’ll happily oblige.”
2. ROYALS STYLE
What came next was a shock to very few. Miller pitched a perfect seventh — needing only nine pitches to retire the bottom of the order — and came back out to toss another 1-2-3 frame in the eighth while facing the top of the Angels makeshift lineup.
Cody Allen then entered in the ninth, and three batters later, the Indians had earned their one-run victory over Los Angeles in the series finale. The Angels went 0-for-9 against Miller and Allen in the final three innings. If that’s not the exact definition of slamming the door and shortening the game, then what is?
“It’s how we’ve looked at the Royals the last couple of years, where the game gets shortened,” Jason Kipnis said. “It puts importance on scoring runs early. Coming back and answering runs is great when they score. We saw it was a perfect example today of getting the lead to the bullpen and letting them take over and they did what they do.”
Bryan Shaw, after pitching on Friday and Saturday, didn’t make an appearance on Sunday, but the righty is still very much a part of the Indians’ late-inning formula. The fact that 24 of his last 25 outings have been scoreless appearances only adds to the depth of the bullpen, an area that was once perceived as the club’s biggest weakness.
It’s amazing what adding one of the game’s best relief arms can do to provide a facelift to a sometimes leaky pen. But having a dynamic and deep group will only get more important as this season progresses.
3. WHAT SLUMP?
Tyler Naquin ended his 0-for-19 skid with a double on Saturday night, and the 25-year-old rookie carried that performance over into Sunday, picking up three more hits over his next three plate appearances before finally being retired in his fourth at-bat in the finale.
We’ve seen teams make more of an effort to pitch the left-handed hitter up in the zone — an area that he hasn’t proven to be a strength in his first season in the Majors — but Naquin took advantage of several pitches down in the zone to contribute two doubles, a single, an RBI and a run scored in the victory.
His ability to hit off-speed extremely well also made his matchup against the soft-tossing Jered Weaver of Los Angeles a pretty good one.
“Everybody is going to go through [slumps],” Kipnis said. “With the younger guys, you just want to pick them up when they’re down, tell them not to worry about it too much. He’s going about it the right way, working on his swing, watching video, so it wasn’t going to last too long.”
We’ll probably continue to see teams attack Naquin with more fastballs up in the zone, but when opposing pitchers fail to execute and leaving secondary offerings in the low portion of the strikezone, the rookie continues to prove more than capable of making hurlers pay for their mistakes.
4. CARRY ON
Kipnis has carried the offense throughout portions of the 2016 season. So, it’s only fair that his teammates carry him back to his seat.
The left-handed hitter extended his career-high home run total to 20 by connecting on a solo bomb off Weaver in the bottom of the first. And after getting back to the dugout, his teammates were waiting to take part in their latest home run celebration.
“We’ve done that on a bunch of them now,” Kipnis said. “A couple of guys have their own celebrations after home runs. Mine was the carrying around the chair, the Bar Mitzvah chair, basically.”
Kipnis joins Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana in the team’s 20-homer club, becoming the fastest trio of Indians accomplish that in a season since 2001, when Juan Gonzalez, Jim Thome and Ellis Burks each had at least 20 homers by game 71 of the campaign.