CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians salvaged a split in the four-game series against the Houston Astros, winning Thursday’s finale 10-7.
This column presents my takeaways from Thursday’s game. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
If you were confused watching at home during the third inning of Thursday’s matchup, imagine being a player on the field during the chaos that unfolded surrounding the wild pitch-foul ball debate — one that directly led to a pair of runs for Cleveland and proved to be a major turning point.
With the bases loaded and two down in the bottom of the third, rookie right-hander Davis Paulino uncorked a ball that bounced in the dirt. The offering skipped off the ground as left-handed hitter Lonnie Chisenhall checked his swing on the pitch out of the zone.
The ball hopped away from Jason Castro and made its way to the backstop. Obviously, the Astros’ catcher felt the ball had glanced off Chisenhall’s bat, which would have made the situation a foul ball.
But instead of thrusting his arms in the air to signal a foul ball, home plate umpire Jeff Joyce stood lifeless, making no motions of any kind. At the same time, Francisco Lindor recognized the pitch in the dirt and started for home, touching the plate without the hint of any prevention by Castro.
Seconds later, Mike Napoli, who broke for third once the ball traveled to the backstop, just kept running, rounding third and following Lindor’s lead, touching home as Joyce finally started to signal for a timeout.
What appeared to be a glancing blow off Chisenhall’s bat was not seen that way by the home plate umpire, who awarded the pair of runs to Cleveland and caused several perplexing looks within both dugouts. But when the dust had settled, the Indians had taken a 4-1 lead.
2. THE PERSPECTIVE
After further review, the blown call was quite clear. Cleveland, of course, was willing to accept the lucky break, but in the moment, no one was really sure what to make of the situation.
Here is how several people reacted to the play:
• Lindor: “I heard a noise, but I didn’t know where it hit, so I just went to the plate. I thought it was a wild pitch, so I was running with the flow. When the guys were asking me, I was like, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t know where it hit.’ I heard a noise, but I wasn’t sure if it hit the bat or hit the mask.”
• Napoli: “I didn’t know what was going on. [Joyce] pointed at third, so I thought I was supposed to go back to third. I didn’t know. Everyone yelled at me, told me to go back in [the dugout].”
• Indians manager Terry Francona: “We have the ability to go to replay, which they don’t. Nobody ever wants to have a call go against them. I will say, that guy behind the plate gives you as good an effort and is as conscientious as any umpire I’ve ever been around. And there have been calls that have gone against us with him, it’s just hard to get mad at him because he gives you everything you ever ask for.”
• Cleveland starting pitcher Trevor Bauer: “I saw the ball bounce away and it was like, ‘What happened?’ And then it was such a weird [play]. The catcher didn’t go after it. Everyone was just kind of standing around. They didn’t appeal to third. No one really made a call and guys were just [running around the bases]. I didn’t know what was going on.”
3. THE REASONING
After making the original call — standing by the ruling that the ball never touched Chisenhall’s bat — the umpires converged to discuss Joyce’s original decision, but the veteran umpire didn’t get any additional help from his crew.
And the fact that A.J. Hinch was tossed for arguing his point in the process provided little shock value.
The only help replay could provide — the play was sent to New York for further review to see if Napoli and Jose Ramirez should be awarded home plate — was to place the runners. Other than that, a judgement call like Thursday’s was unreviewable.
Here’s how Joyce, who talked to a pool reporter after the game, explained his decision to call timeout in the middle of the play: “I had a player I had discussing with me what had happened, and he was emphatic about it. I’m not going to let bases loaded, keep rolling. To use a little bit of common sense and some fair play on that one, I wanted to call time and figure out what had happened.”
And what did he tell both managers?
“That we did not have the ball hitting the bat,” Joyce said. “Me, originally, and then I went to each crew member and asked them the same thing. If any of them had it hitting the bat, I would have turned around and called a foul ball. My partners couldn’t help me on it.
“I’ve got Jason, he jumped in front of me. I don’t even see the bat, I don’t hear the ball hit the bat. I have not seen the play yet. I will be looking at it tonight, you can bank on that.”
Joyce probably won’t like what he sees on the replay, but at that point, there’s not much that can be done to correct the error.
4. CALLED IT
Before the campaign even began, Mike Napoli told Carlos Santana in Spring Training that the duo would both hit 30 homers this season. On Thursday, that prediction came true when the switch-hitting Santana clubbed a two-run shot off reliever Brady Rodgers in the fifth inning, giving the slugger a career high 30 round-trippers in 2016.
And after returning to the dugout from his job around the bases, Santana was hugged by Napoli, his new 30-homer tag-team partner, as the two shared a moment in the dugout.
“I think it’s a pretty cool and a special moment for me and him,” Napoli said. “He’s done a lot to help us this year, especially be in the leadoff spot. Not really used to being up there, but he’s done a heck of a job filling that spot and having a hell of a year.”
Santana has always been one of the most polarizing figures on the Indians. At times, it feels like half the fanbase appreciates his skill set, while the other half wishes he would be consistently better. But given his production in 2016, there’s no other way to spin it: Santana has been a tremendous offensive player and key part of the first-place ball club.
“I think Carlos has done a number of things this year that are improved over the past,” Francona said. “It’s been so much fun watching it happen. He’s joining in more as a teammate and handling moving back and forth and hitting first, hitting fifth. Nothing has taken the smile off his face, and that’s a really good thing.”
Santana joins Napoli as the Indians’ first pair of 30-home run hitters since 2002, when Jim Thome (52) and Ellis Burks (32) teamed up to accomplish the feat.
5. FINISH IT
The Indians’ win on Thursday increased their lead in the AL Central over the Detroit Tigers to six games, reduced the team’s magic number to 18 with 23 games remaining on Cleveland’s schedule and clinched an 8-2 homestand following a dreadful stretch on the road the week prior.
But instead of taking pride in the expanded six-game total, several players echoed the same thought: Their work isn’t done. And no one is satisfied yet.
• Mike Napoli: “We’ve got to win home-field advantage. We know every game is important, and there’s no letting down. Detroit has a good team. By no means are they out of this. I’ve seen leads shrink pretty quick. Our goals is to have the best record in the American League and try to have home-field advantage. Every game we come out we’re going to be playing the game the right way and trying to win.”
• Francisco Lindor: “We have to continue to focus on what we have tomorrow. That’s the Minnesota Twins. We have to play the game the right way and continue to do the things that we’ve tried to do all season long. Anything can happen. We have to focus on what we have in front of our feet and not what we have a couple rows in front.”
• Trevor Bauer: “We’re up. If we win, we’re in. If we lose, we give other teams a chance. When you’ve got people down, step on them and finish the thing.”