CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians managed only two hits against Chicago starter Carlos Rodon and lost to the White Sox at Progressive Field, 3-0.
This column presents my takeaways from Sunday’s game. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. NO PARTY ZONE
The Indians missed a perfect opportunity on Sunday to clinch the American League Central Division with a win over the Chicago White Sox, falling flat in the finale, 3-0, and dropping 2-of-3 in the series.
As a result, Cleveland’s first AL Central clinch since 2007 will have to wait. And if it happens over the next four days, it will occur in the house of the second-place Detroit Tigers, Comerica Park.
The Tigers’ loss to the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, meanwhile, reduced Cleveland’s magic number to one, meaning one victory over Detroit in the upcoming four-game series will ensure a Central Division title for Cleveland.
“You want to do it in front of the home crowd,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “It would have been fun to give high-fives down the line, all that stuff, but we’ll push it back until tomorrow in Detroit, hopefully.”
The Tribe has been forced to overcome a great deal of adversity in 2016. And because of those hurdles, Cleveland hasn’t always won games in the most conventional or expected manner.
No one would have forecasted the Indians would find themselves in position to clinch the division with a week remaining without Michael Brantley for all but 11 games this season. Of course, that doesn’t begin to mention the various losses of key players like Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar this year.
So, is it any surprise that an outright clinch of the division won’t be easy?
“It’s a little fitting,” Sunday’s starter Josh Tomlin said. “But we have a resilient group in that clubhouse. We’re ready for the next challenge if it has to be in Detroit or Kansas City, [wherever] it may be, we need to get it done. We know what the task is and we’re prepared for it. Hopefully we get it done sooner rather than later.”
The absence of Carrasco and Salazar has Cleveland using pseudo bullpen days in the final month during a pennant race. Those injuries have also thrust Tomlin back in a potential starring role for the Indians in October.
Luckily for the Indians, the veteran hurler has responded.
The righty has picked the right time to regain some of his early season dominance, allowing just two runs, one earned, over 6 2/3 innings in Sunday’s finale and lowering his ERA over his three most recent starts to 1.47 over 18 1/3 frames.
“He’s building each start and he’s holding his stuff so that’s really good,” manager Terry Francona said.
At this point, Tomlin has worked his way back into being one of Cleveland’s top three starters, likely lining himself up for a spot in the team’s postseason rotation. The fact that he’s overcome the 11.48 ERA he posted in six August starts is a good sign, considering how injuries have decimated two of the four starters the Indians would have likely used in October.
“For me it’s just staying out of the middle the plate with four pitches to try to keep them off balance, try to make them pick a direction to go to,” Tomlin said. “Basically out-guess them, keep them off-balance enough to get them out in front of some stuff and if you leave the ball down the middle the plate, it’s a lot easier for a big-league hitter to do damage with that than stuff that’s on the edges.”
The pitch mix has been far more balanced for Cleveland since his return to the rotation, using his four-seam fastball far more often and using it to set up his cutter, curveball, sinker and change.
His recent performances, knowing the Indians will now count on Tomlin in the postseason, has been encouraging for everyone in the clubhouse.
“You’ve got everyone getting a lot of confidence in him,” Kipnis said. “Not that we really lost it too much, but to see him go out and have these last couple starts to build his own confidence back up. Now, we’re starting to see what we’ve seen [in the past]. We have no problem handing him the ball every time out.”
The Indians’ final regular season home date of the season featured 24,118 fans in attendance at Progressive Field, producing a regular season attendance total of 1,591,667 in 2016. That total is 202,762 more than last season, yielding an average of 19,650 fans per home date this season.
Despite the slight increase over 2015, the team’s per-game total was third worst in the Majors, beating only Tampa Bay and Oakland in terms of attendance in 2016.
Rather than turning this into YET ANOTHER attendance article, let’s focus on what the fans who did come to Progressive Field witnessed in 2016:
The Indians had 11 walk-off victories, including game-winners provided by nine different players. One of the walk-offs came on an inside-the-park home run by Tyler Naquin.
Cleveland went 53-28 at Progressive Field, the third-best home record in MLB. The Indians’ 53 wins at home were the most since the club won 54 in 1995. And the Tribe scored 452 runs at home (5.59 per game) this season compared to a 4.04 run rate on the road.
For whatever reason, the Indians have been a more productive team at home, especially offensively, and it’s that type of perceived comfort at Progressive Field which makes many believe home-field advantage would provide a big boost to Cleveland’s hopes of dancing deep into October.
However, a pair of losses to the White Sox at home over the weekend put a damper on the clinch party many were hoping for and makes the Indians’ uphill battle to take the top spot in the AL that much more challenging.
How Cleveland finishes on the road at Detroit and Kansas City will help determine when their next game at home will be. As things stand now, the Indians currently trail the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers for the best record in the American League.
If the playoffs began today, Cleveland would open up the ALDS in either Texas or Boston, whichever club did not secure home field advantage throughout the postseason.
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If the Indians were to finish with the second best record, they would host the club with the third-best record. And if Cleveland were to leapfrog Boston and Texas for the top spot, the Tribe would battle the winner of the AL Wild Card matchup with Game 1 taking place at Progressive Field.
Boston will play the New York Yankees (3) and Toronto Blue Jays (3) over their final six games, while Texas will battle the Milwaukee Brewers (3) and Tampa Bay Rays (3) in six matchups over the final week.
And despite a loss on Sunday, Cleveland has at least guaranteed themselves a tie-breaking Game 163 vs. the Tigers for the Central Division crown at Progressive Field.
Of course, much can change over the final week of the regular season, which will make the scoreboard watching over the final seven games interesting, fun and probably a little maddening.