By John Bauernfeind / Indianapolis Indians
The first-place Indianapolis Indians have battled to a 43-30 record and a 5.0-game lead atop the International League West Division at the ‘midway’ point of the 2014 season. Through the first 73 contests of the 144-game season, the Tribe’s offense has excelled to rank second in the league in RBI (319) and third in runs scored (339), while its pitching staff has dialed in to rank fourth in saves (24) and fifth in ERA (3.59).
This strong, first-half resume is an encouraging foundation during the team’s pursuit of a third consecutive division title, as the Tribe has remained in first place for all but one of the first 73 games this year. According to skipper Dean Treanor, his ballclub has relied on its previous blueprint to success from year’s past, in the form of its consistently dominant pitching staff.
“Our pitching is strong,” Treanor said. “Especially the starting pitching, [our rotation] has really carried us (through the year).”
Treanor’s right-hand man regarding the rotation and bullpen, pitching coach Tom Filer, noted that Casey Sadler and Andy Oliver have offered a more-than formidable starter-reliever combination thus far this season. Courtesy of several outstanding numbers on their stat lines, including both pitchers featuring a sub-2.50 ERA, Filer said Sadler and Oliver have each impressed him throughout the campaign.
“Sadler’s outings seem to get stronger the more and more I watch him,” Filer said. “He’s got a good fastball and when he stays with his delivery, he’s pretty good. He keeps his (arm and body) angle, keeps his sink (on his pitches) and he has an ability to throw a pretty good slider and changeup when he needs to.”
As for Oliver, a first-year closer leading the Indians’ staff with seven saves, Filer said an arsenal of a fastball, curve and devastating slider have made the southpaw nearly unhittable.
“I would say the last month [Oliver] has really kind of taken off,” Filer said. “He’s been very aggressive, command of his fastball’s been better. He’s always had a pretty good feel for his breaking ball – the ability to throw that for strikes at any time – but when Andy puts that 93-95 mph fastball together with that slider, he’s very difficult to hit.”
At the halfway point, Oliver ranks second among IL relievers in strikeouts-per-9.0 innings (12.39) and third in lowest opponent batting average (.159).
Bridging the gap to Oliver’s entrance, the Tribe’s rotation has worked as somewhat of a revolving door with starters like Jeff Locke and Vance Worley joining Pittsburgh, and new additions like A.J. Morris and Nick Kingham boosting the rotation from Double-A Altoona. Overall, 10 different pitchers have combined to author 44 quality starts (at least 6.0ip and no more than three earned runs) for Indy’s rotation.
Indianapolis’ ever-changing staff of hurlers has especially hit its stride over the last 13 games, combining to record a 1.25 ERA 1.25 ERA (6ER/43.1IP) since June 6.
While the Indians’ dominant pitching has not found itself in need of much run support, the staff has certainly welcomed the powerful bats at the plate, headlined the IL’s top RBI producer, Matt Hague. The two-time Tribe MVP Hague has driven in a league-best 50 thus far in the campaign, and continues his torrid stretch at the plate with a .273 clip and 20 RBI in 17 games during June.
Hague’s hitting coach, Mike Pagliarulo, said the team MVP relishes his new-found role as the Tribe’s RBI leader.
“[Hague has] done a real nice job of driving in runs this year,” Pagliarulo said. “I think because, number one, he wants to be in that situation; that comes first. And he’s been working on some things technically with his approach that’s allowed him to hit the ball a little bit further, and that’s been the key for him. Plus he’s always in the middle of the lineup, he wants to be in there every day.”
In addition to Hague, Pagliarulo and the Tribe’s offense have turned to recently promoted outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. to help shoulder the load in the absence of red-hot phenom Gregory Polanco. Following the five-tool prospect’s recall to the majors, Rojas Jr. stepped into the lineup to hit .328 through 19 games and even tie Polanco’s ten-game hitting streak in just his 13th appearance above the Double-A level.
Pagliarulo optimistically noted the Indians haven’t missed a beat in terms of putting threats on the basepaths — But moving forward, the offense needs to find a way to bring those runners through home plate.
“For the most part, I think we get on base real well,” Pagliarulo said. “I think we do a good job of getting our pitch to hit and running the bases, that’s a big part of our offense. (But we need to) Continue to get on base, and then drive runners in… getting guys in from third base with less than two outs that’s [something Pagliarulo wants to see improvement with]. But after that, it’s just the consistency of getting on base and moving forward.”
Indianapolis’ strong showing both on the mound and at the plate has propelled the Tribe to sole possession or share of first place in all but one of 73 games during the ‘first half’ of the 2014 campaign. At the head of the hot start, manager Treanor surveyed his first-place team and credited much success to the clubhouse’s never-say-die mentality. Treanor said the Indians believe they are never out of any game. And that feeling has remained prevalent throughout the clubhouse during the entirety of the season’s first stretch.
“I think that the strength is how we’ve been able to come back in games,” Treanor said of a squad boasting eight wins when tied or trailing after six innings. “We’re really never out of a game, so I really like that mentality. And that’s really been there for the whole season so far.”