[During the offseason, The Inside Pitch will provide a month-by-month look-back at the record-setting 2014 season. Beginning with a review of April on Sept. 9, fans can relive each month as we anxiously count down to the 2015 campaign.]
May marked a month of two halves for the Indianapolis Indians, with the reigning division champs opening the month at 2-8 before rebounding to win 10 of their next 12 contests and 14 of their final 20 through May 31. True to form, the cardiac Tribe continued – and even expounded on – that prevalent theme throughout the upcoming month of June, splitting those “May halves” into “June thirds” of:
- Stumbling out of the gate against an IL-North heavy start to the month (2-5 record)
- Breezing through a middle stretch against (mostly) IL South foes (10-4 record)
- Limping towards the All-Star break over June’s final road trip (1-5 record)
All while never falling out of first place.
Just as unpredictable as the Tribe’s hot and cold streaks during June, so to, was the emergence of one of the IL’s most dominant closers from 2014, newly converted reliever and left-handed closing force, Andy Oliver.
The Indians’ 2013 Opening Day starter converted to a role of relief in 2014 and officially assumed the team’s closing duties during the May 26 – June 2 homestand. And as a rare southpaw closer, Oliver overmatched IL batters with just one earned run on six hits and 11 strikeouts over 10 1/3 innings in his first month at the back end of the bullpen.
“Oliver has really been a force out there,” pitching coach Tom Filer said near the conclusion of his left-handed reliever’s dominant month. “I think that it’s just a level of confidence that he has right now. He is feeling good about himself, he works at his trade every day…He is really believing in himself.”
Beginning with the Tribe’s first game of June, Oliver successfully converted each of his six save opportunities through the month, authoring scoreless appearances in all six outings and surrendering a base hit in just two games.
Added Oliver’s catcher from both his 2013 season as a starter and 2014 in relief, Tony Sanchez:
“Last year it was like [you’re expected to allow a few hits or walks as a starting pitcher]. Now, this year, it’s like (Oliver) is saying, ‘Nobody is touching me and nobody is supposed to be touching me because I do have lights-out stuff.’”
Sanchez also offered more than just his insight from the behind the plate to help deliver one of the Tribe’s two victories midway through the 2-5 stretch.
The Indians, who had witnessed Scranton pound out seven runs on June 2 and Syracuse plate five scores on June 3, rallied around a career night from Sanchez to upend the Chiefs 11-2 on June 4 at NBT Bank Stadium.
Sanchez picked up a slumping offense by producing his first career multi-homer game in which he went 3-for-6 effort with a pair of home runs, two runs scored and a career high-tying five RBI. The backstop took Josh Roenicke deep for a three-run shot in the third inning and later connected on a two-run blast off Manny Delcarmen in the fifth frame.
As he reflected on the milestone, Sanchez noted his approach that night involved “Just keeping my hands loose and making (my swing) one movement at a time…it allows me to get to more pitches.”
The win proved to be shortlived, however, and the Tribe dropped three consecutive games through the series-opener at Lehigh Valley on June 7.
At 2-6 since the end of May (5/31), the Indians were in desperate need of another lights-out, individual performance which could grab the wheel and help right the teetering ship. Yet the team could never have imagined the masterful performance in waiting from righty pitcher Vance Worley.
Pitcher and *slugger,* Vance Worley, that is:
Worley brought the total package against his ex-team Lehigh team at his once-home ballpark to deliver a performance for the ages on June 8. The starting hurler fired eight innings of two-run ball on the mound, and also went 3-for-3 with two singles, a home run and two RBI at the plate. Worley whiffed seven and issued just one mere walk in what proved to be his final Triple-A outing of the year.
Records-wise, and along with piloting the Indians to a win, Worley’s historic performance marked the first homer from an Indians pitcher since Mart McLeary’s solo shot on Aug. 3, 2007 at Louisville. The three hits and two runs driven were the first multi-RBI game from a team hurler since Eric Hacker plated three on June 18, 2009 and the first multi-hit effort from a Tribe arm since Brandon Cumpton went 2-for-3 on April 18, 2014 at Louisville.
Sparked by the electrifying victory, the Indians took each of the next three games from the IronPigs and the first two contests against Durham as part of a season high-tying five-game win streak. The Tribe was finally off and rolling through the midway point of the month’s third season. And as a testament to the Club’s resiliency, rallied after the much-deserved and highly-anticipated promotion of top prospect Gregory Polanco, to reel off 10 wins over the next 14 games through action of June 24.
A bitter-sweet stretch in the truest sense of the term.
Polanco officially earned his big league promotion to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 10. The news of the recall, however, was announced to the entire team by manager Dean Treanor in Lehigh’s visiting clubhouse on June 9. This type of “ceremony” was far from the normal, one-on-one routine of informing a player of his first call to The Show –
Then again, Polanco was far from your “normal” player:
“Usually I’d call a player in [to the office], but with this kid, I thought that the whole team would want to be a part of it,” Treanor said. “Everybody started cheering and that just shows how well liked he is with his teammates and how much they care about him.”
Hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo added, “Our manager does a real nice job of telling guys when they’re getting called up, but tonight he did it in front of everyone, which was unusual,” he said. “Dean was going around talking about the game and he pointed to Polanco and said, ‘Oh, and you’re going to Pittsburgh.'”
When you tell them they’re going to the Major Leagues for the first time, it’s a special moment; Polanco’s grin was ear-to-ear.”
So were the smiles of IL pitchers (presumably), who no longer were forced to face the Tribe’s five-tool phenom.
At the time of his promotion, Polanco had terrorized opposing hurlers to rank first in the IL in runs (47), RBI (49), triples (T-1st, 5), hits (86), extra-base hits (29) and total base (134) and second in average (.346). The top prospect also departed for the Pirates having reached base safely in 50 of his 62 games and with hits in 45 of those 62 tilts.
Minor League Baseball’s revolving door thus whisked away a powerful bat, but not without bringing, in-turn, a promotion of deadly double-barreled action from the Double-A Altoona Curve –
Enter right-handers Nick Kingham and A.J. Morris.
The pair of Triple-A rookies dispatched the notion of a learning curve, cutting down IL batters with expert efficiency to combine for a 0.77 ERA with just four earned runs in 46 2/3 innings, 35 strikeouts/11 walks and three wins over the duo’s seven full starts in June. Kingham and Morris limited opponents to a mere 32 base hits (only 1 HR) in 164 at-bats for a .195 average against through their Triple-A debut months.
The 22-year-old righty blanked the reigning IL champion Durham Bulls on just five base hits and one walk with eight strikeouts in his June 13 debut. Kingham then concluded the month at 2-0 with a lone earned run, 20 strikeouts/5 walks and a .165 average against over his 26 2/3 innings of work (four full starts).
The former Curve ace allowed two runs in six innings during his debut on June 7 at Lehigh, before tossing a six-hit shutout – the first nine-inning gem of his career – against the Bulls on June 12 at Victory Field. He capped June at 1-2 with three earned runs (1.35 ERA), 15 strikeouts/6 walks and a .233 average against over 20 innings pitched (three full starts).
The MiLB revolving door and a stacked Pirates farm system had ultimately helped the Indians pitching staff recover from the departures of Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. However, that same door had yet to fully swing through to bolster the Tribe’s depleted offense via Polanco.
After triumphing 5-4 in a 12-inning, see-saw affair at Norfolk on June 22, the team’s effort at the plate was held to three runs or fewer in all but one of the final eight games in June. A seven-run eruption powered by three doubles from Jaff Decker in Durham marked the only exception during a tough 2-6 skid through the end of the month.
All told, the Indianapolis Indians battled through key losses and a stretch of rivalry showdowns with the IL North to complete June just one game below a .500 record at 14-15. The results – call it “treading water” – was a luxury the first-place Tribe could afford after they preserved atop the division through more than halfway point of 2014.
And with a record of 47-37 as of June 30, the Indians were just four games down from their season’s overall high-water mark of 45-31 on June 22.
JUNE PLAYER OF THE MONTH:
The two-time Tribe MVP Hague provided a much-needed offensive spark to a lineup searching for a new identity following the recall of phenom Gregory Polanco. Team captain Hague answered the call by contributing across the board with team-leading totals of 13 runs scored, 28 total hits, five homers, 11 extra-base knocks and an incredible 24 RBI in an Indians-best 28 games during the month.
Hague more than fulfilled his reputation as “The Hit Collector” by producing a base knock in 22 of 28 games during June and reaching safely in all but four contests with the addition of his 11 walks and three hit-by-pitches.