Latest Home Stand a Microcosm of the Young Season: “The Roller Coaster Ride”
By Mike Lopresti
How to figure out the Indians after six weeks? Tarot cards? Ouija board?
They’re good, except when they’re not. Their numbers tell the truth, except when they fib. Take the staff earned run average. Best in the International League. The starters dominate nearly nightly. Fine pitching means a shining record, just as two plus two equals four. Right?
Wrong. The Indians leave town this week 21-21 on the season, still searching for the next gear.
“If you had said that on April 10,” manager Dean Treanor said, “I would have said you’re out of your mind.”
Consider the home stand just concluded, against the two teams with the best records in the league. Maybe that can give us a clue of the present course, and future prospects. Seven Days in May, Tribe style.
The Indians limp into Victory Field having lost six of eight, with a sub-.500 record, and starting to slip behind in the International League West. It has been a frustrating start, with blown leads in some games, quiet bats in others. And now they must face their old pals, the Columbus Clippers. Treanor’s pre-game message to the team: “You want to make a statement? Here it is. It’s right in front of you. Make the statement.”
Josh Bell mentions something about the “the roller coaster ride of the season.” Every down has an up. They all understand that. The up this night would be Chad Kuhl with seven scoreless innings, running his shutout streak to 17 innings. After the 2-0 win, you need a microscope to find his 0.91 ERA, best in all of Triple-A.
Kuhl on his success: “It’s been a ton of fun just being able to go out and produce. I think (the factor in his success) has been being able to attack hitters, being aggressive with my sinker and going to the off speed early in the counts, late in the counts, and trusting my slider and changeup this year.”
Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow are the marquee names in the rotation, but Kuhl has quickly become impossible to overlook.
“It’s been cool to see everyone rolling together,” he says. “It’s nice because we’re all rooting for each other. You can’t wait for that fifth day to roll around and get to your own turn.”
Another day, this one chilly, another boffo pitching start. Glasnow this time with six strong innings in a 4-1 win. And there is a splash of offense, with five consecutive two-out hits in the first inning, including back-to-back triples by Bell and Jason Rogers.
Maybe it’s the start of something.
Jacob Stallings: “We’re kind of treading water now, especially offensively. But I’ve seen those guys do it. I’ve come up with those guys and I’ve seen those guys get hot.”
So much for momentum. The Indians strand 10 baserunners, get three more picked off, and Treanor is ejected for the first time all season in a messy 5-3 defeat.
Treanor: “I don’t like couldas and shouldas, but I think we know we let that game get away from us. I don’t know what that was.”
Wanting desperately to take the four-game series and strike a blow against the Clippers, the Indians turn to Taillon. He’s not in prime form, but he’s good enough, with six shutout innings in a 4-2 win. He wanders into a bases-loaded jam in the fifth but gets out of it, after a stern pep talk from his catcher, Stallings.
“Everyone in that room feels there’s not a better roster out there talent-wise, the way everyone compliments each other,” Taillon says. “But we haven’t really strung it together yet.”
However, three wins over the Clippers have brightened the mood. “The morale kind of turned around,” Adam Frazier says.
The day shows two notable things. One is Taillon’s growth as a pitcher.
“I thought Taillon took a step forward today with me, that he went to that changeup knowing he wasn’t locating his curveball,” Treanor says. “Those are things that they have to be able to do. It’s also being able to get out of trouble. It’s one thing to pitch into trouble, but you’ve got to be able to pitch out of trouble.”
The other is Stallings’ value as the catcher, handling the glittering stable of Indianapolis pitching prospects.
Treanor: “I have stressed to him and will continue to stress to him take a look at who he catches. It’s his responsibility to make those guys on the mound better. If offense comes with that, even better.”
Stallings: “I take pride in it. When they do well I feel like I’ve had a part in it.
“We’re still in the minor leagues and those guys are still working on stuff that they need to work on, so they can help Pittsburgh, hopefully this season. So sometimes that’s calling pitches that might not be the best pitches in that situation, but it’s something that they need to work on. Sometime it’s hard to get them on board with that because they’re competitors and they want to get everybody out. Obviously I want to win every game too, so I’m back there kind of battling myself when to call what they need to work on, and when to get after it and try to get somebody out. It’s challenging but I love it.
“You’ve got to build the trust. I think the main thing for me is showing that I care. Then the trust builds and they trust what I say when I come out there. It’s fun building those relationships, and that’s the part nobody really sees.”
On the night the 12 millionth fan in Victory Field history enters the gate, Pedro Florimon clears the bases with a three-run triple and Indianapolis beats Scranton/Wilkes Barre 5-1. Meanwhile, Frazier’s hitting streak goes to 12 games. He owns the hottest bat in the lineup, in his first six weeks in Triple-A.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot. I started off slow but I feel like I got to my identity; just using my hands and letting the ball fall where it may. Not trying to do too much is the main thing I do.”
All signs are there for a really big home stand.
Or not. It’s Iron Man night at Victory Field, and the Indians could have used him on defense. Four errors doom them in a 7-3 loss. Kuhl’s scoreless streak is snapped, but he only allows one earned run, and keeps his cool while the misplays mount around him.
“It’s something I didn’t really handle well in college or the lower levels. You work on it, and you grow and you mature and you know the next inning somebody’s going to make a diving play for you. You know they’re going to make more (errors) but they’re also going to make awesome plays, and they’re going to be there, especially as a ground ball guy, I rely on them a lot.”
The gray chill of early week is forgotten, as the home stand ends in sunshine and 78 degrees. One more win will take the series against Scranton/Wilkes Barre and make it a stirring 5-2 week for the Indians.
Never mind. Glasnow pitches well, but the Railrider arms are even better in a 2-0 Indianapolis defeat. One pitch – which Gary Sanchez sends out of the park for a two-run homer — beats Glasnow. So often it has happened this season, good pitching wasted.
“Today for example,’” says Frazier, whose hitting streak stops at 13. “One good swing by them, and we lose the game.”
Treanor notes other flaws, such as a blown rundown play by the Indianapolis defense.
“We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We have a rundown where there wasn’t one slow heartbeat in the bunch. It was `I couldn’t wait to get rid of the ball.’
“That can’t happen.”
So the home stand ends 4-3 for the Indians. There has been much to cheer, and more than 46,000 customers have shown up for the last four games, sensational for May.
But there is also a sense of missed opportunity.
“We would have liked to get a little more out of it,” Stallings says.
“You know what these guys are capable of,” Kuhl adds. “We’ve all been around, and we all know how baseball works, it’s cyclical.
“You have to believe we’re going to put it all together.”
For the week, the Indians give up only 12 earned runs in seven games.
“You should win when that happens, shouldn’t you?” Treanor asks.
Right. But then there’s the hitting.
“We haven’t even talked about this. But because our pitching is that good and we know it’s that good, does that not bring a sense of urgency to the offense?” Treanor says. “We haven’t gone out and really banged, and put up runs. Is that there? Yeah, it’s there for us, but I’d like to know when that’s going to happen.”
To be sure, it has been a week for growth for the Indians.
Treanor: “Is it enough growth? No. But they are learning things. Some of the responses are, `I’ve never heard that before, I never saw that before.’ It shows how young they are. I was standing there today, with nothing better to do than think, and I’m going, `You know what? We’re going to have to coach our asses off 24/7 because of the youth of the team.’
“This is a different level and some guys are struggling at this level. But there’s a lot of lessons to be learned, and we are learning lessons. My viewpoint on that is I don’t want to be the smartest guy around, because we’ve learned so many lessons. That means things aren’t going well.
“We’ve got to find a way to climb out of this. We can’t go 4-3 on a home stand and expect to gain ground. It’s not going to happen.”
So Seven Days in May gave mixed signals. And now they pack for a long haul. The Indians, 8-11 on the road this season, play 15 of the next 19 games away from Victory Field. We’ll know more when that’s over.
“Test time, no question,” Treanor says. “I hate to use the cliché, but we’re going to learn about this club by going through this adversity. They’re going to learn about themselves. I think that’s the next 19 games.”
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.