After First Half of the Season Filled With Uncertainty, Are the Indians Finding Their Stride?
By Mike Lopresti
This was a steamy Sunday in June, and Indianapolis was trailing Syracuse 4-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. It seemed another futile and frustrating day, the kind that had been plaguing the Indians so often.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Three runs, a walk-off double by Josh Bell, the kind of victory that can reboot a clubhouse. “I don’ know if this gets us on a roll, but this one has a chance to get us on a roll,” Manager Dean Treanor said afterward. “It was hot, guys were complaining, I’m pouring water over my head.”
A week later, the Indians had on seven of eight games and were in first place in the International League West. Yeah, that’s a roll.
Say this about the first half of the Indians season – it has rarely been boring.
There were Jacob Stallings’ seven RBI in one game against Rochester.
The four Indianapolis homers in the ninth inning at Durham, when the Bulls finally got the last out by bringing an infielder in to pitch.
There was the 13-1 romp over Louisville in April, when Bell hit for the cycle. And then the next night, when they eked by 1-0, behind Jameson Taillon’s pitching.
There was the 2-0 victory over Rochester in June, when four pitchers combined for a no-hitter into the ninth inning. And two nights later, a 16-11 slugfest victory at Toledo in 13 innings.
Ah, the varied ways to win a baseball game.
There was Adam Frazier sizzling at the plate in his first Triple-A season, as he has done at every other stop on his journey through the Pirates’ farm system, fighting for the International League lead in hitting at last count. This, for an Indians franchise that has not seen a batting champion in 26 years.
“I’m trying to keep it simple and stick to my identity and not do too much,” said Frazier, who finished in the top three in average and on base percentage in two of his first three professional seasons. “Knowing myself, knowing my swing, knowing how to fix those things when something might be off. Just sticking to who I am and not trying to do too much, because when I do, that’s when I usually get myself in tough spots.”
So far, about the only bad moment for Frazier this season has been sitting grimly in front of the clubhouse television one day, watching his old school Mississippi State go down trying to advance to Omaha and the College World Series. Once upon a time, he helped get the Bulldogs there, and mentioned how, “Omaha is everything you dream of it being, and more.”
There was the best starting rotation in the league, led by hot Pirate prospects Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl, and the assumption that it was only a matter of time before the phone started ringing from Pittsburgh. Now Taillon is already gone.
Meanwhile, there was also Jorge Rondon, throwing a 100 mile-an-hour fastball out of the bullpen. As Rondon said through an interpreter, “Very exciting. Not a lot of pitchers can do that.”
There were the first two months, when the Indians seemed to forever be taking two steps forward, and then two steps back, stuck in the .500 record range like a commuter in I-465 traffic at 5 o’clock. And also the chronic pursuit of their old pals from Columbus, who won 11 consecutive games early.
“The thing that is surprising is we haven’t got on a roll with our pitching. Waiting for that,” Treanor said last week.
“Hopefully we’ll go on a tear. You don’t want to be chasing them all season long,” Bell concurred.
“I guess we haven’t really hit our stride yet. We’ve got the talent. I think that’s pretty obvious,” Frazier added. “That’s part of the season. It’s five, six months long; it gives you that time to put streaks together.”
And then came the surge of Father’s Day week. Phenom Austin Meadows was promoted from Altoona with a 24-game hitting streak and promptly had four hits, four RBI and a home run his first two games. His arrival gave the Indians not one (No.1 Glasnow), not two (No. 2 Meadows) but the top three rated prospects (No. 3 Bell) in the Pirates organization.
The Indians were in first place. The chaser had become the chasee. Summer could begin.
The second half will be starting the weekend at home against Buffalo. Coming soon is the annual 4th of July bash, and four days later, the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the opening of Victory Field.
But before all that, a pause for Treanor to discuss the first half, and some pertinent Indians’ issues.
The biggest surprise . . .
“Just from the idea I hadn’t seen him before, it’s Frazier. This guy’s a ballplayer. This guy’s got a chance to impact us in the big leagues. He keeps ripping his pants every game. And for not having the background in the outfield, he’s playing the hell out of the outfield.
“He just has a way of getting the barrel to the ball. There’ll be a bad swing in there. Everybody has a bad swing. But then if you throw him that same pitch or throw him something in that same zone … he’ll flip it into left field. You can’t teach that. I really like what I see there. This guy’s got a chance to have a nice career.”
The continued development of Alen Hanson . . .
“Lately he’s showing the signs that he needs to show. Much more energy. He’s been a part of some big hits for us, big rallies. He has to play that way. I said this last year and would still say it, he has a chance to be a very exciting player in the big leagues with his tools. He just hasn’t really put it all together yet. He put it together for one month last year. He had a great month of May and since then it hasn’t been the same. He’s starting to show signs of that now, so you hope that continues. He needs to get on base, he needs to run and defensively he needs to make every play.
The starting pitchers . . .
“I don’t really see Taillon coming back. Is he as ready as you want him to be? Probably not because of the time off (from surgery). But he’s very cerebral and he’ll figure stuff out.”
“Glasnow is taking longer than I thought. He shows flashes with his stuff. His stuff is very, very good. He has nights where he could pitch anywhere. It comes back to command with him. I think we want it to move a little bit quicker, but he’s got to be able to throw strikes. And it’s not just the idea of throwing strikes, but it’s got to be quality strikes. He just hasn’t shown a consistency in doing that. When he does, then it’s an easy decision.
“When you talk to other teams, other managers, other players, they talk about Kuhl. His stuff has been very good. I think he might be getting a little fatigued right now. Again, this is another guy who has a chance to make an impact in Pittsburgh, with his stuff. It’s an upper-80 slider. It’s a wipeout slider some nights. With the life on his fastball, and then put that slider next to it, this guy has a real chance. I think the question is, is he going to be a starter in the big leagues or something else?”
Rondon . . .
“He is guy who’s really stepped forward. This is upper 90s (fastball), that slider will be 91. The slider has gotten better. His presence has gotten better. There’s no reason this guy shouldn’t be in the big leagues.”
Bell’s development at first base . . .
“He’s making progress. I think he’s getting more confident there. There’s some nuances he’s becoming more aware of. It’s a work in progress.”
Also Bell’s deeds at the plate, his game-winner against Syracuse joining walk offs in the playoffs against Columbus, and his first game as an Indian. We may have spotted a trend here . . .
“I truly believe in watching him last year and this year he wants to be up in that situation. That’s something you can’t teach. There’s guys who don’t want to be up there, and you can tell those guys, also.”
Max Moroff’s spot in the lineup . . .
“He’s gone through his struggles, which I think is going to help him in the long run. He’s swung it better so hopefully he takes off the second half, but from what I’ve heard about him, you would expect a little bit more and I know he expects a lot more of himself, and he struggles with that. But I think he’s going to have a good second half for us.”
So the second half will soon commence, with its various questions.
Can Rondon hit 101?
“Did it last year. Three times,” Rondon quickly noted.
Can Frazier challenge for the batting title? He will if – either figuratively or literally or maybe both – getting his pants ripped every game means anything.
“I guess it’s the only way I know,” he said. “It’s how I’ve always played. I’m not the biggest or the fastest or the strongest arm or anything like that. I try to do the little things right. I just like to win and I don’t like to lose at all. I think that just comes with my competitiveness and started at an early age.”
Is the recent streak a harbinger for a big second half?
“I feel like our pitching staff has really held us to this point, with that we’ve left them hanging a few times,” Bell said. “As long as our pitching staff continues to have the success they’re having, if we can pick it up offensively day in and day out we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball, and that’s a championship caliber team, and that’s what we strive to be.”
With the Pirates facing injuries and struggles, how often will the phone ring, asking for more help in Pittsburgh? Stallings was the latest to go.
Treanor gets the last say.
“We’re young. We’ve gone through some growing pains. I think we’re going to get better overall. The key is how long the pitching stays here. It’s a matter of time before our pitching changes. It’s already changed. I don’t know what that bodes for the second half. I think that you do see some growth, some guys have taken their lumps, there’s been some struggles, but it should make us better for the second half.
“I hate to use a cliché, when we gel, I think we have a chance to take off.”
Or have they already?
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.