What to Watch For Down the Stretch

Key Factors That Will Make or Break the Indians 2016 Season

By Mike Lopresti

Bell, Josh_002_July 23, 2016_Adam Pintar

August 1, 2016 – So what’s August good for – besides sweating?

Clarity, for one thing. After a grinding and often trying season. It’s crunch time for the Indians, with several questions to answer by Labor Day. Such as:

They ended July five games behind Columbus in the International League West with 35 left to play…is there a pennant race to come, or a final month of futile chasing, like a greyhound after the mechanical rabbit?

They exited July with a 55-54 record, after a dreary 1-2 series against last-place Norfolk…can they finish with the sixth consecutive winning season, which would make Dean Treanor – now No. 3 on the franchise managerial victory list — 6-for-6?

On the last day of July, Josh Bell was fifth in the league in hitting and third in RBI, even amidst a slump…can he reheat and become the first Indianapolis batting champion in 27 years, or the first RBI champion in 39?

Frank Duncan had seven wins…can a right-hander who started the season in Double-A Altoona, while the young horses in the Indians rotation drew gobs of attention – not to mention summonses from Pittsburgh — actually end up leading the team in victories?

Danny Ortiz has had four walk-off hits, the most recent on July 29 in the 12th inning…will he get even more Gatorade dumped on his head?

Willy Garcia_20th Anniversary_Where Legends Grow_04142016_Dave Wegiel
Leading the league in outfield assists, can Willy Garcia finish the season as the IL’s most dangerous man to try to take an extra base against? (Dave Wegiel)

Willy Garcia led the lead with 12 outfield assists…can he finish, officially, as the man most dangerous to try to take an extra base against?

The Indians pitching staff had thrown 15 shutouts…is breaking the Victory Field era record of 16 a foregone conclusion?

Indianapolis already has sent up 10 players to Pittsburgh to make their major league debut. “Must be a record,” Treanor mentioned…how many more will go east through the gushing pipeline to PNC Park?

Alen Hanson had 30 stolen bases…does he repeat for the second consecutive year as the most prolific thief in the International League (though he shared the title last year)?

All that ought to keep the Indians occupied through the dog days.

“One of the things we’re going to talk about, that month of August, it can be a great month,” Treanor said. “Or it can be a month where you just drag coming to the field.”

Great or a drag; there’s the issue on the table for August. Here are eleven things that could help decide.

#1 – Stay large in the Clippers’ rearview mirror

Indianapolis is in Columbus for four games starting Aug. 1, with three more in Victory Field later in the month. There is a now-or-never whiff in the air. “We have to make a statement that we’re going to be a factor in this,” Treanor said.

#2 – Last call for the offense

In the final 13 games of July, the Indians averaged two runs a night. That has been a chronic problem, and one reason why an Indianapolis team second in the league in ERA has had to fight to stay above .500, which is counter to baseball logic.

“If we want to make a run, we have to be better than that,” Treanor said.

The pitching rarely wastes support. Through July, the Indians had scored at last four runs in 52 games. They won 40 of them.

“It’s easy to press. It’s easy to say I’m going to hit this four-run home run right now, and nobody’s on,” Bell said. “It’s easy to say I’m going to take this game into my own hands. I feel like we have the right mentality. I feel like we have the right game plan. It’s just turning the page from this last month and getting after it this next month.”

#3 – Put a bandage on that ghastly 12-22 record in one-run games.

“You have to take care of those close games,” Treanor said. “And when you don’t that means it’s a bullpen issue, or it means you can’t score late.”

To wit: The Indians have lost 10 games when leading after six innings. When trailing after six, they are 2-39.

Alen Hanson (4)_04172016_Cory Seward
Alen Hanson has 30 of the Tribe’s 51 stolen bases as of Aug. 1. (Corey Seward)

#4 – Play well against Louisville, since the Indians have 13 games left with the Bats.

“Which we have a tendency not to do, no matter what they’re doing,” Treanor said. Indy is 6-7 against Louisville this season.

#5 – Pirates? What Pirates?

Player curiosity deepens about what opportunities might be ahead, given trade deadline moves, September call-ups, and the constant comings-and-goings with Pittsburgh. A sure sign of that, according to Treanor, is how often he sees his guys on their cell phones.

“They’ve got more rumors than I do,” he said. “I think it’s natural. They know scouts are in the stands. I think they try to do a little too much. There’s a lot of dynamics going on here.”

Trying to keep everyone moving the right direction through all that is a reason a Triple-A manager’s job is among the most demanding in baseball.

“Whatever happens in Pittsburgh happens in Pittsburgh,” Treanor said. “You have no control over that. But we have control over trying to get back in this.”

#6 – A revived Bell.

It’s been a struggle since his dream cameo in Pittsburgh, where in four plate appearances he singled off the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, hit a grand slam, and walked twice.

“That’s something I’ll never forget. It’s one of those things where I can look back and tell my grandchildren I got my first hit off a Cy Young Award winner, and the next AB was a grand slam,” he said. P.S. He has both balls to keep for life.

Bell, Josh_001_April 19, 2016_Adam Pintar
Josh Bell is in the hunt to be Indianapolis’ first league batting champion in 27 years; first RBI champion in 39. (Adam Pintar)

But Treanor said the letdown when returning to Triple-A can impact anyone, even Bell, who has fought impatience at the plate. “No matter what you’ve been told before you get there, when you’re told you’re coming back, it’s going to affect you,” Treanor said. “I think he fell into that `I’ve got to show them, or I’ve got to do more.’  He was aware of that right away. He’s settling in now, becoming more of who he is.”

Bell’s trying to, anyway. But he finished July hitting .222 with only two RBI in the 14 games since he returned from Pittsburgh.

“It’s the same game, that’s the coolest part about it,” he said. “The balls might be a little bit tighter. You might have one or two more decks on the stadium, but it’s the same game. You are where your feet are. Get that win wherever you’re at.”

#7 – Duncan stays the rock every fifth day.

He is 7-5 through 13 starts, and not allowed more than three earned runs in any of them.

Duncan, Frank_005_June 24, 2016_Adam Pintar
On a roster that has had 10 call-ups to Pittsburgh so far — the bulk of them pitchers — first-year Indian Frank Duncan has emerged as a steady force in the rotation. (Adam Pintar)

“Something I try to do is just give everyone on the team a sense of comfort when I pitch, knowing that they’re going to get the same person out there every single time as far as consistency,” he said. “There’ll be games where I might get hit around a little, but there’s never going to be games where I beat myself.”

Treanor: “He’s really stabilized our rotation.”

#8 – Keep running on Garcia. Please.

One of the most fun part of Indians baseball is watching Garcia nail a foolhardy soul seeking an extra base.

“When someone gets on first, the first thing that goes through my mind is if they’re going to get a hit, I hope they hit it to me because I know I’m going to get them out at third base,” he said through a translator. “I want to be challenged in that situation.”

Said Treanor, “You can feel the excitement in our dugout when you see somebody try to go from first to third on a base hit to right field.”

Garcia has had a staggering 49 outfield assists since 2014. And to think, that arm is not by intention, it’s just happened.

“I was blessed by God. To be honest, I haven’t worked at anything to develop that ability,” he said. “If I said I put ice on my arm, I’d be lying. I can’t remember the last time I put ice on my arm.”

#9 – Get Ortiz to the plate in the late inning.

Four walkoff hits. There’s a lot of damage in that .222 batting average.

“I go to the home plate not thinking too much. You think too much maybe you rush and miss your pitch,” he said. “I like that situation. Sometimes you’re not hitting early in the game but you have that one chance to win the game and you hit in the clutch.”

One thing. Does he prefer Gatorade be dumped on him by his teammates in this postgame rituals, or ice water?

Ortiz Double Shot (2)
With four walkoff winning hits this season, Danny Ortiz has had lots of opportunities to celebrate. (Adam Pintar)

A good question,” he said. “Whatever, it’s cold.”

#10 – More larceny from Hanson.

Where would the Indians running game be without him? Minus Hanson, Indy is 51-for-103 in stolen base attempts. If that percentage were a temperature, it’d be liquid oxygen.

#11 – Time for the finishing kick, no matter how often the roster changes.

But the Norfolk weekend, with mistakes and bad at-bats, was not encouraging.

“We’re a better team than what we’ve shown,” Treanor said.

“We’re going to have to play a cleaner brand of baseball than we’ve played,” Duncan said. “It’s a sprint, obviously.”

And Aug. 1 is the starter’s pistol.

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 the nation in seniority within the Baseball Writers Association of America. (Cover photo by Adam Pintar.)

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