As the Indians stumble back home after a tough few days …
1) Things certainly have changed in a week. Seven days ago the Indians were rolling in the cotton, having swept Seattle in four dramatic games — two on walk-off home runs. Now they’ve lost seven of eight, lost their closer and lost their bullpen. Temporarily at least. Chris Perez is sidelined, Vinne Pestano has struggled and the Indians lost three times when the opposing team scored the winning runs on its last at-bat. Turnabout seems to be fair play here, as the Indians have won a few games in dramatic fashion themselves. Now they’re losing that way, which of course is decidedly not dramatic when you’re on the losing end. It’s a good thing seasons are 162 games.
2) It might figure this would happen to a Cleveland team. The season starts with the bullpen the one given, then the bullpen struggles. This season, the Indians have as many blown saves (nine) as saves. The bullpen is walking 4.07 hitters per nine innings (seventh highest in the league) and giving up 1.1 home runs per nine. The struggles of the back end lately have been glaring. In a seven-game stretch that started a week ago with the two-game series against the Tigers, Indians late relievers made 10 appearances after the seventh inning, pitched 10 2/3 innings and gave up 16 runs. They lost three games, blew two saves, saved one and had a 13.50 ERA. Clearly this kind of finish to games won’t win too often. Just as clearly the Indians believe the bullpen’s track record is an indicator that this stretch is just one of those blips teams have during a long season. As we all know, blips happen.
3) With Perez out, Pestano moves to the closer role, which from the outside seems like a gutsy move by Francona given the way Pestano has pitched recently. But to Francona, it’s about defining roles and being consistent. Clearly he believes in Pestano, just as he believes in Nick Hagadone, who was put into a tie game in the eighth on Monday — and failed. Joe Smith, Cody Allen and Rich Hill will have more asked of them, as Joe Smith moves to the eighth. The Indians believed they had bullpen depth when the season started. Now it’s being tested.
4) Francona’s approach becomes crystal clear during a stretch like this. He’s never the kind to panic, or waver in what he believes is right. He’s a big fan of Hagadone, and didn’t hesitate to put him into the game Monday right after he was recalled from AAA. He believes in Allen, and has put him in some tough spots. And he believes in Pestano. Francona will not force things and he will manage to win, but he will do it the most consistent way he knows, and the way he believes. “This is a little bit of a tough stretch,” he said Monday. “We’re getting tested. We’re going to figure it out. We’re going to battle through it. Some times it may not be pretty, some times it might. But we’re going to figure it out.” Not much doubt there.
5) Francona’s book on his time in Boston (aptly titled “Francona: The Red Sox Years”) really brought his philosophies and approach to light. One of his foundations is his belief in being consistent. He sparred frequently with the Red Sox front office over decisions, and always told them it would do the team no good if he changed his thinking when the team was struggling. To Francona, consistency breeds belief, which breeds confidence. In Boston, he called team meetings, but only occasionally, and never to berate players. His message in meetings: Take a deep breath folks; we will get through this, and we will be fine. It’s no doubt the same message he’s giving the Indians right now.
6) Respect is also vital to Francona. He wants players to respect the game, respect the opponent and more than anything respect their teammates. The Francona way understands all points of view, always. To the point of telling management he understood why they might want a day-night doubleheader after a travel day even though he knew it would kill his team. He wants his teams to respect the opponent, umpires and fans. He wants to show respect to questions and expects the media to respect answers. He doesn’t appreciate cell phones going off in news conferences and he respects that players will make mistakes. When they do, he will bend over backward not to call them out in public. In exchange, he asks his players to show him the same respect, and to give their all. Respectfully, of course.
7) Nobody better described Francona and his feelings about baseball than former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who is now with the Cubs. Epstein summed up Francona this way: “He loves baseball. He loves the game. He physically loves the clubhouse. Emotionally, I think he loves to let go of the outside world. Some people compartmentalize the job. Tito compartmentalizes the real world, throws himself into the clubhouse, loves every aspect of the clubhouse. He loves being down there and loves nakedness, vulgarity. Loves joking around, loves busting people’s (chops), loves to play cards. He loves everything about it. It’s part of the fabric of who he is.”
8) The Indians are early a very challenging series of games, which started with the two games against Detroit. It features 25 games against Detroit, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, the Yankees, Detroit, Texas and Washington. Every one of those teams is playoff caliber. The Indians started the stretch with a 26-18 record.
9) Numbers time: Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Indians ranked 10th in the league in batting average (.263), but fifth in batting average on balls in play (.310). They also were seventh in on-base percentage (.330, with Detroit first at .352). This probably accounts for the team’s positive ranking in run differential, a number that indicates a team’s overall quality of play. A team that wins and has a negative run differential is working some magic; a team that loses with a positive run differential will start to win provided the numbers stays positive. After Tuesday’s downer of a loss, the Indians are plus-19 in 51 games, a run differential of .35 per game. In 2012, the team’s run differential was minus 1.1. The Indians need to bring the number up this season, but it’s overall a sign that things are not bleak and a 2012-like collapse is not likely.