Nine Innings: Including reasons for Lonnie not to bunt

1) A few days before the Tigers series started, my good friend Dave from Westlake (he’s the guy who used to correctly predict the Browns drafts) texted to ask how many games the Indians would win in the four-game series. “One or two” was the pithy response. This guess was based on the Tigers starting pitchers, the Indians starting pitchers and the Tigers lineup, which is very reminiscent of the Indians of the ‘90s in attitude and relentlessness. Lo and behold, the Tigers slapped the Indians around pretty good the first two games, then came up with the finale in dramatic fashion to win three-of-four. If the Indians are disappointed about anything with the series, it shouldn’t be the last game. That was an excellent, exciting game that could have gone either way. Instead, they should be disappointed that they took two games to actually start playing. The first two games the Indians pressed. It took a team meeting ran by Jason Giambi to get them to wake up. Had they won the finale, it actually would have felt like they won the series given how badly they started it.

2) Some of the Indians strategy in the Tigers finale drew raised eyebrows as it happened, especially when Terry Francona did not have Lonnie Chisenhall try to bunt Drew Stubbs to third with nobody out in the ninth and when he did not pinch-hit for Mike Aviles against right-hander Joaquin Benoit in the 10th. The knee-jerk would be to second guess, but in both cases the numbers and the logic favored Francona. Asking Chisenhall to bunt would have been asking him to do something he can’t; it goes against the grain of Francona’s belief system, which is to maximize what players do well and minimize what they don’t do well. Put them in position to succeed, not to fail. Chisenhall has one sacrifice bunt attempt as a major leaguer, and that was two years ago. In 2,441 professional plate appearances, Chisenhall has tried three sacrifice bunts. Asking him to do it Monday would have been asking him to do something he couldn’t. In the ninth, Francona had Carlos Santana and Giambi on the bench, but he knew that righties were hitting .208 against Benoit, lefties .203. He also knew that Giambi was 2-for-12 against Benoit, Santana 2-for-15. Santana had a home run, but he also had five strikeouts. Aviles had only seen Benoit three times, but he had one hit. Francona went with Aviles. And the old bromide again turned out to be true: When moves work, they look smart; when they don’t work, they don’t.

3) Now. if the debate centers on whether a major leaguer should be able to bunt when he’s called upon to do so, that’s another story. Earlier this season, Francona asked Ryan Raburn to bunt, but after seeing his first attempt he took the bunt off. He didn’t even try with Chisenhall, figuring a left-hand hitter should be able to pull the ball to move the runner, which of course Chisenhall didn’t. The bunt has lost favor as sabematricians and the “don’t give up an out” folks have taken over baseball, but at times it’s needed. And Monday it might have come in handy. Move a runner to third with one out and there are several ways he can score. Wild pitch, fly ball, squeeze, heck even a plain old hit. Alas, it did not happen.

4) Chisenhall went 0-for-7 after being recalled from AAA in June, but has hit well in the 15 games since, hitting .315 with two home runs and nine RBI. Francona has kept Chisenhall from hitting tough lefties, for good reason. For the season he’s still just 3-for-32 against left-handed pitchers.

5) Michael Bourn ran a long way to track down Victor Martinez’s game-winning hit Monday night, but said he just couldn’t catch up to it. Bourn said he was playing a little shallower than usual, because with Miguel Cabrera on second he wanted a chance to throw him out on a base hit. Martinez’s two-out drive to dead center sent Bourn scrambling back. “He hit that really well,” Bourn said. Bourn’s only chance was to get close to the ball and hope he could jump against the wall, a la Kenny Lofton. But he said he simply did not get close enough to it try.

6) It didn’t take long to see enough of Carlos Carrasco, notwithstanding Francona’s unbridled optimism about his players. Carrasco was tough to watch, and he seemed to compound one mistake with two or three more. Which is why the Indians sent him down, which clearly was a sign that they were fed up with him. Francona said that Carrasco needs to not be tentative — read: afraid — once he finds some trouble. “Limiting damage, slowing the game down, however you want to say it,” Francona said. Carrasco is 26 and coming off Tommy John surgery. When he talks, he doesn’t exactly sound like the most intense guy in the world, but that could be a product of language (Carrasco is from Venezuela). He’s big, throws 96 mph and has stuff that makes Francona drool.  Or at least he says it does. “The further he gets away from this surgery, and the more he pitches we are at some point going to have a really good pitcher,” Francona said. “It’s just been a little inconsistent at this point.”

7) Danny Salazar will start against Toronto on Thursday in the spot vacated by Carrasco. Not Carrasco. And not Trevor Bauer, who shocked everyone by pitching out of the stretch in a doubleheader fiasco in Chicago. Salazar, who will make his major league debut.

8) Michael Brantley has hit in every spot of the lineup this season, one through nine. He’s had 100 plate appearances leading off, 81 hitting fifth, 58 hitting seventh and 50 hitting cleanup. Brantley doesn’t seem to be a cleanup hitter, but he’s driven in nine runs there. His best batting average is hitting third (.400), but he gets the most production from the fifth spot, where he has four home runs and 13 RBI. His best OPS is hitting third: 1.038. Most hitters prefer to be slotted into a spot in the lineup consistently, and Brantley is probably no different. But Francona has needed to move him around use him fourth given the shoulder struggles of Nick Swisher and the inconsistency of Mark Reynolds. Brantley has accepted the juggling, and produced. “Ideally I like to have one guy that you can bounce around that keeps everybody else in order, and it doesn’t screw (that guy) up,” Francona said. “And (Brantley’s) that guy. He does it willingly. And it doesn’t get in his way and it helps our entire lineup.” How has Brantley responded? He’s hitting .387 with runners in scoring position. Among players with at least 50 at-bats in that situation, he’s seventh in all of baseball, and second in the American League. Brantley has 46 RBI, 37 when runners were in scoring position.

9) The pitcher who, by Francona’s own admission, is most like Brantley? Cody Allen, a tough-as-nails guy who is afraid of nobody. Allen has pitched in all kinds of roles, and with Vinnie Pestano taking a break from the setup role, Allen moved into the seventh inning Tuesday night and had a quick and effective inning.  Allen is 24 and only in his second season, but in 37 games he has a 2.45 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.75 to 1, and he’s given up just 1.064 walks and hits per inning pitched. Allen says he does not expect to be in the seventh inning role long because he expects Pestano back — “Vinnie’s been one of the best setup guys in the league for years” — but he has earned the admiration of his manager. “We’ve kind of pitched him all over and he’s very valuable because he can come in and he can throw strikes,” Francona said. “He can get swing-and-miss, and he competes. … He’s done a terrific job and he’s just gonna get better.” Allen said he “honestly” does not care when he pitches, that “every inning is important no matter where it is in the game.” With his fastball, his approach and his attitude, Allen seems like a future closer in the making.

And since the Tigers game went extra innings, we go 10 as well … 

10) Wonder what Giambi said at the team meeting? He was asked. His answer: “I don’t remember.” Clearly, what’s said in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.