Indians improve to 65-48
This was an extremely impressive win and not just for the number of runs the Indians scored -- that was the endpoint. They got those 13 runs because of a strategy put into place before the game began.
Tyler Skaggs is a young and talented pitcher, who is just returning from Tommy John surgery. He was a big part of the blockbuster deal that sent Adam Eaton to Chicago and Mark Trumbo to Arizona three years ago. He came into tonight’s game with a 2.04 ERA (3.70 FIP), and had struck out almost a batter an inning. But the Indians coaching staff and scouts had come up with a plan to beat him that didn’t necessarily involve hitting his pitches. The plan was: run on him as much as possible. Skaggs likes to use a high leg kick, and because of that is very slow to the plate. The Indians have players up and down the lineup that are stolen base threats, and so the strategy made sense.
The first opportunity to try this scheme came in the bottom of the first inning when leadoff hitter Rajai Davis reached after an eleven pitch at-bat. He stole second base and third base with Jason Kipnis at the plate, then scored when Kipnis dumped a single into left field. Kipnis would steal second later in the inning, but would be stranded there.
Meanwhile, Carlos Carrasco was struggling out of the gate. He would allow two runs on four hits in the first inning (including a Kole Calhoun home run), and another run to cross in the third inning. But Carrasco’s offense would respond each time; as mentioned above, they scored a run in the first, then Brandon Guyer homered in the second, and then they tied the game in the third inning (which included two Jose Ramirez stolen bases).
The fifth inning was the culmination of the strategy, and it worked to perfection. After Rajai Davis led off the inning with a single, he stole second base. By this time, Skaggs was very conscious of what the Indians were try to do, and threw to second a couple times, something you rarely see a pitcher do. Jason Kipnis then lined a double over Shane Robinson’s head (horrible route), allowing Davis to jog home. Francisco Lindor singled, scoring Kipnis (though Kole Calhoun made the play much closer than it should have been), Mike Napoli tomahawked a single into left field, and Lindor went to third when Robinson air-mailed the throw past the cutoff man. Jose Ramirez would be unable to get Lindor home when he grounded out; the play could have been a double play, but Lindor deked the second baseman into throwing home instead of making the turn to first. Ramirez would then steal second, and Brandon Guyer would drive both Lindor and Ramirez home with an excuse-me swing.
The phrase "comfort zone" gets used a lot by players and coaches; I would define it as the state in which a player is letting his muscle memory and instincts determine what he does in the field. Or in other words, it’s when a player isn’t thinking. The Indians took Tyler Skaggs out of his comfort zone tonight, and while it’s hard to know exactly which pitches were off because he was thinking about a runner on base, the results were clear. Had Skaggs been allowed to not worry about the running game, perhaps tonight’s contest would have been decided by the bullpens. Carlos Carrasco had to throw a lot of pitches in the first inning, and had he fallen behind 3-0 perhaps he approaches innings 3-7 much differently.
The Indians ended the evening with eight stolen bases, tying a franchise record that has been in place for 99 years. The last time a Cleveland club stole that many bases, Babe Ruth was still a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and MLB was still very much in the Dead Ball Era. And if the game hadn’t gotten out of hand, the Indians very well could have broken the record. The Indians not only lead the league in stolen bases, but they also rank among the top teams in Slugging percentage (3rd). That combination was on full display tonight, both aspects of run production feeding into each other (I guess this would be one place to use "synergistic" unironically).
Carlos Carrasco would settle down (though he did once again get into a bizarre rut, throwing over to first repeatedly in the sixth inning, something he did in his last start in New York. Maybe he’s misinterpreting a sign?), pitching seven innings, and once again giving the bullpen another light workload.
Stuffing the stat sheet, baseball edition:
Rajai Davis 1-3, 2 BB, 3 SB, 3 R
Jason Kipnis 4-5, 2 2B, SB, 3 R
Jose Ramirez 3-5, HR, 3 SB, 4 R