Now that the excitement of opening weekend has come and gone at Progressive Field, it’s time for the Cleveland Indians (1-2) to get down to the real business of the 2012 season. That business would be their ascent to the top of the AL Central standings, and the mission truly begins tonight as the Indians face off in their first AL Central battle of the season.
The Chicago White Sox (1-2) are in town for the first time this year. Much like the Indians, the White Sox are coming off of a tough opening series, theirs against the defending AL pennant winners, the Texas Rangers. Having lost two of the first three to open the year, the White Sox will be looking to get themselves back on track against an Indians team that they generally tend to have success against.
For the Indians, it’s crucial that they put the struggles and disappointment of the opening weekend behind them. Nothing they do over the next three days against the White Sox can change the offensive struggles and lost opportunities that they suffered against the Blue Jays. They can, however, put their best foot forward and avoid losing anymore ground to the first-place Detroit Tigers, who swept the Boston Red Sox this weekend to roar out to a dramatic 3-0 start.
If they plan on keeping pace with Detroit, the Indians will have to get a better all-around performance out of the bullpen. Seen by many as the one real strength of the team, the Indians have seen different cogs of the bullpen fail or nearly fail in every game so far, Chris Perez in Game 1, Tony Sipp in Game 2, and Joe Smith (almost) in Game 3. The early season struggles will more than likely give way to a more normal level of performance, but until it does it’s hard not to be concerned.
Meanwhile, the offense had its own problems that it will need to correct moving forward. The Indians scored four runs in each game against the Blue Jays, but they very well could have scored twice more in each game had they been able to take advantage of some key opportunities, particularly with a runner on third and less than one out. Several times the Indians faced this situation and were unable to bring the man home. It’s this type of failed situational hitting that was this team’s Achilles heel all last season. Luckily, the season is long and there’s still plenty of time left to correct it.
Meanwhile, the White Sox are in the midst of a season of change. Gone are the familiar faces of manager Ozzie Guillen and pitcher Mark Buehrle, who have had the Tribe’s number for years. In steps Robin Ventura in his first Major League managerial job. Despite losing Buehrle, his team is still armed with a heavy arsenal of arms and bats, many of whom are coming off of horribly unproductive years, for example Alex Rios and Adam Dunn. But that doesn’t mean they can be taken lightly—this team still has a strong veteran presence led by A.J. Pierzynski, and under the leadership of Ventura the Sox sure to play hard each and every game. For the Indians to take two of three they will need to be at their very best.
Series Trivia: How many members of the 1995 Indians either played for or would go on to play for the Chicago White Sox? (Answer at the end)
Pitching Matchups (according to ESPN)
- Chris Sale (2011: 2-2, 2.79 ERA, 2.73 SIERA) vs Josh Tomlin (2011: 12-7, 4.25 ERA, 4.23 SIERA)
- Philip Humber (2011: 9-9, 3.75 ERA, 3.89 SIERA) vs. Justin Masterson (2012: 0-0, 1.13 ERA, 1.26 SIERA)
- John Danks (2012: 0-1, 4.50 ERA, 2.69 SIERA) vs. Jeanmar Gomez (2011: 5-3, 4.58 ERA, 4.14 SIERA)
For the Indians, this series will mark the season debuts for Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez and we’ll get our second dose of Justin Masterson. The White Sox will counter with Chris Sale and Philip Humber, both of whom are making their first starts of the 2012 season, and staff ace John Danks.
Tomlin will face off against Sale in game one. This matchup should be interesting for two reasons: First, we’ll get to see if Tomlin has fully recovered from the arm problems that cut short his 2011 campaign. If his last few appearances of the spring were any indication, then all signs point to yes. As we all know, Tomlin is not a power pitcher, instead relying on location and changing speeds to keep hitters off base. He also relies heavily on hitters putting the ball in play and his defense picking him up. This often results in a higher than normal fly ball rate, and if even the slightest mechanical aspect of Tomlin’s delivery is off the ball could fly out of the park.
Second, Sale has never made a Major League start, having spent his entire MLB career to date in the bullpen. How will he transition to the rotation? Can his arm hold up given the increased work load? He has appeared in 79 career games, but will there be any extra nerves in play taken the mound at the very beginning of the game as opposed to the end?
The second game features a matchup between Indians ace Justin Masterson and White Sox No. 5 starter Philip Humber. Masterson was spectacular on Opening Day, throwing eight innings of two-hit baseball, repeatedly missing bats and forcing hitters to beat pitches into the ground. His only mistake came in the top of the fourth when Jose Bautista went all Jose Bautista and sent a pitch sailing out to the home run deck in left field. The fact that the bullpen was unable to hold onto a three-run lead was a travesty. Expect Masterson to come out ready for redemption on Tuesday night.
His competition, Philip Humber, is in his second year as a full-time starter. He started 26 games for the White Sox last year and was up and down all season long, as his 9-9 record indicates. His 6.5 stirkeouts per 9 innings suggests he’s not exactly the most dominant pitcher in baseball and he tends to give up more fly balls than ground balls. He had a below-average BABIP of .275 in 2011, but most projections have him regressing closer to .300 in 2012.
The third game of the series will pit Jeanmar Gomez against Chicago’s ace, John Danks. Gomez was a bit of surprise this spring. Many fans, members of our staff included, had penciled in Kevin Slowey as the fifth starter, but after Gomez’ near perfect spring, not including him on the roster would have been a sin. Gomez has shown flashes of what he is capable at the big-league level in his limited time in the majors over the last two season. The real question is, can he do it on a full-time basis for an entire season or will he just spot starter material?
Danks, on the other hand, can be a flat-out stud and has a lot to prove coming off of a sub-par 2011 in which he went 8-12 with an ERA of 4.33, his highest since 2007. To put it bluntly, he just wasn’t able to get people out the way he had in the past. Danks’ BABIP normally hovers somewhere in the .275 range; last year it was .313. Needless to say he was a lot less lucky than he was in previous years. Everything else appeared to be on par with his career, averages so it’s not as though he drastically regressed as a pitcher. Expect a dominant outing.
Players to Watch: White Sox
Robin Ventura: Yes, I realize Robin Ventura isn’t a player anymore, but this is his first season as a manager. I want to see how he handles certain situations and the pressure associated with his new position. Does he have a short leash with pitchers? Does he green light base runners to steal? How does he manage his bench and bullpen? These are all things I’m looking forward to seeing over the next three days.
Adam Dunn: Which Dunn are we going to see this season? The same one that regularly hit 40 home runs on a yearly basis, or the one we saw last year who couldn’t get the ball out of the infield and hit below the Mendoza line? It seems cliche to say, but this White Sox season could hinge on whether or not Dunn can have a bounce back season as the centerpiece of their lineup.
Paul Konerko: Konerko kills the Indians. Always has, always will. I can’t wait until he finally retires. Until that day comes, though, I’ve conceded the fact that when there is a key situation during a game with the White Sox, Konerko is always going to be the one coming to bat and more times than not he’s going to come through. Don’t be surprised if it happens at least once during this series, because it always does.
Players to Watch: Indians
Michael Brantley: Brantley had a rough series against the Blue Jays, going 1-for-13 and looking anything but comfortable at the plate. As the table setter for the Indians offense it’s imperative that he gets his bat going. Otherwise, the Indians’ offensive may continue to struggle to get things going, just like they did over the weekend. If he can’t get his bat going, maybe it’s time to explore moving Shin-Soo Choo into the leadoff spot.
The Bullpen: Yes, the entire bullpen. The opening series wasn’t kind to them. Blowing leads and giving up game-winning home runs is not something we are used to seeing from the Bullpen Mafia. I’m still willing to chalk most of it up to the fact that it was the first three games of the season, but a few bad outings can be crippling for relief pitchers. They will need to bounce back and regain their swagger against the White Sox.
Justin Masterson: When a pitcher is on, it’s something to truly behold. On Thursday, Masterson was on. If that’s the type of appearance we can expect from Masterson this season then I will be sitting in front of the television or computer for each and every single start. The man can flat-out dominate.
Trivia Answer: 11. Paul Assenmacher (went to the White Sox in 1994), Dennis Cook (1994), Albert Belle (1997-1998), Ken Hill (2000), Alan Embree (2001), Herbert Perry (2000-2001), Kenny Lofton (2002), Sandy Alomar (2006), Jim Thome (2006-2009), Manny Ramirez (2010), Omar Vizquel (2010-2011) all played for Chicago.