So maybe a trip north of the border wasn’t what the Cleveland Indians needed to get back on track. The Tribe scored 10 runs in three games, nine of those in an 11-9 loss on Saturday. The pitching and offense just weren’t clicking at the same time. However, the Kansas City Royals losing to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday is the real body blow. The Indians head to St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia) to face the Tampa Bay Rays in third place in the AL Central, four games behind the Sox and half a game behind Detroit. These tours through the AL East, even when you skip the Northeast juggernauts, can get tough and going from Toronto to Tampa Bay won’t get much easier.
Playing against the Rays is always a neat time, if only because the wily mind of Joe Maddon combined with the advanced thinking of the front office. Their innovative scouting and plotting to better take advantage of their players skill usually churns out a novel idea at least once a series. Bizarre shifts, batting superstar third baseman Evan Longoria anywhere from first to fifth in the lineup, their best hitter sitting at .252 but still winning, you’re always going to be in for a treat as a baseball fan.
Early in the season the Rays were a mighty force at Tropicana Field with a record of 13-1, but have fallen hard to the earth going 11-19 since then. Injuries no doubt had something to do with that. Evan Longoria tearing a hamstring, defensive wunderkind Super Sam Fuld needing wrist surgery, Matt Joyce (.899 OPS this year in 62 games, .825 last year) hitting the 15 day with a tight back, Jeff Niemann ending up on the 60-day DL. In all, 14 players have gone to the DL for the Rays, second most in the American League.
Even for a team that doesn’t count on any one player to truly carry them (except maybe for Longoria) and has a host of multi-tools in the dugout, this kind of injury wave can punch you in the gut. Even with all that, the Rays are treading water at 46-42. They’re in the hunt for a playoff spot sitting only eight games in back of New York for the division lead.
With all those injuries to key players, just who IS playing for this team? If you could put their disabled list and the Blue Jays’ disabled list together, you’d have almost a complete pitching staff and offense. With that, it’s a little amazing neither team is out of it in the division race. Well, maybe the Jays are at this point, but we’ll see.
The Rays “starting lineup” according to Baseball Reference has one player, right fielder Ben Zobrist, with an OPS+ over 100. Zobrist is at 132. However, the Rays move guys in and out of the lineup enough for Maddon to make Casey Stengel jealous. In addition to that, Zobrist will play second, short, third, first, and either of the corner two outfield spots. He takes multi-tool to a new extreme.
Another of Maddon’s multi-tools is Jeff Keppinger. He’s listed as a utility player, but has started 37 games this year at second, third, DH and first. He’s also logging a 128 OPS+, getting it done when asked to. Carlos Pena leads the team with 13 homers but is still only slugging .362 because he makes so little contact (116 strikeouts, second most in the AL) while Zobrist and DH Luke Scott are second in homers with 11.
But, all this lack of any definable strength is what makes the Rays so much fun in the first place. They have 14 players with at at least 87 plate appearances and a backup catcher who also designs high end shoes on the side in Jose Lobaton, (Your girlfriend/wife will appreciate that joke). They are first in steals with 70 as a team, led by Desmond Jennings, Elliot Johnson and B.J. Upton who each have 15 to lead the team, and also lead in hit-by-pitches with 38. Surely, at least one of those two stats is the key to their success.
On the flip side, they’re also first in the league in strikeouts at 715. However, 114 of those ARE soaked up by Carlos Pena so maybe it’s not as bad as it seems… except he’s the big power threat in this lineup. It’s interesting then that the Rays and Orioles, both fighting to attain or maintain legitimacy in their stacked division, have near-mirror image players in Carlos Pena and Mark Reynolds. Fortunately for the Rays, at least Pena knows he’s supposed to play defense when he’s on the field with his glove. Reynolds seems to spend a lot of time staring at the sun.
At any rate, the offense has been torn up by injuries, so they’re going to have to rely on guile and defense to get by. The Rays don’t score a ton of runs (369, 9th in the league) but they don’t allow many either (365, 5th in the league). This actually works in the Indians favor. Since the Tribe offense isn’t much more punchy than the Rays, close games are their forte so we could be in for a close, well-played series. Really, it’ll be about who makes fewer mistakes in this series – nobody is getting saved by the longball.
Speaking of the Indians offense, about the only remarkable thing to look at following that Jays series is Michael Brantley. He’s hitting .302/.350/.437 right now, and over his last ten games boasts a .417 batting average with three homers and more walks than strikeouts. Granted, he’s always been good at making contact, but right now he’s driving the ball with authority to all fields.
Brantley has always had the look of a major league player and has done enough at the plate to warrant a consistent starting job, but there are those among us who believed him to be a superstar in the making. Maybe some of us made comparisons in our head to Roberto Clemente, so what. However long this holds up, he’s nice to be able to count on down there in the batting order (that 22 game hitting streak was pure Brantley, though a .322 BABIP this year isn’t much above his career .309). With him hitting the way he has, this Indians offense can keep coming at you. Now, only if Santana would do something sooner or later.