It was a fine weekend for the Cleveland Indians in Kansas City. A thumping win Friday night with Royals manager Ned Yost electing to pitch to Carlos Santana late, leading to a huge home run and Terry Francona being able to rest his bullpen. An 11-inning grindfest with Trevor Bauer pitching his ass off and the bullpen likewise performing brilliantly. Then TJ House and Yan Gomes make themselves known on national TV in the Sunday night game, and Lonnie Chisenhall pinch hit a go-ahead double in the 10th off the untouchable Greg Holland, bringing a thunderstorm so fierce it suspended the game until late September. All in all, a brilliant weekend.
But no time to rest and recollect. With Labor Day and the coming of September, the Detroit Tigers arrive in Cleveland for yet another pivotal series. The month is nothing but pivotal series really, sitting 3.5 back of both the Wild Card and the division. There’s no time for missteps, minimal margin for error. The Tigers haven’t been playing particularly well. Since June they’re only three games over .500 and they coughed the AL Central lead up to the Royals earlier in the month even after bolstering their rotation with David Price. They’ve looked like anything but the worldbeaters who were supposed to have this division locked up by Independence Day, and now with KC finding themselves and the Tribe surging they might end their season in September. That’s still a long way from being a reality, but the fact it’s even something to consider is nothing short of amazing. What has gone wrong with this team?
Admittedly, a year ago the Tigers weren’t that amazing a team in the regular season either. They only won the division by a game. They seemed to ease up a bit at the end, resting players and adjusting the rotation, and the Indians had to win 10 straight to even get to the Wild Card, but they still never looked that commanding, at least record-wise. They sure beat the piss out of Cleveland though. It was said over and over that they were built for the postseason in 2013, so the same must be true for this year, right? Well, from where I stand, they have two great starting pitchers now that Anibal Sanchez is hurt and Justin Verlander is pitching like he’s naked and lost in the woods, a spotty bullpen and an offense that even with the acquisition of Ian Kinsler is top heavy and tottering at times. To me, when you have two or three bats and no ‘pen, that’s going to be a problem come October. Kinsler brings some speed and defensive prowess to the table, but Dave Dombrowski’s wheeling and dealing may have caught up to them.
When they traded Austin Jackson away, you can tell just watching them they miss his dynamism. He was a bright spot for them defensively for a while now and at worst a league average hitter. Now that it’s Rajai Davis and Ezequiel Carrera working the lawn they’re missing Jackson’s skills, his bat and his flair. Jackson is what you imagine when you think of a center fielder and it allowed the Tigers to have something like JD Martinez or Andy Dirks in left and also took the pressure off Torii Hunter as he cruises through his twilight years. Jackson was excellent in 2012 with a 129 OPS+ and led the league in triples twice. He was perfect for that part in every way. He’s never approached that years’ output since partly though hamstring and other bodily issues and partly because maybe he was just overperforming that year. He was neat. And now he’s gone.
Now, the Tigers are still pretty good. Even now that Miguel Cabrera is injured again, dismiss them at your own peril. He might not be the best hitter in the world this year but he’s still packing a 132 OPS+, and that’s following a vicious slump. His power outage is surprising though, perhaps he’s more dinged up than we thought whether it’s the ankle he just tweaked or a hip or a thigh or whatever. He’s sure to do some vicious things to the ball this week but he’s not the same terror that’s stood in that box in previous years. Kinsler is having a fine enough year and it’s impressive the injury bug hasn’t bit him. Still, the second half of the season he’s only got a .534 OPS and he’s walking considerably less. His BABIP since the break is .264 compared to .316 before so it could be some luck but he’s also only homered three times. He’s in a slump or hurt or something, and it’s not helping.
It’s funny though, that the incredible dominance of Victor Martinez brings me such joy in a way. I know he’s going to come to Cleveland and beat the hell out of the ball – since he was traded away he has a .994 OPS against the Indians. That’s 40 points better than this year, far and away his best offensive season. WHether it’s just how he shows love or he’s just still pissed at the Tribe for being traded away, he’s been incredible, and this year spectacular. He’s going to hit 30 homers for the first time in his career. He leads baseball in intentional walks, an ultimate sign of respect. For all that Miggy has fallen off this season, V-Mart is doing the heavy lifting. Perhaps he stole the magic jewel Cabrera found in a cave deep in the Venezuelan rain forests when he was a young man. The one that gives him untold power and the ability to create lightning bolts from rawhide and maple. It’s a strange new world we live in where I fear the 35 year old DH with a balky knee over the two time MVP with a Triple Crown on his resume.
The other big question for their offense is J.D. Martinez. Eugenio Suarez isn’t going to hit, Davis is mediocre and Torii Hunter has had too much written about him, so what about Martinez the Other? His OPS in the second half has dropped more than 250 points, at .723 since the break compared to 1.035 before. He’s like Detroit’s Lonnie Chisenhall. His being a hitter to watch for made this lineup terrifying, but now that he’s returned to relatively pedestrian levels, there’s just one less thing for the Indians to worry about. Still, I do hope the adjustments he made to his swing take. I like seeing guys rebuild themselves from nothing.
It’s sure to be a good series. The Tigers have been the class of the division the last three or four years and even if they’re vulnerable seeming now, they’re still legitimate World Series contenders. If they do make it to October they could still do damage. When the Indians swept the Tigers out of Cleveland back in May they got a nice outing out of Kluber, the bullpen won an 11-10 ridiculousness over Max Scherzer and a young pitcher showed his mettle. With rosters expanding and Francona having more toys to play with, this could all happen again. Don’t hope for the sweep, just two or three wins. But never count anything out. This team has proven it can beat the Tigers. It’s time to show them the power of the moustache.