Indians' search for spark in the lineup is officially on: Walk-Off Thoughts

Ryan Lewis
rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com
Cleveland Indians' Carlos Santana returns to the dugout after striking out to Minnesota Twins pitcher Sergio Romo to end the baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Minneapolis.

Here are six Walk-Off Thoughts after the Indians' 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, which dropped their record to 5-5.

1. Forty-nine innings. four runs. A 15-inning stretch with all zeros. An even record despite one of the better stretches from a starting rotation to start a season in baseball history as well as a strong showing from the bullpen. The hunt is on to find the punch in the Indians’ lineup.

Going back to the series against the Chicago White Sox, the Indians went on a 49-inning stretch in which they scratched across only four runs. They have now been shut out in two of the past five games, and they've scored one run in two of the other games during that same timeframe. The remaining game: a two-run win on the heels of Shane Bieber's masterful outing Thursday night. The Indians were also held to two or fewer hits in back-to-back games for the first time since June 29-30, 2014.

2. As of the end of their game on Sunday, the Indians held the 28th-ranked average (.193) and the 28th-ranked OPS (.563) in the league. Conversely, they have the most pitcher fWAR in the league (2.2) and the second-best staff ERA (2.25). The Indians' pitching has lifted up a dreadful offense to begin the season. The lineup has weighed down a torrid start by the staff.

Five hitters in the Indians' lineup on Sunday ended the day below the Mendoza Line (.200). Franmil Reyes, who came in as a pinch hitter, is also now in that group. The frustration is evident. On the Indians' final chance of the day, Carlos Santana had two borderline pitches called for strikes. In frustration, he flipped his bat and then watched strike three. With any extended, almost lineup-wide slump, it's human nature to begin trying to do too much with every at-bat. But that trap might have gripped the Indians.

"At times, they are. They're trying to do too much," said Sandy Alomar Jr., who managed Sunday's game after Terry Francona was unavailable due to a gastrointestinal condition (not related to COVID-19), on a Zoom call. "The main thing is hopefully our pitching staff can continue pitching their game because you can get in a situation that the pitching staff starts putting pressure on themselves because we aren't scoring runs. But the guys are continuing to do their job. Our offense is in a funk right now. We have to have more quality at-bats. There have been times where we've hit balls right at people, and they're not going to show up. It's still early, and guys need to just have better approaches."

3. Approaches at the plate can change. Patience can be thrown overboard. Alomar pointed out that these same hitters swung the bats well in summer camp facing the same Indians starting rotation that has torn through the league so far. But little of it has translated to the regular season. Alomar sees it as an issue with having too much urgency.

"You just gotta put in the work. You have to go to the plate with a plan," Alomar said. "At times, when you're struggling, you try to [do too much] early in the count. You tend to [not want to] go too deep in the count when you have struggles. But you just have to trust yourself and not swing at the first thing you see up there and try to manage that at-bat and give yourself a quality at-bat. I know hitting is about confidence. Right now, our guys are a little down. They just need to trust themselves with two-strikes, take at-bats a little deeper."

4. The Indians are now in the odd situation of having to evaluate hitters based on a very small sample size with the reality that the shortened season might not allow for the same amount of patience that would normally be warranted. React too severely or too quickly, and you might miss any of the benefit of adjustments that can be made but take time. Wait too long, and it could be too late to climb out of that hole with only 50 games remaining, and that's assuming the entire scheduled can be played.

"The reality is, although the season’s shorter, the number of plate appearances are the same," president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said on a Zoom call. "You can only get four plate appearances per night, even though each game might be worth 2.6 or whatever it is times more. That doesn’t mean you get 10 plate appearances. Our guys are working hard and hopefully that work will pay off in more consistent quality at-bats."

5. Antonetti added that Francona will be evaluated at the Cleveland Clinic on Monday. It seems more likely than not that Francona will miss the club's two games in Cincinnati on Monday and Tuesday. Antonetti said that if that is the case, it would potentially be as much due to simple logistics and travel as anything. The team has noted that this is not believed to be COVID-19 related.

6. Civale again had a quality start, allowing three runs in six innings and again tying his career-high with nine strikeouts, as he did in his season-opening outing against the White Sox. The Indians now have nine quality starts in their first 10 games, the most in Major League Baseball since the 1986 season when both the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Diego Padres accomplished that feat. Only two rotations in baseball history — the 1937 New York Giants and the 1913 Brooklyn Dodgers — notched 10 consecutive quality starts to start the season. The Indians on Sunday also tied the record with six starts of at least nine strikeouts in their first 10 games, joining the 1966 Indians. Simply stating the Indians' record stands at 5-5 despite those notes probably tells much of the story. With 50 games remaining, the Indians' search for some spark in their lineup has become priority No. 1.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Indians at www.beaconjournal.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.