Indians outfielder Oscar Mercado's risk pays off and Mike Clevinger's new pitch: Walk-Off Thoughts

Ryan Lewis
rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com
Cleveland Indians' Oscar Mercado, right, slides safely into home plate as Cincinnati Reds' Tucker Barnhart is late on the tag in the fifth inning in a baseball game, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Cleveland.

Here are eight Walk-Off Thoughts after the Indians defeated the Cincinnati Reds 2-0 Wednesday night, improving their record to 7-6 this season.

1. Oscar Mercado had to take a risk. The Indians had been scuffling offensively for days. They were gasping for air. The pitching staff has been tremendous, but it often hasn't been enough to hide the lineup's shortcomings. But with the Indians ahead 1-0 Wednesday night, Mercado had an opportunity to take a chance. It might not have even been a smart play, but under the circumstances? He had to take off.

2. Mercado was standing on second base with one out and Cesar Hernandez, who had just given the Indians the lead with an RBI single, on first. Jose Ramirez grounded a ball up the middle that was fielded by Reds shortstop Freddy Galvis, who took the out at second base. But Mercado, in a full sprint, rounded third and headed for home. He figured the Reds would go for the double play, and that Ramirez might beat the throw at first. But Galvis instead threw home. It was still was too late. Mercado's head-first slide avoided the tag at the plate, and the gutsy sprint home extended the Indians' lead to 2-0.

"Honestly, as soon as I saw José hit it, I figured he’s fast, he’s probably going to force them to speed it up, so about three-fourths of the way to third, I made up my mind that I was gonna keep going," Mercado said on a Zoom call. "I didn’t expect them to not go for it, so it made that all a little more risky, but once I made up my mind I was going for it, I was doing it. I think especially in the game of baseball sometimes, you have to take some chances, the way things are going for us right now, sometimes you have to manufacture runs whichever way possible. I took a risk and thankfully it paid off."

3. The Indians had a new third base coach Wednesday night with Tony Mansolino taking over for Matt Sarbaugh, who was moved to the dugout with manager Terry Francona out and Sandy Alomar Jr. acting as manager. But, that didn't play into the situation too much. Mercado had a full head of steam, and he was going no matter what.

"It was just kind of one of those things where I just kind of blacked out and went for it," Mercado said. "If I get thrown out there, I would have every reason to get chewed out and know not to do that again. To be honest, it probably wasn’t the smartest of plays, but it worked out. It worked out."

4. Mercado might be the best example of the Indians struggling at the plate and trying to find any way to scratch a run across. Franmil Reyes came through Tuesday night in a different way — he finally connected for a go-ahead, two-run home run that proved to be the difference. But Mercado has had a brutal stretch at the plate to start the season without that one breakthrough hit, yet. He reached base in the fifth with a walk. Earlier in the game, he popped up to third base after getting a curveball in the zone. Mercado yelled and chucked his bat back toward the Indians' dugout in frustration. So as he rounded third, this was how he could make an offensive impact. It has to, for now, be with his legs.

"Not just now, but always. It’s a part of my game. I’m always trying to force things, be smart, but at the same time be aggressive," Mercado said. "I know the guys who are hitting behind me at the top of the lineup are all really good hitters. In any way possible, they’re gonna put the ball in play and have good at-bats. On the basepaths, I usually just like to take a chance sometimes and try to make things happen. That’s just kind of my mentality. I’ve always been aggressive since I was little and that’s the way I’m gonna keep playing the game."

"That gets your juices going again," said Mike Clevinger on a Zoom call. "I mean that’s huge. You’re just all sitting right there in the dugout watching him just head down just chugging. He never second-guessed it. You just seeing that and it paying off, it just bodes well for everybody’s confidence."

5. Clevinger's quest to rediscover his mechanics while also trusting his surgically repaired knee took a positive step on Wednesday night. Of course, keeping hitters off balance with a new pitch while trying to work through some mechanical adjustments helps. Clevinger said after his second start of the season that he felt like he had someone else's arsenal. While rehabbing after his knee surgery, Clevinger realized he had worked himself out of his own mechanics while protecting the knee.

He and the Indians revamped his between-starts routine. Pitching coach Carl Willis thought Clevinger had the wrong angle at the beginning of his windup, which was in turn throwing his rhythm off. Wednesday's start was a step in the right direction, though not without its flaws. Clevinger pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and striking out four, but he also walked five. It was effective, if not efficient. Clevinger walked his final batter of the night instead of finishing the sixth inning. He, then, walked off the mound cursing into his glove, frustrated with the lack of command. Still, it was closer to the Clevinger the Indians got in his opening start of the season.

"It’s definitely better," Clevinger said on a Zoom call, referencing pitching with his surgically repaired knee. "I think each time out there is building a little more endurance, staying stable longer for each time. We revamped my whole in-between-start routine. There’s basically a workout I have to do every single day before I even do my workout or before I pitch now. It’s all based around getting my knee stabilized, working on little muscles in the glutes, the hamstrings, all the subsidiary muscles around everything."

6. Clevinger struggled to find his command with his altered delivery, but he still kept the Reds off balance all night. And it looks like he's added a pitch to that arsenal. Reds manager David Bell picked up on it, saying after the game, "Looked like he had a new cutter." Clevinger already has a fastball-curveball-slider-change-up repertoire. Adding a cutter allows for an option somewhere between his fastball and his slider to give hitters another pitch to worry about.

"It seems like a misfired fastball is all," Clevinger said, laughing. "I don’t know. Keeping that cat in the bag as long as possible. ... It kind of has a mind of its own, that pitch by itself. But it’s definitely a fun one to throw."

7. Shane Bieber added a cutter in the offseason to keep hitters off balance and off his other go-to pitches in certain counts. Clevinger wasn't about to miss out on that party.

"I mean it’s low-key kind of get-out-of-jail-free card when you got some good secondary stuff," Clevinger said. "So, watching it with every single starter have one besides me was kind of tell-tale that maybe I needed to work on something I think between starts. That was the first go-around, so it should get better from here."

Plus, Clevinger had to pitch Wednesday night with former teammate Trevor Bauer heckling him the whole game.

“Yeah, top step and he’s not wearing a mask and s***,” Clevinger joked. “So, yeah, you can put that on the books. … He was yelling the whole game, talking about me struggling, talking about my knee and s***. I got to give it back.”

8. Brad Hand's velocity continues to be something to monitor — his fastball averaged 90.7 mph according to Baseball Savant — but he was effective Wednesday night nonetheless, striking out two and walking one in a scoreless ninth to record his fourth save of the season. That came after James Karinchak pitched a quick eighth inning, bringing his strikeout total this season to 10 in 6 1/3 innings. Hand didn't have the velocity, but his fastball-slider combination — he threw eight sliders and six fastball — put the Reds away. As long as those two can handle the back end duties, the Indians' bullpen figures to be in good shape, especially with strong performances Wednesday night from Dominic Leone and Oliver Perez ahead of them.

"Everything’s fallen right in place to this point," Alomar said on a Zoom call. "We haven’t had too much to worry about because every single person that’s come in has done his job. There’s going to come a time that there’s going to be some hiccups here or there, but our pitching staff’s been solid."

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.