MLB Coverage: Tito’s Tribe Suddenly Getting Pitching

The Cleveland Indians not only aren’t going away in the American League playoff race, they’re gaining steam. Coming into Thursday afternoon’s matinee getaway game against the Chicago White Sox, the Tribe were within 2 ½ games of the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, and more importantly, the Indians had nudged into the second wild-card spot.

It’s a loud and clear message to all of you doubters out there…wait a second, TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage picked the Indians to lose 97 games in the preseason. I guess I’m the lead doubter…well, anyway, it’s a message that Cleveland is here to stay in the playoff push and it’s because their pitching has started to turn around.

The season-long numbers for the Indians’ staff are not impressive. They rank 9th in the league in ERA, and are actually lower than that in both starters’ ERA and bullpen ERA. But the recent form has been entirely different. Over the last month, the Tribe’s ERA ranks fifth in the American League. And if we narrow the focus to the period since the All-Star break? They move up to #2.

Steve Kazmir is the biggest reason for the turnaround, as the reclamation project is bearing fruit for Terry Francona. Kazmir’s last six starts have seen him post a 2.75 ERA. The team is also getting solid work from Corey Kluber, who is 7-5 with a 3.77 ERA, and has been even better in the past month. Zach McAllister is healthy and pitching well.

The top of the rotation has also provided good news. While it would be a stretch to say Ubaldo Jiminez has turned his career back around, at the very least he’s back to being a competent major league starter. Jimenez is 8-5 with a 4.17 ERA. Even better for Cleveland is that his respectable ERA is actually the worst in their rotation right now, even with Jiminez theoretically their #2 pitcher. Justin Masterson continues to anchor the staff, with 12 wins and a 3.42 ERA.

Francona’s bullpen continues to be more of a problem, but the return of Chris Perez from a stint on the disabled list, has worked wonders. Perez has closed his last eight save chances with an 0.60 ERA. The depth here is not what it’s been in recent years. Joe Smith and Cody Allen are competent, but they need more arms. To that end, the club acquired Marc Rzepczynski from St. Louis. While he’s been lost in the shuffle in St. Loo, Rzepczynski has playoff experience from the 2011 title run.

We know the Tribe can hit, and they continue to rank third in the American League in runs scored. Carlos Santana’s great year behind the plate continues, with a stat line of .376 OBP/.458 slugging percentage. Jason Kipnis is having a big year, at .372/.500 and Nick Swisher and Michael Brantley are having the best stretches of what were already decent seasons.

The Indians need Asdrubal Cabrera to drastically pick his game at. Once a worthy challenger to Derek Jeter for All-Star honors, Cabrera’s .305/.404 season-long numbers are atrocious, and he’s been swinging the bat even worse of late. Cleveland could also use DH Mark Reynolds to go on the kind of power surge he did last year in Baltimore that lifted the Orioles into the playoffs.

However the individual players in the lineup sort out, Cleveland has been scoring runs all year and is unlikely to stop now. The question is whether they can continue to pitch well enough to either catch Detroit or run down a wild-card.

I love Tito, and as a Red Sox fan, I’m delighted to see him sticking it in the face of the management that ran him out of the Hub (even Boston’s current success has come under Francona’s pitching coach, John Farrell). But I’ve been a doubter on this team’s pitching all year, and while there’s no question I was woefully wrong in saying they would be terrible, I still can’t quite see them in the playoffs.

There are seven teams within a half-game of the postseason right now—if you pick Cleveland, you have to leave out two of the following–#2 and #3 in the AL East, along with Texas in the AL West, and assume neither New York or Kansas City make a run. Or you have to assume the Indians catch Detroit, a team that’ s also started to play well. That’s a lot to ask, and I don’t see it happening. But what Tito’s Tribe has already done is worthy of great respect.