“Drifting like a ghost amongst the trees”
A first-place team can’t afford to be waiting for Jack Hannahan, of all people, to hit a game-tying home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
When Hannahan did just that Wednesday afternoon at Progressive Field, it looked, momentarily, like the latest magic moment for a Tribe team that has been full of them in the first half.
Reality, though, followed soon thereafter, when closer Chris Perez coughed up a run in the top of the 10th and Shin-Soo Choo grounded out with the tying run at second in the bottom half to put the finishing touch on a 3-2 loss to the Twins.
Magic only takes you so far in the Majors. At some point, you have to have something a little more solid to back it up. The Indians are a first-place team now clinging tenuously to that title, as the Tigers are bearing down on them and the White Sox, for all their faults, are not far behind. There are only so many rabbits this injury riddled Indians lineup can pull out of the hat. It’s going to take more substance to stick.
To be a viable contender, the Indians needed three things to happen this season. They needed to stay healthy, first and foremost, they needed their young pitchers to take that next step forward in their development, and they needed what few experienced players they have to play to the full extent of their capabilities.
The first of those necessities went out the window. The short-term loss of Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco could be endured, but the starting pitching depth took a major hit when Alex White went down with a case of Adam Milleritis. And now the lineup is a shell of its former self. Where Travis Hafner’s presence has, in recent years, helped weigh the offense down, his absence now looms large.
The second of those necessities has gone a bit better than you could have expected. Yes, the starting pitching went through a two-week lull in which the collective ERA was over 6, but before the season the Indians would have surely signed up for the cumulative numbers of Justin Masterson (5-4, 3.18 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (7-3, 3.71), and Carlos Carrasco (5-3, 4.52) has shown flashes, most notably Tuesday night.
It’s the third necessity that is really weighing the Indians down during this stretch in which they’ve dropped 11 of 15 and squandered what was, just 16 days ago, a seven-game lead in the Central. Besides Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and, to a limited extent, Grady Sizemore, you can’t name a single position player on this club living up to his expectations.
Go around the diamond. I’m as much a proponent of OPS over batting average as anybody, but Carlos Santana’s hitting .228. Matt LaPorta’s a mistake hitter who has eight homers but just a .754 OPS. We thought Orlando Cabrera’s .657 OPS with the Reds last year was ugly, but he’s at .454 over the past month. That’s why the Indians finally had to turn to Cord Phelps. Hannahan is Hannahan. You play him for his glove and take his offensive contributions as a bonus.
But the most confounding, confusing, concerning problem of all is, of course, Choo. His struggles were overshadowed by the team’s success early on, but they’ve become a focal point now that his bat is actually needed. Choo’s hitting .240 with a .316 on-base percentage a year after batting .301 with a .401 OBP. He hit a double in Wednesday’s game that was his first extra-base hit in 17 games. He hasn’t driven in a run since May 22.
Acta had to have a long talk (you could call it a therapy session) with Choo last weekend because Choo has become a mental mess. Choo feels he’s carrying the weight of Korea on his shoulders because he is the only current Major Leaguer from his home country. He has been vilified in the Korean press because of his DUI, to the point where some over there have suggested that he should have his military exemption revoked. Choo has read every word and let it get the best of him. He told me he’s now trying to distance himself from all those negative distractions, but that’s obviously easier said than done. And the added weight of a sagging lineup that is counting on him probably doesn’t help matters all that much.
The other day, Choo experimented with the possibility of using a helmet with just one ear flap for the first time in his career. But his problem is entirely between the flaps. You could see just how far gone Choo is in that last at-bat against Phil Dumatrait. Santana was on second after a two-out double, and here was Choo up with the game on the line. He looked more like a guy trying not to strike out than he did a guy ready to pounce.
The numbers are available elsewhere but bear repeating. The Indians averaged 5.3 runs per game in the 39 games before Hafner got hurt. They’re averaging 3.2 runs per game since. Hafner is at least another week to 10 days out, and even then the Indians will be getting ready for a nine-day NL road trip.
This team had a lot of magic working in its favor in the season’s first two months. That’s not to say there wasn’t substance, for the team played crisp defense and pounded the strike zone. But you can’t always count on those clutch hits in tight situations.
Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report is predicting the Indians to finish in third place, with a .500 record. BP gives them just an 18.3 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. The only way that’s going to change and this trend is going to be reversed is if the two missing necessities of this team show themselves. Getting Hafner healthy would help. But without a bopping “Big League” Choo, it’s going to take a heck of a lot of magic for this thing to last.