Despite receiving just three innings from starter Alex White, who was forced to depart with a hand injury, the Cleveland Indians managed a 5-4 victory on Friday over their in-state rival from Cincinnati. For the first time in recent memory, both the Indians and Reds look to play significant games into September, and possibly into October for the first time since 1995, giving new meaning to a series once seen as a mere interleague “regional rivalry game” formality.
The Indians' bullpen was up to the new importance and intensity of the series. After White departed, Frank Herrmann, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez combined to pitch the final six frames, fanning three batters, walking none and allowing only one run on six mostly scattered base hits.
Consider yourself forgiven if some of those names are new to you. They're new to nearly all but the most devoted Indians fans -- that is, those who could stomach watching beyond the sixth inning over the past two seasons. Pestano is a rookie, Herrmann is in his second MLB season, Sipp in his third, and Perez -- although well-known to those who follow top relief prospects and enjoy high-velocity fastballs -- didn't make his name all that well-known to the fan at large until taking over Cleveland's closer role in 2010. Smith is the veteran of the group by default, with five years under his belt, but merely decent middle relievers tend to carry with them as much excitement as the name “Joe Smith” connotes.
So you should also consider yourself forgiven if you haven't noticed that the Indians' bullpen -- largely the group that pitched Friday night's game -- ranks in the top 10 in ERA, FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and WPA (win probability added). If anything, it goes to show just how inexpensive a quality bullpen can be. Last year's group, one of the worst by FIP, yet average by ERA and WPA, earned roughly $15 million dollars. (Hello and goodbye, Kerry Wood.) This season, middle man Chad Durbin was added for $800,000, while Perez earned $2.25 million in his first season under arbitration, but every other Indians reliever is earning approximately $400,000 as a pre-arbitration player, for a total under $6 million for seven players.
Of course, there isn't any guarantee of continued quality from such a young bullpen. However, there is room for some level of confidence. Perez has shown that his pedigree as a top prospect was not unfounded, striking out more than a batter per inning and posting an ERA under 3.00 in his time with Cleveland. Smith has been consistently good for five straight years. Sipp has a powerful fastball/slider combination, and although he may struggle with his control at times, his stuff has the potential to overmatch MLB hitters at any time. The problem for the Indians, though, projects to be the bridge to the eighth or ninth more than the late innings themselves.
Even if this rough-and-tumble relief crew can keep it together, will there be leads to hold? The offense has been decimated recently by injuries to Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. Perhaps one injury could be hidden, but the second will surely prove to be tough to handle, as the presence of Shelley Duncan, the ultimate "Quad-A player," in the Indians' lineup as DH indicates. The emergence of Michael Brantley should make the Indians' outfield passable in Sizemore's absence, but substituting a replacement-level DH for Pronk will almost certainly take the punch out of Cleveland's lineup.
With the way the run-prevention unit has performed so far -- only Oakland has allowed significantly fewer runs in the league -- Cleveland should be fine if it can just get an average performance out of the guys on hand. Ideally, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana can pick up the slack and carry the Tribe for the time being, as the Indians have somehow managed to rank second in the AL in runs scored despite sub-.400 slugging percentages out of the two hitters most pundits expected to carry much of Cleveland's offensive burden this year.
Santana and Choo both chipped in for the Indians on Friday night, and Choo set up the winning run by tripling in the eighth, but they also got key contributions from Duncan as well as speedster Ezequiel Carrera -- the man called up to take Pronk's place, and the man who plinked the game-winning bunt up the first-base line to plate Choo.
With yet another loss from the Tigers, the Indians now have a six-game lead in the AL Central and a clear fast track to the playoffs. Although the injuries to the offense present some adversity, the Indians have received high-quality effort from unlikely sources all season long. The bullpen and starting rotation will have to stay solid until the cavalry comes over the hill, but if the first month and a half of the season tells us anything, this group of no-names is up to the challenge.
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