The Cleveland Indians' past five games have gone like so: 3-0 win, 4-1 win, 3-2 win, 1-0 loss (12 innings), 2-1 win (11 innings). The 3-2 victory (over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the first of a doubleheader) and Friday's 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles were both decided on Cleveland's final swing of the bat. Zach Walters and Mike Aviles, respectively, did the honors by way of solo homers.
The narrow victories have pulled Cleveland back into the tail end of the chase for the second wild-card spot, though at 61-60, they'll need to leapfrog the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers and Mariners and make up five games in the standings over their next 41. It's not impossible, though they'll need every last nail-biting win, but the team is so thoroughly a .500 squad that it's hard to imagine them making up the gap. Their run differential (+10) doesn't show a sleeping giant, their roster has more players who are at risk to trend downward (Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Corey Kluber) than upward (Nick Swisher), and their starting pitching, which essentially amounts to "Kluber and pray for a four-day deluge," is not of the quality they'd need to rip off six weeks of hot baseball.
Baltimore, meanwhile, finds itself in the opposite position. Even after Friday's loss, they have a big lead in the AL East, and the three teams behind them with even a quasi-realistic shot at winning the division are the Rays, who traded their ace, David Price, to Detroit; the Yankees, who have four starting pitchers on the disabled list, including their ace, Masahiro Tanaka; and the Blue Jays, who might have a roster capable of doing some damage but don't have the depth to cover for injuries to players such as Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion and consequently find themselves with seven games to make up and not nearly enough time to do so.
Still, whether a team has a clear path to the playoffs or a struggle just to stay halfway relevant, it's more fun to win close, extra-innings games than lose them, which might explain why Orioles manager Buck Showalter appeared to go out of his way to engage in gamesmanship Friday. To set the scene: Kluber had cruised along through seven innings and struck out nine Orioles while allowing four hits and two walks. After catching Chris Davis looking with an absurd 95 mph sinker on the outside corner, Kluber ran another of his filthy two-seamers in on the hands of Adam Jones, who tried to pull back his bunt attempt but wound up taking the ball off his fingers. Jones believed he successfully brought his bat back from the strike zone but neither home plate umpire Dana DeMuth nor first base umpire Ron Kulpa saw things his way.
After the usual back-and-forth that, as we've learned, attends all manager discussions with umpires prior to the men in blue donning headsets and chatting with their colleagues in New York, DeMuth and Kulpa did just that. The call, unsurprisingly, was upheld. Video technology is remarkable and improving every day, but getting a good, close look at the bat as a ball traveling 90-plus mph approaches the hands of the batter, which are themselves in motion? Whatever call the umpires made on the field was almost destined to stand. The standard for overturning a call, remember, is that the replay must provide "clear and convincing evidence," which requires the replay umpires be able to "definitively conclude that the call on the field was incorrect."
All of this took a handful of minutes -- minutes Kluber had to stand around, tossing a ball with his teammates, waiting for them to end. Showalter, though, was not satisfied when DeMuth relayed New York's answer. He stayed on the field and chatted something less than amiably for minutes more. He even pulled a "start to walk back to the dugout but then turn around and continue arguing" move, perhaps to squeeze every last second out of the delay. As Cleveland's broadcast team grew ever more indignant, and as Indians manager Terry Francona stared on impatiently from the top step of his dugout, DeMuth, bafflingly, failed to give Showalter the heave-ho. The replay rules could not be clearer on this point:
Once Replay Review is initiated, no uniformed personnel from either Club shall be permitted to further argue the contested calls or the decision of the Replay Official. Onfield personnel who violate this provision shall be ejected.
Whatever Jedi mind trick Showalter had in his back pocket worked, though, and the umps let him stay in the game.
To be fair, we can't read Showalter's mind, and I, at least, can't read his lips. Perhaps he had a legitimate argument and felt honestly aggrieved by the outcome of the play. (Jones certainly did, as he barked at the first-base umpire after grounding out weakly once the game finally resumed.) Perhaps none of this was intended to ice a hot pitcher on a relatively cool Cleveland night. But Showalter has a history of delaying games to ice pitchers. And of psyching out hitters. And of throwing bulletin-board material at an entire slate of division foes.
Kluber had just thrown his 111th pitch of the night, so regardless, he was not long for the mound. Although he gave up a single to Nelson Cruz, who eventually came around to score the tying run, he had just retired Jones on a filthy breaking ball and handed the Cleveland bullpen a simple task: Prevent the slow-as-molasses Cruz from scoring from first with two outs. That Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were unable to do that can no more be put on Kluber than it can on Showalter.
Still, Showalter's non-ejection is one more annoyance in this first season of the expanded replay era, one more wrinkle to be ironed out. Fortunately, the answer is simple: Strictly enforce the rule requiring ejection for further argument. There's no reason not to; arguing about the results of a replay with the on-field crew, who have no input in the replay process, is pointless, as futile as reasoning with the lamppost you just ran your car into. Managers truly committed to the cause might holler and scream and delay the game via the histrionics accompanying an ejection anyway, but at least they pay the price for doing so. Given the outcome in Cleveland, what's to stop Showalter from pulling the same stunt again?
Jason Wojciechowski writes for Beanball on the SweetSpot Network.