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Thursday, August 29, 2013
Time for Cleveland's offense to step up

By David Schoenfield

Some of the facts and figures from the Indians-Braves series, from the perspective of the Cleveland Indians, a team fighting to stay in the American League wild-card race:

• Allowed eight runs. Lost all three games.

• 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position.

• Four extra-base hits.

• Number of batters who faced Craig Kimbrel in the ninth innings: 9.

• Batters who reached based against Kimbrel: 0.

• Games lost in the wild-card standings to the A's since Monday: 2.5.

• Games now behind the A's: 4.

On Thurday night, the Indians ran into Kris Medlen, who threw seven shutout innings in a 3-1 victory for the Braves, only his second scoreless outing of the season.

"Really, the whole series was their ability to get a big hit and we didn't," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Low-scoring games, and they were able to find a way to get a big hit and we didn't."

Now the bad news: A series this weekend against the Tigers, whom Indians fans know all too well own a 13-3 record against the Indians and have outscored them 103 to 59 in those 16 games. The teams met in early August in Cleveland and the Tigers swept the four-game series.

The Indians missed an opportunity to gain ground on the Tigers this week as the A's took three out of four from Detroit, but realistically the AL Central was always a long shot; the Tigers are just the better team, as evidenced by their huge edge in run differential and now their sizable 6½-game lead.

In fact, there was an argument to be made that Oakland's three wins over Detroit hurt the Indians; Cleveland's best shot at reaching the playoffs is catching the A's, not the Tigers.

Now the good news: If they can escape this weekend without too much damage, the schedule starts turning to Cleveland's favor. After Detroit, the Indians host the Orioles, but then comes a soft final 23 games: Mets, Royals, at White Sox, at Royals, Astros, White Sox, at Twins.

Of course, it should be pointed out that Oakland's schedule isn't much tougher. The A's have two series with Texas and one with Tampa Bay, but they also get the Twins and Angels twice, plus the Astros and Mariners.

What will the Indians have to do to catch the A's? Oakland is 75-58, Cleveland 71-62. If the A's play .500 the rest of the way (well, they can't do that since they have an odd number of games, so let's say one under .500), they'll finish 89-73. That means the Indians would have to go 19-14 to win 90 games. But you can't count on the A's to go into a funk; it's more likely that it will take 92 or 93 wins to grab the second wild card, which means the Indians may have to go 22-11 -- two wins in every three games -- to win the wild card.

You know, I think everyone keeps expecting the Cleveland rotation to fall apart, but it has been pretty stable all season. Overall, Cleveland's rotation ranks ninth in the AL with a 4.07 ERA from its starters, a big improvement from last year's 5.25 mark. Here's a look at how they've fared by month:

April: 5.09

May: 3.70

June: 4.68

July: 3.22

August: 3.79

Don't blame the starters for the team's 12-14 record in August. While the Indians do rank sixth in the AL in runs scored, if anything the offense has been a bit of a disappointment this season. Witness:

Michael Bourn: .268/.320/.354
His OPS is down from last year, thanks in part to a drop in his walk rate. The decline could be an NL/AL thing -- moving to a league with deeper pitching staffs -- but it's his basestealing that has been a huge disappointment; he was 42-for-55 last year, just 19-for-29 this year.

Nick Swisher: .242/.339/.400
His walk and strikeout rates are the same as last year, but the power is down and so is the BABIP (down from the past three seasons anyway, but right near his career mark). His power wasn't a product of Yankee Stadium (he had more home runs on the road while with the Yankees), so a decline wouldn't necessarily have been expected.

Jason Kipnis: .285/.368/.467
Terrific season as he has developed into one of the best all-around players in the league. He has traded strikeouts for more power and a higher BABIP.

Carlos Santana: .265/.373/.450
Solid season, slight uptick from last year, but hasn't consolidated the 27-homer power he showed in 2011 with his on-base skills.

Michael Brantley: .273/.326/.380
He's hits fifth a lot lately against right-handed pitchers despite numbers that are down a bit from last year. A nice complementary player, but not one that should be hitting fifth on a playoff contender.

Yan Gomes: .288/.338/.478
A big surprise as the team's backup catcher, has pushed Santana into playing more games at first base or DH.

Asdrubal Cabrera: .241/.295/.389
Cabrera had a big first in 2011 before falling off. He was OK last year but has cratered this season with that sub-.300 OBP, despite which Francona kept him second, third or fourth in the lineup until recently.

Mike Aviles: .262/.287/.382
About what you would expect, but platoon mate Lonnie Chisenhall has struggled again, as his prospect shine has lost most of its luster.

Drew Stubbs: .240/.310/.380
About what you'd expect.

Others: Ryan Raburn (big year off the bench), Mark Reynolds (released after having a big April), Jason Giambi (leadership!). The Indians also just acquired Jason Kubel from the Diamondbacks, who will likely plug in at the DH spot against right-handed pitchers. He hit 30 home runs a year ago but has struggled all season with leg injuries.

But you get the idea. Kipnis has really been the only guy markedly better than 2012. As much as the Indians would have liked to acquire another starting pitcher, any hope of making the playoffs rests on an offense that needs to step up. They have 33 games to do it.