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Indians rise to AL stealth contender status

9/1/2014

Despite Sunday night’s rain-delayed outcome, one thing has become clear in the AL Central race: The Cleveland Indians are cutting in on a dance many might have anticipated just the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers were invited to. You might have been among those who had already written the Indians off when they checked in at the break at .500 -- and might have been lucky to be even that good, considering they had a negative run differential.

But in their past 30 games, the Indians have gone 19-11, putting themselves right back into the running for the AL Central or a wild-card bid. The only AL clubs who have been as hot or hotter in that time are teams you got to hear about throughout August, such as the Los Angeles Angels, Baltimore Orioles and the Royals. The Indians? They’ve been the darkest of dark-horse contenders, slipping back into the field with a month to play.

What have the Indians done to bring themselves back? Run prevention, pure and simple. In the first half, the Tribe averaged 4.4 runs scored per game, and have averaged just less than four runs per game since the break. But on the defensive side, they’ve gone from allowing 4.5 runs per game to 3.2. For this, you can spread the credit around liberally between the defense, the pitching staff and (yet again) manager Terry Francona’s hyper-aggressive use of his bullpen to compensate for a rotation that still struggles to get through the sixth inning.

Who are the heroes on the pitching staff? Corey Kluber you should already know about, but he has been joined by Danny Salazar since the hard-throwing youngster’s recall (4-2, 3.3 runs allowed per nine, 36/11 K/BB ratio in 38 IP). The Indians’ search for arms beyond those two and Trevor Bauer created a new opportunity for Carlos Carrasco to come back from the pen; the hard-throwing Venezuelan has rattled off three quality starts in a row.

But just as it was last year, another big factor in the Indians’ success has been their bullpen. Francona is averaging almost four relievers used per game since the break, and that frenetic turnover has worked. Between closer Cody Allen, set-up men Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison and C.C. Lee, and situational lefties Nick Hagadone, Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett, the Indians’ core seven in the pen have allowed just two runs per nine in 107 1/3 IP since the break, while whiffing 102 and walking 23. You can’t ask for much better from a unit, and just as it worked for the Indians last year, it’s working again this year. And that sort of depth means the Indians don’t have to give up on a game in the fifth or sixth inning just because T.J. House or Bauer doesn’t have it. Francona can use a quick hook, control the pace of the game, and bury an opponent with the kind of depth that allows him to play matchups for three or four innings a night.

Breaking it down on defense, you can credit a number of in-season changes for the improved defense. In the early going with Carlos Santana giving third base his best shot, the Indians looked like they might post one of the lowest defensive efficiency ratings ever. But since moving Santana off third base, seeing catcher Yan Gomes overcome a fumble-fingered first month or two, and swapping in rookie Jose Ramirez at shortstop after trading away Asdrubal Cabrera, the Indians aren’t all the way to good, but they’re no longer awful. The biggest net gain has come at short: Translate the difference between Ramirez and Cabrera across a full season using Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved, and the Indians made a 15-run swing, the sort of stretch move teams spend hand over fist to add at the deadline.

These aren’t the only factors, of course. It has been a huge help that the real Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes stood back up. Whether you blame Santana’s struggles or Gomes’ in the early months on their defensive problems, in the second half they’ve been the engines fueling the Indians’ O, with Santana producing an .894 OPS, Gomes at an eye-popping .986. With Michael Bourn already back from the DL and with David Murphy and Ryan Raburn due back soon, you can hope that they and some of the still-struggling regulars -- Jason Kipnis, first and foremost -- can put together a strong final month to help expand the narrow leads the bullpen and defense have had to protect.

Finally, you have to give the Indians credit for doing something that a number of marginal contenders have dared to do at the deadline: They went young instead of borrowing somebody else’s aging leftovers, ditching some of their free agents-to-be into the bargain. Guys such as Justin Masterson in the rotation, Cabrera at short, or John Axford and Vinnie Pestano in the bullpen were no longer among the Indians’ best options at their positions, regardless of whether you considered them a going concern as contenders or using the playing to evaluate their options for next year. Ditching those guys, even without getting much in the ways ready-now returns in the deals, was a clear case of addition by subtraction.

Does that mean the Indians can stay with the Royals and Tigers all the way down the stretch? I don’t see why not. The next two weeks will be critical, as the Indians start an 11-game homestand boasting one of the game’s best home records (39-25), but they start that with this four-game set against the Tigers, a series in which they'll see David Price, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Including those games, they still have seven games against the Tigers, and three against the Royals beyond the one they have to complete because of Sunday’s rain-delayed outcome. It won’t be easy, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Back in the day, Bud Selig waxed bureaucratic on the importance of “hope and faith”; you can bet Indians fans should have some now.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.