Let me start off by saying that if Josh Hamilton goes 10-for-14 against the Indians this weekend and singlehandedly destroys Cleveland for three days, I won’t even be mad. He’s just too much fun to watch, a singular marvel of baseball.
Anyhow, the Rangers come to Cleveland this weekend for a three game set after riding a dominating lineup and superb pitching (considering the circumstances) to a sterling 17-8 record and first place in the AL West. They’re World Series contenders again and it’s series like these that the Indians need to relish as measuring sticks for their own position in the league. A series win or even a sweep of the defending American League champs could spring this team to a new level of confidence.
The Indians need a mistake-free weekend against Texas, not a series full of mistakes like they just had against the White Sox. The extra outs in that fateful third including a ball lost in the smoke doomed Ubaldo Jimenez in game one, and they just left too many men on base in game two even though they did win that one. The Rangers’ offense will feast on added opportunities and mental lapses, and Cleveland pitchers will find breaks in the lineup rare.
It’s all led by Josh Hamilton, 2009 MVP and all-around superhuman, who has the added motivation of a contract year. A slash line of .395/.438/.744 with a league-leading nine homers is a nice little hint of what’s to come for the next 137 games. This man is as talented as anyone.
The Rangers’ offense as a whole is simply murderous this year, from Ian Kinsler’s .948 OPS and five homers out of the leadoff spot to Mike Napoli’s seven homers despite a slow start at the plate, to Michael Young’s continued assault on baseballs (.327 batting average). Even with Nelson Cruz (.630 OPS) and Mitch Moreland (.727 OPS) off to slow starts, the Rangers are second in baseball in on-base percentage, second in homers, and even flashing some speed with 18 steals. They’re really, really good, and the Indians’ rotation is going to have its hands full.
The Indians offense, meanwhile has come alive the last couple games. They scuffled against a strong Angels rotation, but against the White Sox they scored two, six and seven runs, breaking out of a team-wide home run drought that had stretched 11 games. Jason Kipnis was 6-for-11 in Chi-town with a homer and is hitting .389 over his last 10 games. Johnny Damon got his first hit as an Indian, Travis Hafner homered, and Asdrubal Cabrera has been turning it on (.308 over his last 10 games with a homer Thursday night).
The Indians see a lot of pitches—they’re the most walked team in the game with 114 free passes, 15 ahead of the Padres. They’re fourth in OBP at .341 but the power numbers are lacking as they are slugging .382, 19th in the majors. Not homering for 11 games will do that to you. It’s not the most fearsome lineup, but now that Shin-Soo Choo is back from a hamstring injury the lineup is pretty punchy, especially with Kipnis turning into Chase Utley and the addition of Johnny Damon. Speaking of Damon, his career OBP is .353, so the fact he’s replacing Brantley at the top of the order when he plays shouldn’t be surprising. It could mean more men on base and more runs crossing the plate.
One other thing about this offense is that they need to start cashing in on big opportunities. They left 36 men on base in the Chicago series alone, including two bases-loaded situations that ended up to be fruitless. You just can’t do that against great teams like the Rangers. They’re going to score runs, so the Indians need big hits too. Walking a ton is great, but eventually someone is going to have to drill one in the alley. Texas’ rotation is a bit better than the Sox was, but even so, you need to capitalize if you want to be considered anything.
Speaking of pitching…
Colby Lewis is probably the best pure pitcher the Rangers have right now. He doesn’t have dominating stuff, but he knows how to use what he can and is a great piece in the middle of that rotation. He’s good for 200 innings has a 7.6 K/9 rate in his career. It’s since he came back from pitching in Japan that he really showed up though—he learned to command his pitches and throw strikes, the simplest method of being successful in the majors. This year he’s walked four and struck out 29 in 32 ⅔ innings, holding fast to a (very unsustainable) 230 ERA+. His away splits are what matter here, because of the jet stream in the Ballpark at Arlington, and Lewis is great on the road. In 2010, ‘11 and ‘12, he’s held batters to OPS’s of .654, .681 and .745 this year. He won’t give Cleveland any freebies, so they’ll have to work against Lewis.
Jeanmar Gomez has what can be considered two real starts under his belt, his first two ending early due to rain and being ejected for defending his right fielder. In his two starts since then, he’s thrown 11.1 innings, struck out 10, given up 10 hits and walked three. Seven of those strikeouts came against what should be a potent Angels lineup. He goes fastball, slider, curve and change, the curve being his least used pitch. His slider can get in there in the 90’s. When it’s on it’s filthy, and he uses it to get a ton of ground balls (groundball rate of 62.8 percent this year). He’s never faced the Rangers. This is his chance to prove what he is made of for the Indians. It’s a tall order, but he’s shown every indication he rises to challenges rather than shrinking. He could be great.
The Battle of the Dereks, both spelling their names that same odd way, could be the best matchup of the weekend. Lowe has been the ace of this Indians staff this season. Though he’s struck out only nine in 31 ⅔ innings, his 175 ERA+ does more than enough convincing that this guy is still on top of his game. He’s pitched against the Rangers 25 times and held them to a .665 OPS and despite Texas’ historically being known for clubbing the ball, he’s given up only two homers to the club. That could mean nothing considering how much turnover this team has seen in recent years, but for his own head that’s a wonderful little tidbit. Lowe is walking a few too many people (his 1.421 WHIP a little high going into face a team that does great work with men on base) and his 4.83 SIERA is a little unsettling, but as long as his sinker stays low, double plays will be the order of the day.
Meanwhile, Derek Holland is turning into a fine pitcher. In his time in a Rangers uniform, he’s pitched 41 games away from Arlington and held hitters to a .310 OBP. He’s still growing into his own as a pitcher though, and has mental lapses at times with the ability to be truly dominant, so who knows which one we’ll see on Saturday. The Indians can help him to beat himself, and have a shot at a win here.
Game Three: Yu Darvish vs. Ubaldo Jimenez
Here we have what is effectively an enigma against an unknown. Ubaldo Jimenez is not doing well this year. He leads baseball in walks, gets into his own head on the mound, seems to not trust what should be superb stuff, and frustrates Indians fans to no end. Realistically, it could get very ugly on Sunday, because after he struggled against a much less patient White Sox lineup, the Rangers will be licking their chops.
Then of course, there’s Yu Darvish. We still don’t know what we have here in Darvish, the mega-import from Japan. He has something like a dozen pitches, including the “shuuto” pitch, a fastball of sorts that breaks away from the armside of the pitcher (to the right for Darvish) but in a more violently than a two-seamer does. He’s 4-0 so far this year, but all that means is he’s got a lot of run support. Through five starts he holds a 218 ERA+ with as many strikeouts (33) as innings pitched. He’s also walked 17, a weakness the Indians could be in good position to explot. Of course, considering he can make a ball move any which way at speeds ranging from 75 to 96, they could just look foolish up there. He’s got two different curves, a slider and four variations of a fastball according to Japanese reports, but from what some MLB scouts have said, that simply stems from Japanese writers overblowing things. Darvish is going to be fun to watch simply because he’s new. If he mows it down, well, how about that. But if the Indians blast him, well, awesome.
It could be a tough weekend for the Indians, but at least they’ll be at home and enjoy some of that cookin’. The best they can hope is for a 2-1 series win, but even one win and a couple grind sessions would be a nice barometer reading for this squad. If the Tribe’s offensive breakout this week is an indication of something special coming to Cleveland though, this could be the series that is the jump off point for a great summer. Mistake-free baseball is the key this weekend, so pour out a little extra rum for Jobu.