CLEVELAND: Jason Kipnis looked serious when he said it, but the suggestion in itself was laughable.
And that’s exactly what Nick Swisher did.
“He’s full of it. That’s a total lie. That’s got to be a lie,” Swisher said.
The “lie” was that Kipnis, the Indians’ 26-year-old second baseman, in his second full season in the major leagues, still operates under the assumption he could be sent down at any moment.
Kipnis insists he feels no more comfortable this year than last. He does not consider himself “established” in the major leagues.
“No, no, I wouldn’t use the word established by any means,” he said.
“We’re getting comfortable with becoming an everyday player, but we still have a long ways to become a consistent player, a guy you can leave in the lineup every single day and not worry about. We’ve got to show more consistency. But I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction.”
If his use of the third person seemed an indicator of latent diva tendencies, it was only a momentary lapse. Kipnis slipped back into everyman mode to continue the rest of the conversation.
When asked if he feels a night-and-day improvement from last year, the “lie” crept in.
“No, not too much of a difference,” he said. “I don’t focus on those things. I’m just worrying about winning games and production and making sure I’m doing my part. The other stuff, if I’m inconsistent or slumping, or the possibility of being sent down, that’s for other guys to worry about, the front office people, too. My job is just to get ready to play the game.”
I can see where Kipnis believes batting .257 last season and .258 going into Friday night’s home game against the Washington Nationals might not have proved much. But in my mind, he’s the real deal. His counterpart at third base, Lonnie Chisenhall, seems to be going in the wrong direction, currently hitting well but fielding poorly at Triple-A Columbus, but Kipnis seems to have established himself.
Whether he thinks so or not.
Kipnis has All-Star potential, although unseating four-time selection Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees as a starter seems nearly impossible. (In the most recent vote totals released, Kipnis was not among the top five.)
Kipnis has proved he must be part of the Indians’ future. The only doubt in that regard would be his tendency for slumps. He batted .200 in April. Last year, he hit only .233 after the All-Star break, .277 before.
But this season, he rebounded with a .261 average in May and was hitting .350 in June going into Friday, which included .417 in the previous seven days and has an eight-game hitting streak after a first-inning double.
“I’m going to see him grow up right in front of my eyes,” Swisher said. “He has to be a big part of this organization. Talent-level through the roof.
“With the bad start he got off to, for him to keep his head up. … He’s got me, he’s got his dad Big G [Jason Giambi] who takes care of him all the time, he’s getting a lot of information. I think he’s doing a tremendous job.”
Tribe manager Terry Francona scoffed at the notion that Kipnis could still get sent to the minors.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Francona said.
But Francona and Swisher understand why Kipnis might feel that way.
“You’ve got to find that one thing that makes you go. Maybe that’s what gets him in the right mindset,” Swisher said.
“Everybody’s wound different, they use different methods, whether it’s a chip on your shoulder or comfort level or whatever,” Francona said. “Maybe that’s his.”
In essence, Kipnis is using fear for motivation.
“It’s the little uncertainty that kind of keeps you in a place where ‘Hey, I need to keep moving forward, I need to keep getting better, otherwise there’s someone gaining on my heels,’ ” Kipnis explained. “Even if there’s not, if you still have that mentality it keeps you pushing to become a better player.”
When it comes to pushing his own buttons, Kipnis seems to have several slights at the ready.
He said he “took a little more of a bumpy road than most” on his way to the majors, yet the second-round pick in 2009 made it to Cleveland in three years. Standing 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he said he was always considered undersized, “as far as scouting and projection, those were never favorable for me.” He was converted from the outfield in 2010, when he was named the Tribe’s Minor-League Player of the Year. At one point, he and Cord Phelps were considered neck-and-neck in competition to be the Indians’ second baseman, but Kipnis pulled ahead.
“Just more people to prove wrong at the end of the day,” Kipnis said.
Kipnis might need all of this to remain driven. But when it comes to his production, he’s never had a problem winning over his manager.
Last year, Manny Acta called him “a dirtbag … one of those guys who’ll run through a wall to win.” Francona said what stands out to him is “every ball he hits, he runs to first base like his pants are on fire.”
Such blue-collar traits have already endeared him to Indians fans. After his first-inning double, he hustled to third on Swisher’s flyout to center, making it safely with a head-first slide.
Kipnis’ perceived slights sound more trivial than significant. The chance of him being shipped back to Triple-A Columbus seems nil. But if those are the matches that set Kipnis’ pants on fire, the Indians will happily douse the inferno.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.