CLEVELAND: It’s not easy to divert blame from a rotation that has compiled a 6.54 earned-run average since the All-Star Game, but it’s really no contest if you’re trying to decipher a reason the Indians have lost seven of 10 since the break.
That includes Sunday’s 4-3 defeat to the Orioles and their Anonymous Starter of the Day, Zach Britton.
Except for two games on the last trip – an 11-9 defeat to the Blue Jays and a 10-6 win over the Rays – the Tribe’s offense has performed as feebly as a wicker chair loaded with the likes of the Big Show, who makes his living as a 16-wheeler without the wheels in the WWE.
The two uncharacteristic offensive explosions aside, the Indians’ attack has been pathetic, and never mind that they scored three runs in the ninth on Sunday to highlight the fact that their efforts were too little, too late.
“We continue to struggle offensively,” manager Manny Acta said. “Not until the ninth were we very aggressive at the plate [on pitches in the strike zone]. A lot of guys had two [quick] strikes. That’s been a theme for us.”
The defeat dropped the Tribe 4 ½ games behind the Tigers, who have wrested first place in the Central Division away from the White Sox. The Indians’ record, 47-48, marks the first time the club has been below .500 since April 14, when it was 3-4.
All of this points up the importance of finishing the homestand — one more game with the Orioles tonight and three against Detroit — with a flourish.
“Tomorrow is a big game,” Shelley Duncan said. “We’ve got to get one against this team, we really do. It’s probably the most important game of the year. And the three after that are each the biggest game of the year for us. We need to put our foot on the gas and not freak out.”
Excluding the nine- and 10-run outbursts, the Tribe offense has averaged 1.2 runs over an eight-game span. The team batting average in these contests is .204.
Moreover, six of the 12 runs have scored on home runs, indicating that the club has been unable to mount sustained rallies and string hits together.
Carlos Santana’s two-run homer with one out in the ninth was the element that raised false hopes for the 28,049 who sat in on Sunday’s game. After Santana went deep, Orioles closer Jim Johnson was summoned, but he gave up a double to Duncan and a pinch-hit RBI single to Travis Hafner to cut the lead to one.
However, Johnny Damon followed with a line drive to the left fielder, and Johnson closed it out by striking out Asdrubal Cabrera on a 2-and-2 pitch.
“It’s really hard to try and come back against a closer,” Acta said. “And he’s a good one.”
Britton was the second novice starter to lock up the Tribe’s bats (apparently, both threw the key away) in as many days. That is not to say Britton isn’t a worthy opponent, but the left-hander (of course he’s a lefty) had made only one start this season, giving up four runs in four innings against the Twins.
His late start was caused by a shoulder injury that put him on the disabled list until June, after which he was dispatched to Triple-A Norfolk.
On Sunday he limited the Tribe to four hits and two walks in six innings. His most worrisome inning was the sixth, when two walks and Jason Kipnis’ bunt single loaded the bases with two outs. Santana made it three by jumping back from a pitch down the middle to go down on strikes.
Josh Tomlin started for the Indians and put himself in a hole by giving up a leadoff infield hit to Nick Markakis and a home run to J.J. Hardy. After that, Tomlin put four more runners on base over the next five innings but was never in any real trouble, pitching through the sixth.
“Josh gave us a pretty decent outing,” Acta said. “The results at the end are what matter. If it’s two runs in six innings, I really don’t care if it’s two runs in the first or two in the sixth.”
In Tomlin’s previous start, he gave up three runs in the first to the Rays, including a two-run homer.
“I’ve been doing the same things since 2010,” Tomlin said. “I’ve been getting ready the same way, sitting on the bench the same way. I don’t know the answer [to first-inning runs], to be honest.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.