CLEVELAND: It’s been the Jason Kipnis show for the first two months of the Indians’ season.
If an award were given for Most Valuable Player at the one-third marker, Kipnis would be the team’s runaway winner. Even abiding by the tough standard of “What have you done for me lately?” Kipnis has had an answer more often than not.
He hit the first grand slam of his career Friday night, and the Tribe beat the Minnesota Twins 7-1 at Progressive Field behind another strong pitching performance by Derek Lowe on his 39th birthday.
Kipnis leads the Indians in four important offensive categories: home runs (9), RBI (34), runs (35) and steals (12). If he continues to produce at this pace, he will finish the season with 24 homers, 91 RBI, 94 runs and 32 steals (he has been caught only once).
“Something I take pride in is covering all aspects of the game,” Kipnis said.
Nobody would have expected one hitter to lead the club in four categories, two of them power based.
“I’m surprised that it’s one guy,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “But he’s capable of doing that. Forget about his size [5-foot-11, 185 pounds]. He gives himself a pretty good chance of hitting the ball out of the park.”
It has been assumed that Kipnis would hit since being called up to the big leagues for the first time last July (but maybe not this well, this fast). What the club’s deep thinkers weren’t sure about was his ability to adapt to second base after playing the outfield until two years ago.
But he has allayed any fears that he cannot play second base by the way he has handled the position this season.
“He’s made more progress than anybody I’ve seen in years,” Acta said this week. “He’s been a big part of the way our defense has come around. We knew that Jack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman would be solid, but Kipnis has been as good as any of those guys on defense.”
Kipnis sealed the win rather early, when he came to the plate in the fourth with the bases loaded and one out and launched a drive over the wall in right-center field to give the Indians a 7-0 advantage over Twins starter Carl Pavano. Kipnis also singled in the first inning and stole second.
Did hitting a grand slam cross Kipnis’ mind when he walked to the plate?
“Everybody thinks about it for a second,” he said. “But you have to put that thought out of your mind real quick.”
Lonnie Chisenhall gave the Tribe the lead in the second with a two-run homer, his second in four big-league games this year. Chisenhall also singled in the fourth and fifth, stole a base and scored twice.
It would be difficult to keep up a pace of two home runs every 13 at-bats, but Chisenhall can dream.
“That’s a little ahead of my [normal] pace,” he said. “I’m not a big home-run guy. I hit more doubles, line drives. But I’d love to keep this going.”
Lowe (7-3, 3.06 ERA) wasn’t as lethal as the last time he faced the Twins, May 15, when he threw a six-hit shutout and retired 22 batters on ground balls. However, his outing was far superior to his most recent start, when he gave up eight runs and 10 hits in 2⅓ innings to the Chicago White Sox last weekend.
This time he worked a solid 6⅔ innings, allowing five hits and one walk. He did not give up a run until the seventh, when the Twins strung together three singles.
Lowe bailed himself out of several deep counts early in the game, but eventually gained command of his lethal sinker and induced nine Twins to beat the ball into the dirt for 11 outs.
In the second, he was struck in the calf by Justin Morneau’s ground ball, but he waved off Acta and head trainer Lonnie Soloff.
“He just told us to go back to the dugout, that he was fine,” Acta said.
With most of the starters in a slump for the past week, Lowe’s steadying performance was vital in getting the rotation back on track.
“We needed one guy to step up and he was the right guy to do it,” Acta said.
Lowe doesn’t pay much attention to his age, although there are plenty of others to remind him.
“At 39, I tell people I’m no longer a prospect,” he joked. “It’s more rewarding to have success when you’re older. When you’re younger, you just expect it.”
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.