CLEVELAND: The Indians cannot keep pitching like this and make the playoffs.
Friday night’s starter Justin Masterson could have been excluded from this discussion, but not on the basis of his performance Friday against the Detroit Tigers. Masterson lasted just 4⅔ innings and gave up six runs in the Tribe’s 7-0 loss.
For the most part, the Tribe ace has been the gold standard in a drawer full of brass. But Masterson carries one glaring flaw, a 2-8 career record against the Tigers, the division rivals visiting Progressive Field this weekend for a big four-game series. That statistic makes me wonder if he will ever be able to handle the pressure of being the ace on a perennial contender.
There are other issues among the starters, especially Ubaldo Jimenez’s maddening tendency to throw 100 pitches in the first five innings and then self-destruct. But for the most part, the Tribe’s chances of reaching the postseason rest with the bullpen.
Especially with setup man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez.
The bullpen is supposed to be the strength of the team, the one area General Manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona didn’t have to worry about. That hasn’t been the case in 2013, as the relievers had compiled a 4.19 ERA, 13th in the American League, going into Friday’s game. (That ranked lower than the starters’ 4.48 ERA, which was 10th in the AL.)
Several times this season the bullpen has been so erratic I’ve been tempted to check whether the Indians were falling back into their old odd year-even year tendency. (For purposes of this column I finally did and it doesn’t apply. The relief corps was strong in 2005 and ’07, then struggled in 2006 and ’08.)
Back when the odd-even trait was as dependable as a Browns quarterback controversy, president Mark Shapiro (then the GM) mused that the bullpen got more work during successful seasons, then paid the price for those innings the following year.
That doesn’t bear itself out now. The Indians haven’t won more than 80 games the past four seasons and were in the 60s three of those years. No matter the team’s record, the bullpen has been great since 2011, when the Tribe settled on Joe Smith to pitch the seventh inning, Pestano the eighth and Perez the ninth.
That’s what makes the ranking of 13th in the AL seem so alarming.
“We’ve been the most consistent part of the team the past couple years,” Pestano said Friday. “It is disheartening. I take a tremendous amount of pride in the bullpen because we’re a team down there.”
Pestano is upset with himself as well. He’s carrying a 4.00 ERA — he came into this season with a 2.50 ERA in 142 games for the Tribe.
“The season I’ve had so far has been unsatisfactory by my standards,” he said.
The same is true of Perez, who has a 3.66 ERA with eight saves. His ERA has never been a thing of beauty except for 2010 (1.71). But Perez has battled shoulder issues since spring training, although the Indians insist the one that sent him to the disabled list in May and June was in a different spot.
Pestano also spent time on the DL in May with an elbow injury, which along with Perez’s stint mucked up the normally dependable back end of the bullpen. This year the only consistent one has been Smith (4-0, 2.51 ERA).
“We have one of the best bullpens in the league. Statistically far from it,” Pestano said. “As far as stuff, guys’ ability, I’m very confident in the guys. This year for whatever reason we haven’t been able to put it together.”
Fans might want to place the blame on the starters, but the Indians are getting more than they expected out of their rotation. They couldn’t have imagined Corey Kluber going 6-5. Jimenez is vastly improved, even though he’s averaging slightly more than 5⅓ innings per start. They might not have known Zach McAllister (before his right middle finger sprain) was ready to jump to the next level and to emerge as a leader. The biggest failure has been the Brett Myers experiment.
When it comes to making the playoffs, the Indians are walking a fine line and everything has to go right. As strange as it sounds, the path of least resistance might be to win the division. Going into Friday there were at least eight teams in the running for the two AL wild-card spots, counting the division leaders. Virtually no one in the AL East, except for the Toronto Blue Jays seems out of contention and the Blue Jays had only four fewer victories than the Tribe.
Ten games remain against the Tigers, but the Indians are 2-7 against them.
In the past two years, the Indians had one big edge on the Tigers — their bullpen. But with Tigers closer Jose Valverde demoted to the minors, they could make a deal for another before the July 31 trade deadline, which could further complicate matters for the Tribe.
It is no secret in the organization that the Indians’ pitchers aren’t operating at a level that will get them to the postseason.
“We’re going to have a meeting about that today,” Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway said before the game.
An update on trade possibilities could have been part of that discussion. But even if the Indians can pull off a deal, there will be no October glory if the pitching staff can’t handle the burden. And the old reliables with the most clout, Pestano and Perez, must step up and lead the way.
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.