CLEVELAND: By most accounts — and particularly against expectations — Mike Clevinger has had an outstanding start to the 2018 season.

Still, it has been far from perfect and has left room for progress.

One area of development Clevinger hasn’t yet perfected has been his ability to limit the damage of a big inning, which has done him in several times this season.

The worst case came in his third start, when he entered the fourth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays with a 4-0 lead, which was quickly erased. Clevinger said in his next start — a two-hit shutout in Baltimore — that he was determined to show he could hold a lead. With that little bit of extra motivation, he had the best outing of his major-league career.

But the big inning struck again in Thursday night’s 8-2 loss to the Houston Astros. Clevinger was cruising with a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning when, with two outs, he hit the No. 9 hitter, walked the next batter and hung a slider to Alex Bregman, who proceeded to blast it over the fence. Just like that, one errant pitch to put a runner on base led to a 3-2 Astros lead. A nick on the shoulder had become a deep gash.

“Yeah. I get pretty fired up, so I think sometimes the emotions play in your favor, but sometimes they don’t,” Clevinger said. “I feel like there’s a little bit of — that walk, I mean, I feel like I made some OK pitches, but my front side was just diving towards the plate, beating my lower half just because I was ready to throw a punch and get after it.”

Even after Thursday’s start, in which Clevinger gave up five earned runs (two on inherited runners who scored when the bullpen again turned a leak into a flood), his ERA is a solid 3.32. He’s held his own in a starting rotation that boasts three All-Star — and, potentially, a couple Cy Young — candidates taking the mound every fifth game.

Clevinger has given the Indians a strong option in the No. 4 spot in the rotation, but avoiding the big inning might be one of the last remaining hurdles in his development.

The Indians have raved about Clevinger evolving into a more complete pitcher over the past several months, which has included his demeanor on the mound and the fine-tuning of his between-start routine. He even began working on a balance beam sans shoes to cure some ankle/foot issues he’s dealt with for years.

But some room for progress remains in the area of damage control for a pitcher who has always used adrenaline and aggressiveness as a part of his daily makeup.

“He’s had three or four games this year where he has a three-, four-, five-hitter sequence [that has been costly],” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Clevinger. “Don’t get me wrong, he has pitched so well, I think that’s just the next step for him is understanding when you get to that point in the game, limiting damage, and putting a pitch behind you and moving on. He has pitched really well.”

Bunt on

Yonder Alonso beat the heavy shift put on by the Astros in Thursday’s game by laying down a bunt to the left side of the infield, where only one infielder remained.

It’s something several hitters often do to beat the shift. Carlos Santana was one of them, sometimes laying down a bunt to try to keep the infield honest (or, really, just to steal a single).

“There’s times where I think, if a baserunner is as important as driving the ball, bunts are good,” Francona said. “... I think if you talk to older baseball people, they’d be hesitant to do that; I think they didn’t have to deal with all the shifting that’s involved. So maybe it’s changing some of your philosophy a little bit, where not only do you get on base, but you can make defenses maybe play you more honest.”

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com.