How many times can one team be left for dead in one season?
There was no way Cleveland was coming back from a 4-16 slump between May and June, and then the team went 15-5 over its next 20 games. There was no way the Indians could right the ship after being swept in a four-game home series by the Tigers in early August, but the Tribe has won nine of 13 since then and is six games behind Detroit in the American League Central.
There was no way the rotation and bullpen could overcome so many injuries and performance issues, but the pitching staff has held its ground. There was no way the offense could overcome Mark Reynolds' power outage, and subsequent release, Nick Swisher's shoulder woes or Asdrubal Cabrera's slump, but the lineup has continued to do just enough.
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With September rapidly approaching, the Indians have already won more games than they did last year and refuse to disappear from the postseason discussion. Cleveland has been counted out multiple times this year, but it is 1 1/2 games back of the second AL Wild Card slot and remains on the edge of the Tribe's first playoff game since 2007.
Here is the latest Inbox.
I would like to hear your overall thoughts on the upcoming nine games. If the Indians do well, where do they go from there? If they lose the majority, then where do they go? Is this the make-or-break point of the season?
-- Rex H., Cedar Rapids, Iowa
I liked what Indians left-hander Scott Kazmir said after Sunday's win over the Twins. Using the same phrasing you just did, we asked the pitcher if the next nine games represented a make-or-break part of the remaining season.
"You can't ever say that, because baseball is crazy," Kazmir said. "But it's definitely an important situation for us that we can take advantage of."
It is not "make or break" in the sense that after the upcoming three-game sets against the Braves, Tigers and Orioles -- who are all contending for the playoffs, the Indians will still have 23 games left. If Cleveland posts a subpar record over the next nine tilts, there will still be time to make up ground in, at the very least, the AL Wild Card race.
The flip side is that if the Tribe plays well over these nine games, there will be nearly two-dozen games left for the team to hold its ground or pull away.
This will be a big test for the Indians, because the Braves (leading the National League East), Tigers and Orioles (half-game behind Cleveland in the hunt for the AL's second Wild Card spot) had a combined .578 winning percentage, entering Monday. There is light at the end of the tunnel for the Tribe, though.
Following the nine-game litmus test, the Indians' remaining games will be against the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins, who had combined for a .430 winning percentage headed into Monday's games. Among that group, only Kansas City (65-64) had a record at or above .500. Consider this: Cleveland is 40-17 (.702) against teams with sub-.500 records this year.
I've punched some numbers together and figured if the Indians go 19-13 the rest of the way, which I feel like they could with the way the schedule is worked out, that would put them at 90 wins. Do you think that will be enough to make the playoffs? If not, what number should they be aiming for down the stretch?
-- Jack Z., Canton, Ohio
In the past, winning 90 games would be a solid season, but not likely to net a postseason spot. That has changed with the addition of the second Wild Card team in each league. Over the past decade, the fifth-best team in the AL (second Wild Card) has averaged 90.3 wins. So, winning 90 games should put a team within striking distance of the playoffs. Winning a few more games obviously ups the chances.
What is your opinion of the current Wild Card race and the changes in the Wild Card system? Good idea for baseball?
-- The Fletcher Family, Detroit.
Thanks to the increase in contending teams, the current race has a few good storylines. Manager Terry Francona helping the Indians turn things around. The Red Sox bouncing back after a forgettable 2012 season. Tampa Bay once again showing it should never be counted out. The A's and Orioles showing last year was not a fluke. The Yankees trying to overcome injuries, age and controversy.
The field would be thinner without that second Wild Card, which I do think is great for baseball's fans. More teams are playing meaningful games in late August and early September. The only aspect that I'm not entirely sold on is the one-game playoff between Wild Card winners. As Francona recently said, that game is "half-exciting, half-dreadful" for everybody involved.
Indians fans should like the new format, though. Without that new road to the postseason, the Tribe would be staring at a four-game deficit behind the Rays.
Do you think the Indians will make Danny Salazar develop some new pitches? Because all he seems to throw is a fastball and a changeup but barely uses a slider. He can't just rely on 100-mph pitches his whole career.
-- Kevin H., Staten Island, N.Y.
I would wager that over the course of Salazar's career, you will see his slider usage increase and changeup usage decrease, especially as he moves further away from his arm surgery. What I don't expect is for Cleveland to ask him to ask him to overhaul his pitch arsenal any time soon.
There are examples of starters who rely heavily on only two or three pitches, if said pitches are good enough. I'm reminded of when I covered A.J. Burnett during his Blue Jays days. He had an overpowering fastball, a spike curve and a changeup that he mixed in sparingly. Burnett is now in his 15th season of essentially being a two-pitch starter.
According to fangraphs.com, Salazar's fastball currently rates as the fastest on average (96.3 mph) in the AL among starters with at least 20 innings. He has a plus changeup, which he throws 24.6 percent of the time, and a strong slider, which he uses 8.3 percent of the time. At just 23 years old, Salazar can probably get by on that repertoire for a while, especially if he learns to mix up usage in certain situations.
Now that Yan Gomes has established himself as a very capable and reliable backup catcher, where does Lou Marson stand with the Indians? Do you see the Tribe trying to trade him or giving him his outright release in the offseason?
-- Kevin G., North Royalton, Ohio
Marson still has value as a backup or third-string catcher. He has a solid history of hitting left-handed pitching, works well with pitchers and, when his shoulder was healthy, was one of the league's best at throwing out baserunners. Marson is currently in Arizona still rehabbing his shoulder. With an option left, Cleveland can keep him in the fold and re-evaluate his role next spring.
How's Vinnie Pestano doing at Triple-A Columbus? Is he showing any signs of a comeback?
-- Mike C., Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Pestano is still focusing on his fastball command with the Clippers, and the Tribe's former setup man has shown improvement. The righty has a 3.97 ERA through 11 1/3 innings in 11 games, though his overall line is marred by the three runs he allowed on Aug. 13. It is likely that Pestano will rejoin the Indians after rosters expand to 40 players on Sunday.
As a 20-plus-year baseball fan, I just now learned that a wild pitch that results in a runner advancing a base or scoring is not considered an error. What is MLB's reasoning for this scoring (or lack thereof) decision?
-- Dane M., Richfield, Ohio
Chalk it up as one of baseball's quirky rules or scoring decisions. The one that has always bothered me is that a pitcher can make an error (on a pickoff attempt, for example) and then be given an unearned run if the gaffe leads to the other team scoring. In a way, the quirkiness of the game is part of its beauty.