Saturday, June 2, 2007

Tribe clubhouse: Garko a star in the making

With the 2006 Indians all but out of contention, the club dealt away some of its veteran talent and made room for some fresh young faces. One of those was husky catcher-turned-first baseman Ryan Garko, who had been quietly putting outstanding numbers at the minor leagues for a few years. In 2005 at AAA Buffalo, Garko batted .303 with 19 HR and 77 RBI in 127 games, and he was poise to see regular action with the Tribe in the end of 2006.

He did not disappoint; in 50 games, Garko hit an admirable .292 with 7 HR and 45 RBI. The RBI total really got the Indians hooked on Garko; they knew he could hit, but the way he drove in runs made him an attractive option at first base the next season.

But with Trot Nixon set to play right field the next season and Casey Blake pushed to first base, the Indians wanted to give Andy Marte, who was acquired in a deal before 2006 that sent Coco Crisp to the Red Sox, the starting job at third base. They had been high on his potential, especially for power, for a long time. At AAA Richmond, the Braves' minor league affiliate, Marte hit 20 home runs in 109 games in 2005.

To start the season, Garko did not see much time. But Marte struggled and struggled at the plate, swinging at bad pitches and getting fooled. He looked uncomfortable. The Tribe still kept their faith in him, but to no avail. He then suffered a tweaked hamstring while running out a ground ball in Tampa Bay on April 22, putting him onto the disabled list. Blake would have to be moved back to third, opening up an everyday job for Ryan Garko. However, When Andy Marte returned from the disabled list, the Indians wanted to put him back at third base every day and have Blake as the everyday first baseman, returning Garko to a spot starting role.

And Garko gave the Indians a reason to consider the possibility of keeping him an everyday player. From the time Marte was injured until he returned from the disabled list on May 18, Garko was fantastic, posting a .329 average and hitting four home runs. With Andy Marte struggling on his rehab assignment at AAA Buffalo, the Indians elected to keep Garko as the everyday first baseman and put Marte into a platoon role at third base, with Casey Blake playing third against right-handers, and Marte playing there against lefties with Blake playing in right field for Trot Nixon. But Marte continued to struggle, and the Indians wanted to see him play everyday, so they decided to exercise their last option year on him, and they sent him to Buffalo.

And Garko has continued to dazzle people. In fact, he's somewhat like Travis Hafner in that he has good plate discipline and awesome bat control. He puts good swings on the ball and is a pure line drive hitter. While he does not have as much power as Hafner, Garko makes up for it with his keen ability to get hits when behind in the count. Similar to Hafner, with two strikes, Garko is a deadly hitter who is not afraid to cut down his swing to make contact and put the ball in play; he works counts and chokes up on the bat to increase his chances of making contact. In fact, with two strikes this year, Garko is among the best in the game, batting .291. The American League average: .194.

Garko has also gotten some clutch hits for the Tribe. The most notable of these came against Tampa Bay the very day Andy Marte got injured. In the top of the ninth inning with the Tribe trailing the Rays 4-3 and two men on base, Garko had two strikes, and he again cut down his swing to make good solid contact. On the next pitch, not only did he make contact, but he got enough of it to hit a high fastball for a home run to left field, fueling the Indians to a 6-4 triumph over the Devil Rays. The very next night, Garko got another game-winning hit in the top of the ninth inning with an RBI single to give the Indians a 4-3 victory.

The successes continued for Garko, and in Andy Marte's absence he enjoyed perhaps the best May of any Tribesman. He batted .385 (37-96) with 5 HR and 16 RBI and a .625 SLG, and he had twelve multi-hit games. After Friday's game he is ranked 5th in the American League with a .346 average.

The only concern with Garko has been his defense; after all, he is new to first base. Last year, in 45 games at first base, Garko committed six errors. However, this year, he is becoming more accustomed to the position, and he has only committed two errors to date in 42 games at first base. He will continue to make some mistakes as he adjusts to the position. But his progress has certainly surprised many in the Indians organization, and his bat is too precious to remove from the lineup due to bad defense, especially considering how much he's improved.

All I can say is that Garko knows how to hit, and if he's available in your fantasy league, you may want to pick him up while he is this hot. While it's hard for anyone to maintain a .340+ average, Garko is definitely a bona fide .300 hitter with decent power and great bat control, so he will likely finish the season around the .300 mark. Though nobody outside of Cleveland knows who he is, they soon will, as Garko is a star in the making.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Game 52: Detroit Tigers @ Cleveland Indians (First Post)

Hafner, Martinez, Tribe bats save Sabathia
Indians 11, Tigers 5
W: C.C. Sabathia (8-1) L: Justin Verlander (5-2)
Indians record: 33-19 (Won 2, 1st place in AL Central, 3.5 games ahead of Detroit)
Full box score at

Tonight, with a reprisal of a matchup that occurred in Detroit last weekend, Tribe and Tiger fans had reason to believe that this game would be another pitcher's duel. After all, C.C. Sabathia and Justin Verlander are two of the best in the business, and when they met last weekend they were able to hold the top two offenses in the league to a combined 5 ER over 15 IP, good for a 3.00 ERA between the two.

But the great thing about baseball is that even in a battle of aces, the resulting games don't always have ace-like results. Instead of an old-fashioned pitchers' duel, both offenses scored often and early in the game, causing both starters to rack up the pitch counts.

If a pitcher faces a team two times in a week, the hitters clearly have the advantage the second time, having seen the opposing pitcher's stuff and retaining a good level of familiarity with the pitcher's methods, thus enabling the hitters to make adjustments. That held true tonight, as Justin Verlander got tagged for 7 ER over 5 IP, and Sabathia gave up 5 ER over 7.1 IP.

Though neither pitcher did particularly well, the bats saved Sabathia from certain doom. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez each had two-run homers (10, 9 respectively), and Hafner also hit a two-run single in the Tribe's four-run fifth inning to give him his second four-RBI performance of the year. It looks as though Pronk is heating up, which is good news for Tribe fans, who have watched their prized slugger struggle for most of May (see later).

Sabathia also got some help from Grady Sizemore in the field. In the top of the second inning with a guy on first and two outs, Curtis Granderson drilled a line drive to deep center. Sizemore ran back to the track, dove and laid out and made a spectacular catch, so spectacular that the hosts on Sportscenter referred to it as the "play of the year." Sizemore's hustle and scrappy play have continued to make him a fan favorite at Jacobs Field, and there is no doubt that he will continue to improve in all areas of the game.

Jose Mesa came on to pitch the eighth inning for the Tigers, and he received, expectedly, a barrages of booing from the crowd of 30,000 strong at the Jake, who remember Mesa for blowing a save in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series against the Florida Marlins, who went on to win that game and their first ever World Series, keeping the Indians from winning their first Series since 1948. The Tribe bats also greeted him appropriately as well. Mesa loaded the bases with one out, and the bats took care of the rest. Hot-hitting Ryan Garko drilled a sharp single to left to score Trot Nixon from third, Josh Barfield hit into a fielder's choice to score Jhonny Peralta, and Grady Sizemore capped off the night with a triple off the wall in center field to bring in David Dellucci and Garko, putting the game all but out of reach for the Tigers.

With Brandon Inge out indefinitely with a fractured toe and Carlos Guillen out for a day or two with a sore groin, the Tigers were short on bench people for Thursday's game, having to use both Omar Infante at 3B and Neifi Perez at SS. With only two other guys on the bench (Sean Casey and backup catcher Mike Rabelo), Gary Sheffield only made the situation worse when he was ejected from the game in the top of the 5th inning. Sheffield was presumably upset with a couple strike calls that Gibson made in that at-bat, both of which were close pitches on the inside corner. The first pitch may have been a bit high, but it was still called a strike; the second pitch was right at Victor Martinez's glove, after which Gary Sheffield made some remarks to the umpire. The next pitch, Gary Sheffield made a defensive swing and shattered his bat, grounding the ball to second baseman Josh Barfield. As he strolled down to first, he disgustedly tossed away his bat handle and shouted something at Gibson, who then swiftly raised the arm and ejected him. Sheffield had to be restrained by four Tigers, and Jim Leyland was forced to insert Sean Casey for Gary Sheffield, leaving only one Tiger on the bench, catcher Rebalo.

Sheffield, a seasoned veteran, should have thought before breaking out so angrily. He knew that the Tiger bench was short-staffed that night, and as one of the leaders of the club he should not have reacted so violently so as to cause that ejection and put more pressure on the bench, especially for something such as balls and strikes. The ejection nearly proved even more costly, as a wild pitch that glanced off of catcher Ivan Rodriguez's hand in the bottom of the fifth inning caused his fingers to swell up. Thankfully, Pudge stayed in the game and finished the night with two hits.

The Indians have now won the first four meetings against the Tigers this year. C.C. Sabathia, who could not beat the Tigers last year no matter how well he pitched, is 2-0 this year against them with a 5.02 ERA over 14.1 IP.

Tiger clubhouse: Pen woes continue
Jim Leyland was tired of hearing the media reporting on the Tigers bullpen woes, saying that the starters have not eaten up enough innings to give the team's relief corps some regularity in their outings. Of course, the losses of Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya are perhaps the biggest reason to blame for the Tigers' bullpen woes. Since the loss of Zumaya, the Tigers' pen has an unflattering ERA of 6.42, worst in the majors in that stretch.

The problems continued Thursday night. Despite the Tiger bats pulling to within two runs of the Indians Thursday, the bullpen could not keep it a two-run deficit, as Jose Mesa got pummeled for four runs, all of them earned, for the eighth inning of the game, putting the contest all but out of reach for the Tigers. It just seems as though no matter what Jim Leyland does, his bullpen is unable to keep games close.

Leyland is right when he says that he needs more innings from his starters; Justin Verlander's outing illustrates that point perfectly.
Much like in his previous outing against the Tribe, Verlander struggled with his command, hitting three batters and walking three others. His pitch count reached 100 by the start of the sixth inning, and once Verlander failed to retire Grady Sizemore and Casey Blake to start the inning, Leyland had no choice but to go to his rattled relief corps. But at the same time, with the loss of the team's two primary setup men in Rodney and Zumaya, the roles in the bullpen suddenly went haywire. Relievers were now being brought into situations that they might not have seen before, and Leyland was forced to put in random guys to serve the setup role. The lack of regularity in the pen may be the primary cause of the meltdown, with the inconsistent starting pitching only adding fuel to the fire.

Tim Byrdak has been perhaps the only truly reliable arm in the Tiger pen since the loss of Zumaya. In eight appearances, including Thursday's game, Byrdak has given up 3 ER over 10.2 IP, striking out 16. While he has issued seven free passes, he is the only Tiger reliever since May 5 (the loss of Zumaya) to have an ERA under 3.00. Zach Miner has also filled in respectably, posting a 3.12 ERA since replacing Fernando Rodney, but he has allowed 11 hits in 8.2 IP. The rest of the Tiger pen, including closer Todd Jones, has been awful in that stretch:

Aquilino Lopez: 4.15 ERA in 2 appearances (4.1 IP, 2 R, 2 ER)
Fernando Rodney: 5.06 ERA in 6 appearances (5.1 IP, 5 R, 3 ER)
Wilfredo Ledezma: 6.75 ERA in 9 appearances (12 IP, 9 ER)
Todd Jones: 7.11 ERA in 7 appearances (6.1, 5 R, 5 ER)
Bobby Seay: 7.36 ERA in 9 appearances (7.1 IP, 6 R, 6 ER)
Jose Mesa: 10.00 ERA in 12 appearance (9 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 10 ER)
To top it all off, Jason Grilli: 10.24 ERA in 7 appearances (9.2 IP, 19 H, 12 R, 11 ER)
Total for those seven relievers: 1-3, 7.62 ERA, 6 SV, 3 BS

What is Jim Leyland left to do? His only options are to take risks with any other arms he has available at AAA Toledo, to take a risk in signing Troy Percival, or to wait it out and hope that his bullpen can hit its stride in the coming weeks. The imminent return of Rodney from the disabled list should restore some order to the situation, but until Zumaya and his heat are back, the Tiger starters need to go out and throw at least six good innings per start, perhaps even seven, and leave with the Tigers having a good chance to win.

Tribe clubhouse: Hafner heating up
After having a career last year and leading the American League in several offensive categories, including slugging percentage (.659), Hafner had high expectations for this year. People predicted Hafner would have an enormous year, perhaps having a year like Ryan Howard did in 2006 and producing around .300, 50+ HR, 130+ RBI.

But after having a good April, Hafner found himself in perhaps the biggest funk of his career for most of May. Hafner, who is known for his impeccable plate discipline and ability to work counts and draw walks, was chasing pitches he normally wouldn't chase, and he had lots of in-between swings. He wasn't driving the ball, and he wasn't seeing good pitches to hit. From May 1 through May 29, Hafner hit just .195 (18-93) with 4 HR, 18 RBI, and 23 K. He had two separate games in which he struck out four times in that stretch, the first time he struck out four times in a game since 2004. His slugging percentage, which has consistently been above .575 throughout his career, lingered below .500. Not exactly Pronk-like numbers. Thankfully, Hafner still drove in those 18 runs with productive outs like sacrifice flies and ground outs, and he drew 26 walks, showing just how much pitchers fear the idea of pitching to Travis Hafner no matter how cold he is.

Perhaps a change of environment was what Pronk needed, and the last stop on the Tribe's 9-game road trip in late May was Fenway Park, where Hafner has hit very well in his career, hitting .356 with 4 HR and 18 RBI in 12 career games prior to that three-game series. It seemed to be the trick, as Hafner showed signs of improvement in each game. He hit a hard triple into the right field corner in game two of the series, and the third game was when he really broke out of his slump, going 3-5 with 2 RBI. He had a single to right field and two doubles, both of which went to the opposite field.

And Pronk continued to heat up Thursday night, as the first place Tribe returned from the road trip to take on the hard-hitting Tigers at the Jake. And Travis Hafner wasted no time getting the Indians on the board. After Justin Verlander gave up a single to Casey Blake, Tribe fans saw perhaps the most encouraging news in the past month, as Travis Hafner launched a 430-foot shot to right-center field to put the Indians on top 2-0. It was just his tenth home run of the year, but if Travis Hafner continues to heat up, he could get those power numbers back up to shape.

The scary thing about the Indians lineup is that even with Pronk in a huge funk, the club still played .600 ball, going 17-11 in that stretch from May 1 through May 29. The team continued to pile on the runs, averaging 5.75 runs per game. If Travis Hafner heats up and the rest of the lineup continues to produce consistently, look out, as this offense, which is already perhaps the best in the league, will only be better.

Up next:
Friday, the Indians will give the ball to Fausto Carmona (6-1, 2.89 ERA), who has won six straight decisions and who will try to keep the red-hot Tiger bats in check. The Tigers will go with Mike Maroth (3-2, 5.04 ERA), who looks to rebound from his last start against the Tribe in which he went eight innings and gave up five runs in a Tribe victory at Comerica Park.