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Cleveland Indians: Previewing the four-gamer in Kansas City

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CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 25: Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians rounds the bases after hitting a solo homer during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field on May 25, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - MAY 25: Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians rounds the bases after hitting a solo homer during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field on May 25, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /
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The Cleveland Indians find themselves just two games out of first place in the American League Central, with a crucial series in front of them.

The Cleveland Indians will face the Kansas City Royals for the second consecutive weekend, this time in a pivotal four-game series that has a chance to turn the tide in the AL Central race. The Twins fell to the Yankees on Wednesday night, narrowing the Tribe’s divisional deficit to just two games.

The Twins will head to Chicago for their own four-game road series against the White Sox starting Thursday. The White Sox have lost 12 of their last 16 games dating back to July 4, so it would stand to reason that another solid series out of the Tribe is a must.

The Indians sport a winning record against Kansas City, but not by much. At 7-5, one has to think Cleveland is lamenting a mid-April sweep at the hands of Whit Merrifield and company as the team tries to claw its way to first place in the division. A four-game sweep here is optimal, but it’s imperative that the Indians take at least three of these games.

Probable Starters

Thursday, 8:15 PM EST – Adam Plutko vs. Mike Montgomery

Adam Plutko’s last outing was his best of the season. The righty gave the Indians seven innings, allowing two hits and one earned run via a Hunter Dozier solo shot in the first inning. Cruelly enough, Plutko was saddled with the loss anyway as the Royals’ pitching staff shut out the Tribe, 1-0. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get from Plutko on any given day, as his outings range from impressive quality starts to home-run-riddled disasters. Run support will be key in the series opener.

Mike Montgomery’s only start in a Royals uniform this season came last Friday when he surrendered five earned runs on six hits in just two innings against Cleveland. The lefty finished out his tenure as a Cub by giving up eight earned runs in his final eight innings out of the Chicago bullpen. Cleveland would do well to get to him early and give Plutko some room to breathe.

Friday, 8:15 PM EST – Zach Plesac vs. Jakob Junis

Zach Plesac has been something of a savior for the Indians in 2019 as the team has had to navigate large chunks of the season without Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. Simply being serviceable would seem a reasonable ask of the young rookie, but he’s given the Indians even more than that in the form of five quality starts and a 3.50 ERA. Plesac has had some bumps in the road, but his most recent outing was a six-inning, two-run gem against these same Royals this past Sunday.

Jakob Junis has been serviceable in his own right, as he’s riding a streak of three straight quality starts. In his last appearance, he was part of the combined effort that blanked the Indians 1-0 on Saturday. Junis has allowed lefties to rack up an .806 OPS against him, and he sports a 5.37 home ERA. Look for the Tribe’s contingent of left-handed and switch-hitters to set the tone.

Saturday, 7:15 PM EST – Mike Clevinger vs. Glenn Sparkman

In Saturday’s matchup, the Indians will send flamethrower Mike Clevinger to the mound. The Royals would probably prefer not to face him at the moment, as he’s sporting a 1.88 ERA, 32.2% K/BB ratio, and 50% ground ball rate in 24 innings this month. There isn’t any clear plan of attack against Clevinger; if he doesn’t strike you out, he’s probably going to induce a ground ball. Opposing teams just have to hope they catch him on a bad day, and he doesn’t have many of those.

This is starting to sound repetitive, but Glenn Sparkman’s last start came against the Indians on Sunday. The Tribe roughed him up for four earned runs in 5.2 innings, and he struck out just one Cleveland hitter. Sparkman has faced the Indians twice in 2019, and his line looks like this: 11.1 IP, 9 ER, 5 HR, 4 K. The Tribe will look to drive up those two middle numbers on Saturday night.

Sunday, 2:15 PM EST – Trevor Bauer vs. Danny Duffy

The Sunday blues are going to hit the Royals early if they get the same Trevor Bauer that mowed down nine Blue Jays hitters in 7.2 scoreless innings Tuesday night. Bauer has been nothing short of electric in his last four starts, holding opponents to seven earned runs across 27.1 innings. He is also striking out 35.5% of hitters in this span. If this is the beginning of a second-half Cy Young push, the whole league had better watch out on Bauer’s day to pitch.

Danny Duffy comes into this contest on the heels of back-to-back quality starts, the latter of which was a six-inning gem in Atlanta. Duffy is undoubtedly the better of the two lefties the Indians will face in this series, and it’s worth noting the Indians own a sub-par 88 wRC+ against southpaws this season. He presents the toughest matchup for the Indians, so it’s imperative that they take care of business in the first three games.

Players to Watch

Whit Merrifield has been a thorn in the side of Indians pitchers all season long. He has 20 hits in 57 plate appearances, with four doubles, a triple, and two home runs–all adding up to a 137 wRC+. The Royals don’t boast an especially imposing lineup, but Merrifield makes their whole machine churn from the leadoff spot. Limiting his opportunities to reach base and score runs can change the whole dynamic of Kansas City’s offense, and goes a long way toward neutralizing the damage their big hitters can do.

On the Indians’ side of things, I’m honed in on Carlos Santana right now. Cleveland’s first-half MVP is slashing .182/.294/.409 since the All-Star break, and it’d be a sight for sore eyes if he gets back into the swing of things sooner than later. It is worth noting that of his eight hits in this span, four have been doubles and two have left the yard. He’s also scored seven runs and is still rocking a healthy 13.7% walk rate. Maybe I’m just over-analyzing here, but with the fate of the division hanging in the balance, it’d be a relief to see Santana return to his first-half form.

I’m also paying attention to Tyler Naquin momentarily. He missed the final two games in Toronto with some tightness in his hamstring, so I’m curious to see if he’s limited or held out of anymore games this weekend. Naquin appears to have turned a corner of late, so it would be incredibly disappointing to see a health concern get in his way.

We’ll see you tonight at 8:15 for first pitch. Rally Together, my friends.

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