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Cleveland Indians: Previewing the showdown with Houston

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(Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) /
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The Indians will begin a brutal stretch of their schedule with the Houston Astros on Tuesday. It’s do-or-die from here on out in the hunt for October.

Much to the dismay of the first-place Twins, the Cleveland Indians have spent the last two months doing exactly what they were supposed to do: beating up on bad teams.

Things are about to get a whole lot more challenging in a hurry. The Indians will play five of their next six series’ against teams with records above .500, including all three current division leaders in the AL.

By the time the dust settles on the month of August, we will have a crystal clear picture of whether the Indians are genuine World Series contenders or not–a fact just as exciting as it is nerve-racking.

They’ll kick off this gauntlet with a three-game home series against the formidable Houston Astros Tuesday night, and A.J. Hinch’s club won’t exactly be pulling any punches. Cleveland will face both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in this series–arguably the running favorites to finish first and second in the Cy Young vote at season’s end.

It’s going to be an intense several weeks with a playoff feel every step of the way. Let’s dive in to the first chapter against the Astros.

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday, 7:10 PM EST – Shane Bieber vs. Justin Verlander

The Indians will send a Cy Young candidate of their own to the mound in Shane Bieber for the first game of the series. Verlander has Bieber beat in ERA and innings pitched, but their strikeout rates are separated by just 1.4 percentage points, and Bieber actually boasts the better xFIP (3.19 to Verlander’s 3.57).

Bieber already made national news by being named the MVP of the All-Star Game earlier this month, but he has an opportunity to rocket himself up the ladder of respect with an impressive outing against Verlander and the Astros on Tuesday evening.

If the Indians are going to give Bieber the run support he needs, there’s a surprisingly high likelihood it comes by way of the home run ball. Verlander has the highest fly ball rate in baseball among qualified starters, at 46.4%. He owns the 14th-highest HR/FB ratio in the league as well (17.7%), and is the only pitcher in the top 15 with a fly ball rate above 40%.

With Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez rapidly getting back into form as a lethal tandem in the Indians’ lineup, it will be interesting to see if Verlander is able to escape from his fly ball trends without giving up a bomb.

Wednesday, 7:10 PM EST – Zach Plesac vs. Jose Urquidy

Rookie right-hander Jose Urquidy has all of 19 innings at the big-league level, so we don’t have much to analyze with him. He pitched a combined six innings in his first two outings, giving up seven earned runs. In his last two starts, he’s gone 13 innings and given up just two earned runs.

He sports a respectable 28.8% strikeout rate and a solid 49.1% ground ball rate. In his two quality outings, he relied more heavily on his changeup than he did in his first two. If he continues with that plan of attack, it would serve the Indians well to sit on the off-speed offering.

Urquidy’s adversary on Wednesday night will be Zach Plesac. In the absence of impressive strikeout numbers, Plesac will rely heavily on his 42.4% ground ball rate in order to neutralize Houston’s imposing lineup.

Plesac also owns the lowest hard-hit rate of Cleveland’s starters (min. 60 IP) at 36.8%. He may pitch to contact, but it’s usually the kind of contact that gives his defense a chance to make a play.

Thursday, 7:10 PM EST – Danny Salazar vs. Gerrit Cole

Thursday could go any of a number of ways. Danny Salazar will be making his first big-league appearance since 2017, and will be on a 70-pitch limit. Adam Plutko will be ready in reserve if Salazar’s limit doesn’t allow him to cover enough innings, per Mandy Bell of MLB.com.

Salazar’s activation is about as low-risk as it gets. If he’s able to give the Indians anywhere near what was once thought to be his full potential, he could serve as a back-end rotation piece or a shutdown bullpen arm. If he’s unable to return to his former self, the Indians aren’t in a very different position from where they’ve been all year long.

From a purely human standpoint, it is just fantastic to know Salazar will be standing on the mound in a Major League game again, and he’ll have the full force of the home crowd behind him on Thursday.

His opponent, fittingly enough, might well be the best pitcher in the American League.

Gerrit Cole leads all qualified MLB starters in xFIP (2.69) and strikeout rate (37.3%), and ranks 11th in ERA (2.94). Interestingly enough, he, like Verlander, is susceptible to the home run ball. His 18.8% HR/FB rate is seventh-highest in the league.

These numbers aren’t meant to indicate the Tribe’s plan of attack should be to swing for the downs against Verlander and Cole, but rather that it’s worth keeping an eye on whether the Indians are able to exploit either starter’s respective mistakes.

Three Tricks to Triumph

The first out – Among players with at least 200 plate appearances in the leadoff spot, George Springer’s 159 wRC+ is second-best in the league. His wRC+ in the first inning while hitting in the leadoff spot is 155. He has seven home runs in the first inning from the leadoff spot, most in the league. The Indians can’t let him light a fire under the rest of Houston’s offense right from the get-go.

Step up for the starters – The Astros are sending their two best pitchers to the mound in this series, while the Indians are sending only one of their top three in Bieber. At the very least, the Astros are going to see one starter who pitches to contact in Plesac (and then Plutko if needed). The defense will have to be at its best behind him. This obviously goes for the offense as well. A cushion of a couple of runs early could go a long way toward easing the pressure felt by Cleveland’s young starters.

Grinding out at-bats – We already touched on this above, but with the pitchers the Indians are going to see, it’s imperative that they capitalize on mistakes. With Verlander and Cole specifically, those mistakes will need to be earned. Pitching mistakes are earned by refusing to strike out and being patient at the plate. Since the Indians turned their season around on June 1, they have the fourth-lowest strikeout rate in the league. That kind of resolve in the batter’s box will go a long way toward determining who comes out on top in this series.

Next. Believeland Ball Mailbag. dark

First pitch of the series is 7:15 PM on Tuesday night. Let’s welcome Michael Brantley back to The Jake with a convincing win, shall we?

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