The Cleveland Indians lost three regular position players to injury in August and September. Oscar Mercado decided that was not going to end their season.
I’ll be honest. There was a stretch during August when I thought a lineup shuffle might do Oscar Mercado and the Cleveland Indians some good.
The Indians had lengthened their lineup with the acquisitions of Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes. Jason Kipnis was hitting well, and Jose Ramirez had reemerged as a game-changing threat at the plate.
Cleveland suddenly found itself with options in its batting order, and Mercado’s 44 wRC+ in August could not possibly have survived in the two-hole for much longer. It was by far his worst month of the season at the plate, and consequently brought about concern that he had run into the fabled “rookie wall.”
It seemed only a matter of time before Kipnis reclaimed his old spot, or Ramirez was given the chance to see what he could do from there.
Then Ramirez went down with an injury at the end of the month, eliminating any possibility of an opposing pitcher having to face the Tribe’s three best hitters at the top of the order. The injury to Ramirez also appeared to greatly damage any chance the Indians had of clawing their way into the playoffs, much less advancing once they got there.
With that injury came the need for someone else to step up, and that someone has been Mercado. Mercado has resuscitated his own season in September, and has played a vital role in keeping his team alive in the race for October as well.
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The center fielder began the month just as he had ended the previous one: he went hitless in 11 plate appearances through the first three games. Since September 4, he has only gone hitless three times, and only failed to reach base twice.
His walk rate is the highest it’s been in any month of 2019, and he’s one home run and two extra-base hits away from achieving personal bests in those categories as well. His slash line for September is .325/.393/.584, with a team-leading 148 wRC+.
Mercado’s value to the team in this final month is amplified by relatively un-flashy performances from its remaining stars, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana. Neither Lindor nor Santana own a wRC+ above 100 in September.
Mercado’s .584 September slugging percentage is over 100 points higher than the Tribe’s runner-up, Roberto Perez (.480).
What’s been even more impressive about Mercado’s return to form is the situations in which he’s come through for the Indians recently. Mercado laced an RBI single in the seventh inning of Friday night’s 5-2 victory over the Phillies after Lindor was intentionally walked to get to him.
He crushed a three-run homer with two outs in the fifth inning of Sunday’s win, breaking a 1-1 tie and reigniting an offense that had gone cold for most of the previous 12 innings. The Indians followed up on it with six more runs.
In his last eight games–under the most pressure-packed of circumstances as the end of the regular season draws near–Mercado has scored and driven in 11 runs each, with eight extra-base hits.
The Indians’ 2019 season has been different from those of the last couple years, yes. In at least a handful of ways, that hasn’t been a good thing. But 2019 has also been a remarkable journey from where this team began in March to where it is now, with each individual player having made his mark on the story at one point or another.
For Mercado, that mark has been made at the most important time of the year–an impressive thing for a rookie to be able to say on a team that has had its back against a wall for most of the season.
Mercado has played an invaluable role in bridging the gap between the uncertainty of late August and the promise of late September. Now, the Indians have earned six make-or-break games to determine how the 2019 season will ultimately be remembered.
They’ll charge headlong into the final fight for October with Puig and Reyes, who have both begun to heat up in their own fearsome right; with Lindor and Santana, who continue to lead this team in every conceivable way; with Ramirez, who is set to make the most improbable of returns after his season was declared finished less than a month ago; and with Mercado, who decided the best way to circumnavigate the rookie wall was to blast right through it.