The Sunday Drive with September baseball, Salazar and the Steelers

1Labor Day has come and gone, and your Cleveland Indians are 73-67, in third place in the American League Central, three games behind the Detroit Tigers and five games behind the Kansas City Royals. In the bigger picture, the Indians are tied with the New York Yankees, 4 1/2 games behind Seattle for a Wild Card spot. The Tribe finishes off a series against the White Sox today, and should win, and seem to have a game-in-hand against Kansas City, and I’ll get into that in a little bit.

Last season after game 140, since I like to gaze at those things, the Indians were two games better, at 75-65, in second place in the division, 6 1/2 games behind the Tigers. The Indians were two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the race for the Wild Card, without a team in front of them (the were tied with Baltimore, and 1/2 game behind the Yankees).

Of course, that was then, and this is now. We all know that last year’s club dominated September, and after game 140, went 17-5, finished only a game out of first place, and took over the #1 slot in the wildcard.

What’s the point?

I know it’s a cliche, but I never waste an opportunity to roll out a Yogi Berra-ism: “It’s not over ’til it’s over.”

My good friend and fellow EHC scribe Steve Orbanek reminded me of this fact on Tuesday Night, when Cody Allen blew a save in spectacular fashion, costing the Tribe a sure win. He reminded me of that fact again, when the Indians lost the last game of the series, and three-of-four in the series overall.

“I hate Indians’ baseball,” I said, and likely mimicked the majority of the Cleveland Indians’ fans who irrationally comp-ed Allen to Joe Borowski (sorry Joe Cuneo) and the latter-years Chris Perez. Sorry, it’s what I do. I don’t mean it, but I’m a 43-year-old starving baseball artist who is beginning to stare at the downslope of my mountain without the visage of a World Series in sight.

Steve responded quickly. “There’s a month of baseball left, my friend,” and while I know that in the back of his mind, he was thinking the exact same thing I was, his statement was far more rational than mine.

The Indians DO have a month of baseball left, and while time certainly isn’t on their side, their schedule gives the Indians a nice mix “ability to catch up by beating the teams ahead of them,” with “ability to catch up by beating bad teams.”

Counting today’s game with the White Sox, the Indians have six games against the Twins, four games against the Houston Astros and three games against the Tampa Bay Rays. Those teams, including the White Sox, are a combined 255-313. While each of those series are far from a given, a team making a run at the playoffs should be able to win a majority of those games.

The remaining seven full games include one game against the Angels, as well as three each with the Tigers and the Royals. This doesn’t include the aforementioned “game-in-hand” that I mentioned with regards to the Royals.

Now, I preface the “game-in-hand” statement for all those that are about to berate me for tilting the “luck-scale.” No offense to all of you, but if the Indians lose a game in which they are up two in the bottom-of-the-tenth, then point your ire to the Indians. They’ll win that game, or at least they should. Personally, I’m with Baseball Reference, who has already given the Indians the win.

Back to the Royals and the Tigers. Let’s not mince any words here: the Tribe has to win five-of-six of those games. Okay, I’m saying this without knowing where the Tribe will be standing when they enter either series, but the reality is that the Indians certainly can’t lose ground there, and treading water with less than 20 left could be equally destructive.

No, regardless of their standing, the Indians need to dominate those series with regards to wins-and-losses, or there really is no hope.

The Indians can certainly overtake the Tigers, and still have a shot at the Division if it all comes together. The Tigers, though, have a similar schedule to the Tribe. They have ten games left against the Royals, Indians and Giants, and ten games against the White Sox and the Twins. The bonus is the the Tigers are only .500 against the Twins and Sox (the Indians are two games over .500 against the Sox, Twins and Astros), so like with the Indians, nothing is a given.

I give the edge to the Indians. They have more heart…;).

The Royals aren’t much different than the Indians and the Tigers. They have one left with the Yankees, six games left with the Tigers and three (four) left with the Indians. Past that, they have seven left with the White Sox, and four left with the Boston Red Sox. Perhaps Boston can regain their World Series wonder of a year ago, and John Farrell can help out his old skipper (Terry Francona), and his old club.

Rooting for the Red Sox…a novel idea.

What does all this schedule talk mean?

It’s going to be a crap-shoot, but hell, it’s meaningful baseball in September, and that may be the most irrational statement of all. While this team is incredibly frustrating and mind-numbing, they are six games over .500 and have a shot at the playoffs.

That’s special.

I grew up with nearly 25-years of futility. That’s hard to forget, even with the Indians of the 90’s interceding. Meaningful baseball is a gift, and I’m looking forward to unwrapping the rest of this season.

Of course, irrational statements are likely to come, so just bear with me, if you will.

Danny Salazar looked different on Wednesday night. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, “that’s easy to say, you imbecile. He pitched his first complete game shutout!”

Of course that‘s different, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

It was just how he acted on the mound.

Not only did Salazar act like he belonged with the Indians and wasn’t just asked to come up and pitched, but he acted like he owned the mound. If you go back and watch the video, he looked downright irritated that the Tigers were audacious enough to allow hitters to face him.

I’ve taken a lot of heat for calling Salazar an ace, but you have to understand, that’s what I see when he steps up to the mound. That’s what I saw in 2012 when I lived in Carolina and watched him pitch shortened innings. He OWNED the Carolina League and he knew it. He was truly agitated that he had to come out of games, and that came out while talking with him.

He understood the steps in his rehab. He understood his limitations. He also knew exactly when his game was going to be over almost before the game started.

But he hated it.

He hated when a hitter took a ball on a corner.

He hated every squib hit.

He looked like he hated every hitter.

I saw an ace.

Now, I see an ace.

Rib me all you want for using that term, but the Danny Salazar you see developing before you is the Danny Salazar you need to get used to.

What’s an ace? Well, he has pinpoint control (Salazar had zero walks vs. the Tigers, and has walked only 28 in 87 2/3 innings), generally has a blazing fastball (upper 90’s) and can wipe out hitters (career 10.1 K/9), isn’t afraid to throw any pitch to any hitter at any time, and is a menace to face.

Salazar was downright menacing on Wednesday night. Let’s hope that the Salazar I saw in Carolina in 2012 on the hill and who is reemerging before our eyes here in September is here to stay.

I was glad that Jordan Bastian came out with a story in which Mickey Callaway discussed the Indians’ “flaw in the team’s approach” with regards to Danny Salazar. It was a timely piece, which was written for free at MLB.com. Bastian is one of the best writers at MLB.com, and we are lucky to have him, but that’s for another day.

This past March, I was screaming at the top of my twitter lungs that they were handling Salazar the wrong way. While I understood the fear of overusing his arm after several years of catering to a light schedule due to the Tommy John surgery, it was folly to think that a light pitching schedule would get him ready for a Major League season.

Callaway, via Bastian, cut to the chase in talking with Callaway going forward.

“He’s always been a bit of a slow starter,” Callaway said. “We’ve always seen his velocity, like in April, it averages around 92 [mph], and then in September, he averaged 96 last year. So he’s always kind of conditioned himself — kind of the Minor League way when you’re coming up — to ease yourself into the season.

“He’s always kind of been in that mindset of building up. It’s probably my fault that we probably didn’t do a good job of getting him ready for Spring Training, where he had to come out and compete. He didn’t know how to do it himself. We just kind of figured he’ll be ready, but we didn’t ever look at the history of it until after the season started.”

 

As I mentioned before, I’ve always taken an interest in Salazar, so perhaps I’ve paid a bit more attention to his history than most, but it’s clear that his habitual regimen heading into this season wasn’t conducive to major league success in April. That’s all fine and good when you are going to limit your pitches to five innings or 60 pitches. That’s all fine and good when you are playing in the minor leagues to start the year.

That’s not all fine and good when you are depended on to be a major piece of the rotation.

We are seeing what happens when Salazar’s arm is built up, and now he has the attitude to go with it. The great unknown is whether or not his body will be able to hold up to a more substantial conditioning pr0gram, and a more steep ramp of work this offseason. It’s also unknown where his stamina will be in the coming year in August and September.

We’ll see if Callaway and the Indians can truly build an ace from scratch, but we may not find out the complete picture until 2016. Until then, I’ll consider Salazar an ace-in-waiting, but I’ll keep using that word in true heel fashion, if only to annoy those that I know it will annoy.

I do have to laugh at others that piggy-backed on Bastian’s story who are talking about the Salazar news now, in September, as though it were a breaking story. I can point to a couple of “sources” that absolutely jack-hammered me when I said this last March, who are now nodding their head in agreement because the Indians said it, and I didn’t.

I’m kinda sorry for throwing this into my piece, and I promise not to do it much, but it’s good to see the Indians admitting to something they’ve done that needs to change, if only to allow me this one small “I told you so” moment to those out in this world that think their opinions are the only ones that count.

I love our Cleveland Indians community, and we truly are lucky in that we have so many amazing bloggers out there that are welcoming to other opinions. To those that aspire to be the only ones that are right?

Well, you aren’t this time…;)

Sorry, I promise I won’t soapbox like this all that much, but it will likely come out on occasion. Everybody Hates Cleveland aspires to take ourselves just enough seriously to still be able to smile a lot at being right and wrong and having good discussions about both. Sometimes there’s value to throwing things out and seeing what’s right. That’s where good discussions come from.

We just hope to add to that discussion.

I’d be re-missed if I didn’t say at least something about the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns match-up that will happen in about an hour. I never really pay a whole lot to the NFL this time of the year, even though most people tell me I should.

You see, I’ve lived out of the area for the past fifteen years, and have been gifted with being forced to watch the Baltimore Ravens, Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers as my “home teams.”

No, not exactly the land of the NFL over the past few seasons.

This is my first late-summer/early fall back in town, and it’s been an interesting week, to say the least. In my many forays to the local drinking establishments here in Erie, PA, I’ve heard many debates with regards to the Browns chances in this game, and the Steelers as well.

Erie’s always been an interesting mix of fans, as we are 90-minutes or so away from Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo. The debates are often animated, and really fun to be a part of, and something that I’ve mostly missed over the years. I have been sitting here writing this piece and watching jersey after jersey stream in front of me here at the Wegmans’ cafe, buying pizza and beer and subs, and I can’t help but love being home again. I can’t

Opening NFL weeks against Pittsburgh are few-and-far between. This will be the sixth time the two teams have opened up against each other. The first came in 1959, when the Steelers defeated the Browns 17-7 when they ran off 17 unanswered second-half points in Pittsburgh.

They wouldn’t meet again in an opening day game until 1990, a massacre in Three Rivers that saw the Browns and an opportunistic defense destroy the Steelers, 51-0. The Browns scored three defensive TD’s that day, and Tim Manoa (2) and Mike Oliphant (1) had three total rushing TDs. The very next season, the Browns once again defeated the Steelers in the Jim Shofner era, 13-3 in Cleveland. Once again, the Browns scored their only TD on a fumble return, then rode the leg of Jerry Kauric.

The Browns were then forced to open up their first year back in the league in 1999 at home against the Steelers who took the Browns behind the woodshed for a 43-0 thumping. What do you expect, the Browns were nothing but an expansion team at that point.

Their last meeting came in 2007 in Cleveland, and the Steelers jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter behind the passing of Ben Roethlisberger, and never really looked back on the way to a 34-7 victory. Both teams would finish at 10-6 that year, but the Browns would miss the playoffs thanks to tiebreakers.

Enter 2014.

This is odd.

The league has started the Steelers with a rivalry game, and folks, it’s a rivalry game. Browns fans’ hate Steelers’ fans and Steelers’ fans hate Browns’ fans. Oh, sure, you’ll have Steelers’ fans saying “it’s not a rivalry because the Browns have been terrible for years.”

While much of that statement is true, Steelers’ fans will act haughty but know that the second the Browns beat the Steelers, they’ll start ramping the talk again. Do the teams consider it a rivalry?

Likely no, but for the sake of all of this, it’s irrelevant.

What do I think will happen in this game?

I like the Browns’ line and Ben Tate an awful lot. I hate their receivers a bit, but I do like their defense a lot. The Steelers have holes though, so this game SHOULD  be competitive.

Here’s the thing: the Browns have a new coach and a new offense and a new running back corp and new wide receivers. That’s not conducive to beating a Ben Roethlisberger team, as much as I hate that guy. He’s a great QB, and alone should be a big enough factor to beat the Browns.

Final score: Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 13.

Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if they won as well.

It’s good to be back my friends…it’s good to be back…

It’s a beautiful day for baseball…..

…oh…and football too…

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