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The Strike Zone

The Upside Down Indians: The Indians' unlikely push for a playoff spot without Trevor Bauer

Corey Kluber is one of the Indians' starters who has positively contributed. [AP] Corey Kluber is one of the Indians' starters who has surprised with his consistency this season. [AP]

By now, Trevor Bauer was supposed to be a Cleveland Indian for good. The mercurial top pitching prospect, acquired from the Diamondbacks in a three-team deal last December, was supposed to have already reached the apex of his minor-league developmental curve, and to have provided a mid-season boost to a rotation – and a pitching staff, generally – that seemed thin, on a club that seemed poised to be driven by its powerful offense.

It hasn’t worked out that way for a series of reasons. For one, Bauer still hasn’t figured out how to harness his considerable gifts: His Triple-A ERA stands at 4.18 (he allowed six earned runs over just two innings of work in an outing last week), and he is still walking way too many batters – 66 of them in 116 1/3 innings, or 5.1 per nine innings, a rate worse than that of every qualified starter in the majors.

Another is that the Indians’ pitching, surprisingly, has been just fine without him, particularly recently. After the rejuvenated Scott Kazmir threw six strong innings in which his average fastball exceeded 94 miles an hour in Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Twins, the staff’s second half ERA stands at 3.04, baseball’s fifth-best. Since the ALl-Star break, starters Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson and the currently injured Corey Kluber all have ERAs lower than 3.00, and rookie strikeout artist Danny Salazar has provided the depth that once figured to come from Bauer.

The Indians’ pitchers have kept the club in the thick of the American League playoff race, and they have done so without much help from the offense, which was designed to be the team’s strength. Cleveland ranks fifth in the majors in runs scored overall, but just 18th in the second half, at just under four runs per game.

On Sunday, it was Mike Pelfrey, he of the 5.19 ERA coming in, who shut the Tribe down, allowing one run over five innings. Not a single Indians regular is having even an average second half: not the free agent duo to whom the club gave a combined $104 million last winter, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher (through 35 post-break games, Bourn is batting .224, Swisher .248); not Carlos Santana (.242); not even Jason Kipnis, who had 13 home runs and 21 stolen bases before the All-Star Game to which he was named, and just three homers and two steals after it.

In fact, none of the eight Indians who have accumulated more than 80 post-break at-bats is batting better than .250, none has an OPS better than .770 and none has hit as many homers as the seven Miguel Cabrera has slugged in just the past two weeks.

And yet, after Sunday’s win and Oakland’s loss to the Orioles, the Indians sit just 1 1/2 games out of a Wild Card berth, with 32 games to go. Their next nine games will be challenging – they play three at Atlanta, three at Detroit and then three at home against the Orioles – but they could hardly ask for a more inviting schedule thereafter, as the remainder of their slate will include only the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins.

A pessimist would say that Cleveland’s pitching can’t possibly perform to its current standard, but we’ll take the optimist’s view. Which is that to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Indians don’t need a late season savior like Trevor Bauer – or the idea of Trevor Bauer. All they might need is production from their hitters that is in line with their abilities.

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