CLEVELAND — The Indians bullpen, once one of the majors’ worst, is now one of the best.
After posting a 6.13 ERA over the first two months of the season, Cleveland’s relief corps entered Sunday owning a 2.92 ERA in June — the fourth lowest in the American League and seventh lowest in the big leagues during that period.
It’s been a dramatic turnaround to say the least — and one that has taken place without the services of All-Star left-hander Andrew Miller, who has been sidelined since May 26.
“I think everybody down there had confidence it would,” said closer Cody Allen, who has converted 16 of his 17 save opportunities. “(We) had one pretty bad month where we just got beat up pretty good. It seemed like all those guys, too, we were one pitch away at so many points. And now we’re making that pitch.
“That can be the biggest difference between having an 8 ERA in May and a 1.5 in June, or whatever we have. Just making that one pitch when you need to and you build on each performance, you have a little more confidence going into the next one. There’s no doubt we’d figure it out at some point.”
The pen has received a significant boost from additions Oliver Perez and Neil Ramirez. Perez hasn’t allowed a run in 10 appearances and Ramirez is in the midst of scoreless streak that has covered his last 13 games.
“I don’t see any reason he can’t be successful,” manager Terry Francona said of Ramirez. “His breaking ball is much better, and he’s always had velocity. He pounds the strike zone. It’s exciting. The reliever world can be a little volatile, as we’ve seen. You hit on guys and it sure helps.”
DH or bust
Francona has been around baseball for a long time, serving as a player, manager and front office member for close to 40 years, but don’t count him among the purists when it comes to the designated hitter rule.
Like many, Francona believes the DH should be used in both leagues.
“I think it should be universal. I’ve felt that way for a long time,” said Francona, whose team begins a three-game interleague series at St. Louis tonight. “I think people want to see the DH. I’ve been in both leagues. I prefer the DH.
“There’s so much money in the game and it’s so different when you go play interleague (as an American League team), even the World Series. It’s not how you play. I think it would be good for baseball to be uniform.”
Francona said he won’t try to prepare his pitchers for NL games on the road. Only the three starting pitchers will take batting practice.
“If we need a pitcher to get a hit to win a game, we’re probably in trouble,” he said.
Though they may enjoy it, Francona said there are injury concerns for the Indians and AL pitchers who have to bat.
“They’re doing things they’re not used to,” he said. “Even running the bases. They’re just not used to doing that during a game. They’re using different muscles. We definitely hold our breath.”
Changing it up
Trevor Bauer credits a large part of his success this season to the development of a change-up. It’s another weapon for the right-hander, who already possesses a vast arsenal of pitches.
“It’s been huge, balances the slider out really well,” Bauer said of his change-up, following his outing Saturday in a 4-1 victory over the Tigers. “I think it’s kind of flown under the radar, but the numbers on that pitch have been really good this year, too. Happy about that for sure.”
Bauer (7-5) entered Sunday tied with Boston’s Chris Sale atop the AL with 140 strikeouts in 16 starts covering 107 innings, while posting the fourth-lowest ERA (2.44) in the league. Sale, however, took over the strikeout lead Sunday, getting 13 in seven innings in a 5-0 win over Seattle.
Bauer has seven double-digit strikeout games, which accounts for the second most in the majors.
Mike Clevinger (6-2, 3.00 ERA) opens the set against the Cardinals tonight at 8:15, opposing right-hnder John Gant (1-2, 4.39), while Corey Kluber (11-3, 2.10) goes for the Indians on Tuesday (8:15 p.m.) against righty Carlos Martinez (3-4, 3.24).
Shane Bieber (2-0, 2.45) starts for Cleveland in the series finale Wednesday (8:15 p.m.), while St. Louis counters with Jack Flaherty (3-2, 2.50), another right-hander.
Jose Ramirez extended his streak of reaching base safely to a career-high 31 games. It is the second-longest active streak in the majors.
** Allen has 138 career saves, needing one to match Bob Wickman as the franchise leader.
** Rajai Davis recorded his 16th stolen base, second most in the AL.
** The Indians faced their second straight lefty starter, entering the day batting .265 against left-handers — good for seventh best in the majors.