GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Mike Clevinger was back on the mound Friday afternoon for the first time since pitching under the bright lights of October in last year’s American League Division Series — starting for the Indians in the exhibition opener at Goodyear Ballpark.
The intensity level certainly wasn’t the same as a postseason appearance, but the excitement was still there as it always is for the energetic long-haired right-hander who pitched an inning and retired the side in order in a 6-4 loss to Cincinnati.
“You still have that first-day-of-school excitement, because now we’ve got that whole new goal,” Clevinger said.
“Last year, yeah, we were in the playoffs, but the last taste in your mouth was walking off the field with an L and cleaning up your locker in silence, and then not going back to the field. So it wasn’t the ending, like, ‘Oh, well this is spring training.’ Now, it’s like ‘Thank, God, we’ve got a fresh start, we can go at this again the right way.’”
Clevinger did a lot of things correctly last year, spending a large part of the season in the rotation while posting a 12-6 record and 3.11 ERA in 27 games (21 starts).
But at times, the wild side of him was exposed — 60 walks over 121 2⁄3 innings — leading to big innings for the opposition.
“When he got ahead of guys, he put them away. When he got behind, he paid a price,” manager Terry Francona said of Clevinger, who went a month (six starts) last season without allowing more than two runs, but also surrendered four or more five times. “And there were a few games where, I think it was the Baltimore game, when he walked seven or eight and he pitched around it. That’s really hard to do. But his stuff is tremendous. He competes. He’s not scared.
“Sometimes guys mature at different times, as far as pitching. And I think we feel like there’s a really good pitcher (in there), whether it’s as a starter or reliever.”
Controlling his emotions, staying within himself and throwing strikes has been the toughest part of the equation for Clevinger since he was acquired in a 2014 trade with the Angels for former reliever Vinnie Pestano.
Not surprisingly, it’s a primary focus for him this spring as he competes for one of the final two starting spots. The rotation race includes right-hander Josh Tomlin and left-hander Ryan Merritt, but former All-Star Danny Salazar is not expected to be ready by Opening Day after he experienced soreness in his right shoulder/rotator cuff.
“Just (working on) refining the command,” Clevinger said after his outing Friday. “Just to be able to stay on the plate with everything.”
“Yeah, I don’t know that he can really throw easy,” pitching coach Carl Willis said of Clevinger. “It’s hard for a pitcher to pitch easy, but he’s doing his best to stay under control. And we like what comes out of his hand.”
Clevinger wasn’t the only Indians player to make a positive first impression in the spring opener.
Yonder Alonso, who was signed to a two-year, $16 million contract this offseason to replace Carlos Santana at first base, hit a leadoff home run in the second — on the first pitch he saw in a Cleveland uniform — to score the game’s first run. It was a big blast, landing on top of a metal roof over the wall in right field.
“Well, I think anytime you get your first at-bat in your first game going, get it out of the way, I think it’s the hardest one,” Alonso said. “So it felt good to go out there and just be with the guys and get on a roll.”
“Boy, he didn’t mess around, did he?” Francona said of Alonso.
The Indians and Reds joined the rest of major league baseball in wearing Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School caps in honor of the victims of the school shootings in Parkland, Fla. There was a moment of silence for the victims and for Francona’s father, who died Feb. 13 at his home in New Brighton, Pa.
“Like Tito said, the hat’s not going to do the changing, but if it’s going to bring awareness to this issue, that’s what we’re striving to do,” Clevinger said. “But I mean, at the same time, there’s a lot of, I think, destruction going on when events happen like this. Instead of coming together to try to find a way to prevent this or how we can find a reasonable cause to better the situation instead of just tear down someone. Because it’s easy to point out the problem. It’s not easy to point out the solution.”