CLEVELAND -- Their bullpen was in shambles at the end of May when the Indians took a long shot on veteran left-hander Oliver Perez.
It was a low-risk move that has reaped a high reward for Cleveland, with Perez entering Saturday night owning a 0.90 ERA in 48 appearances covering 30 innings.
“At that point we’d called up a lot (of relievers from Triple-A Columbus), we were getting a little thin,” said manager Terry Francona, whose relief corps was the worst in the majors over the first two months of the season. “I don’t know that anybody could’ve expected him to pitch the way that he has. But bullpens are so volatile. Guys get on runs and they get confident. You see it every year. It’s so up and down.”
Perez, 37, was in training camp with Cincinnati to start the year, but was released and signed by the Yankees at the end of spring training. Because he wasn’t on New York’s major league roster, Perez exercised an opt-out clause in his contract June 1, and joined the Indians the next day.
In the 14th season of his career, Perez, who owns a lifetime 4.39 ERA, is pitching better than ever.
“I just think he’s pitching with a ton of confidence,” Francona said. “Everything else looks the same. He holds his stuff very well. There’s a ton of deception, everyone sees that, but his stuff’s really good.”
Though Perez doesn’t fill a high-leverage role, such as Andrew Miller, Brad Hand and Cody Allen, he’s still an important part of the bullpen, according to Francona.
“It’s an interesting dynamic to think about,” he said. “I mean, a guy will sit down in the bullpen for two hours, come in and potentially, like a field goal kicker -- the game can be won or lost on that at-bat. That’s why those guys have to be reliable because so much can swing on that one at-bat. You’re putting a lot of trust in their hands.”
Francona said Trevor Bauer is still on track to start Tuesday against the White Sox in Chicago.
Bauer made his first appearance since Aug. 11 in the series opener against Boston on Friday, throwing 34 pitches over 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
He is expected to increase the count to 60-65 pitches in Chicago and is scheduled to make one more start before the regular season is complete.
The Indians have been giving Allen a break -- one appearance since Sept. 11 -- after he shouldered a heavy work load in an effort to get him back in form.
“He’s gonna throw a bullpen (Saturday) and he’ll be ready to pitch for us,” Francona said of Allen, who has lowered his ERA from 4.99 on July 20 to 4.06. “I’ll be really glad when we can just go out and try and win a game and not, you know, do the half game and this guy is available, this guy’s not.”
Saturday night’s starting pitcher Mike Clevinger had a breakthrough season in 2017 and has been even better this year, closing in on the 200-inning mark (188 1/3) through Friday.
“That’s always the hope with your starters. That’s kind of a barometer measurement marker,” Francona said of the 200-inning mark. “Just been really pleased he’s held his stuff, ’cause it looked like for a while that maybe he started getting a little tired. And then he caught his second wind and, man, he’s firing it now. So that makes you feel good when you think about longevity and things like that.”
Francona said he’s been keeping an eye on Cleveland’s potential Division Series opponent Houston, which is likely to host the Indians in the first round.
“I mean that’s no dig at anybody else. I’ve looked at Oakland, too. Just more Houston because that’s what the odds are,” Francona said of the Astros, who owned a 3 1/2-game lead over the A’s in the West Division through Friday. “It could change, but that’s OK. I’ve actually looked at both. Might as well take the opportunity to do it.
“Certainly can’t hurt. I shouldn’t say can’t hurt, you try to be up-to-date as much as you can but then you watch (the Astros) play and it kind of makes you nervous because they’re good. But heck. I think it makes sense to try to prepare a little bit.”
If it is the reigning world champion Astros, the Indians will be up against a stacked lineup that includes 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve, and a pitching staff that led the league with a 3.15 ERA through Friday.
“Yeah. They’re good. They’re really good. We knew that,” Francona said. “Shoot, this will be quite the test, but that’s what you play for. It’s so good to be a part of. It’s an honor.”
Oakland has been one of baseball’s biggest surprise teams, entering Saturday with a better record (93-61) than the Indians. If the A’s don’t catch the Astros, they will meet the Yankees in the wild card game.
“When (the A’s) came through here (July 6-8), they were just getting hot, and they have had an unbelievable run,” Francona said. “Their bullpen is just -- I can’t wait to watch this wild card game. Because they’re the one team where they can almost go start to finish (with their pen). It probably doesn’t quite reach, but they can get pretty damn close.”
Cleveland lost two of three in each series against Oakland this year, while splitting with the Astros in a four-game set at home and losing two of three in Houston.
This or that
Francona has managed teams having to fight to the finish to clinch a playoff spot and those which have done it earlier, such as the Indians this year.
He doesn’t see an advantage to either.
“I think the biggest thing is, people talk about momentum, I think you build momentum on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday on the off-days (prior to the postseason),” Francona said. “Because regardless of how you finish, you have those four off-days. If you just sit around, go at half-speed, all of a sudden the playoffs start and you’re going 100 miles per hour, and it’s too fast. So the teams that handle those off-days the best, I think that’s where you build your momentum.”
- Francisco Lindor recorded his 80th extra-base hit Friday night, which was the second most in the majors behind Houston’s Alex Bregman’s 81. Lindor is just the fifth player in franchise history to produce 80 or more extra-base hits in multiple seasons (81 in 2017).
- After going hitless in his first seven at-bats with the Indians, Josh Donaldson was batting .313 (5-for-16) in 20 plate appearances with two homers, two walks and three runs through Friday.
- Yan Gomes (.344) and Michael Brantley (.341) entered Saturday owning the fourth- and fifth-highest batting averages in the AL since Aug. 13.
- Sunday, 7:05, ESPN; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM, WMMS 100.7-FM. Plutko (4-5, 5.27) vs. Velazquez (7-2, 3.18).