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The Suburbanite
  • Indians hanging around in AL Central race

  • Every conceivable halfway point for the Major League Baseball season has come and gone and despite some major speed bumps along the way, the Cleveland Indians are still hanging around in the American League Central.

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  • Every conceivable halfway point for the Major League Baseball season has come and gone and despite some major speed bumps along the way, the Cleveland Indians are still hanging around in the American League Central.
    Both the actual halfway point (81 games) and the All-Star break have passed and the Indians sit 1.5 games off the pace set by the Detroit Tigers. At 52-46, they have survived an eight-game losing streak at the start of June and a span in which they lost six of eight in early July, buoyed by a three-game sweep of Kansas City in their final series before the break to reverse their downward trajectory.
    FINDING WAYS TO WIN
    The series against the Royals was an accurate representation of why the Tribe remains in the division race; three close wins with solid starting pitching and an offense that ground out just enough runs for a win.
    Included in the four-game winning streak that led into the break was an impressive big-league debut by highly anticipated prospect Danny Salazar, who pitched six innings and allowed just one earned run, striking out seven in a 4-2 win over Toronto. On the heels of Salazar's successful start, the Indians held the Royals to just seven runs in a weekend series that featured the two teams closest to Detroit in the AL Central standings.
    Fittingly, the final game of the first half of the season was a back-and-forth-affair that featured four lead changes, 23 base hits and seven walks. Ubaldo Jimenez started and struggled from the outset on a sweltering afternoon, laboring through four innings. After going deep into counts on most batters, Jimenez managed to mitigate the damage and exit after four innings and four runs allowed. The numbers weren't beautiful, but the veteran right-hander kept his team in the game long enough for the offense to catch up.
    Asdrubal Cabrera made the most of that chance by lacing a line-drive double to right-center in the bottom of the sixth and after an RBI single by All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis, the bullpen made the 6-4 lead stand up.
    A tense ninth inning saw closer Chris Perez allow a base runner and bring the tying run to the plate, only to slam the door shut for the sweep.
    Kipnis has been one of the driving forces in the past month as the Indians have battled back from their early-June swoon, batting .350 (49 of 117) since the eight-game losing streak ended on June 11, with 7 HR and 31 RBI in 34 games.
    Despite the mediocre start against Kansas City, Jimenez has won his last three decisions and Cleveland is 6-1 in his last seven starts. He has begun to resemble the top-of-the-rotation starter GM Mark Shapiro and his staff thought they were trading for when they acquired Jimenez from the Rockies in 2011.
    Page 2 of 3 - Second-year starter Corey Kluber has nearly matched Jimenez's run of strong starts, winning four of his last five decisions and seeing the team go 6-2 in his last eight starts, with a tough loss coming in his first post-All-Star break start in Minnesota as the young right-hander pitched five scoreless innings in a 3-2 defeat. Control has been a big asset for Kluber, who has struck out 101 and walked just 24 in 100 innings.
    SLUMPING STICKS
    Although their deficit remains at 1.5 games and their starting pitching has been solid, the Indians' ability to stay in the race and overtake the Tigers will depend much upon the offense's ability to get back on track. Specifically, first baseman Nick Swisher will need to reverse his recent downturn at the plate and find his stroke again to give the middle of the order the necessary punch to fuel a possible postseason run. Swisher has just four hits in his last 28 at-bats and has not homered since July 6. He is hitting .198 (25 for 126) since June 1.
    Manager Terry Francona spoke prior to Sunday's game about the possibility of rearranging his lineup to compensate for Swisher's lack of production.
    "I've given that a ton of thought," Francona said of the lineup change, according to MLB.com.
    Moving Swisher out of the cleanup spot is unpalatable, Francona explained, because it would likely mean dislodging Kipnis from the third spot in the order and altering the effective 1-2 punch at the top of the lineup that Michael Bourn and Cabrera have formed. With its fourth hitter mired in a prolonged slump, baseball's fifth-highest-scoring offense managed only 11 runs in dropping two of three to Minnesota in its first series of the second half of the season. A similar result for the Tigers in Kansas City kept the Indians from losing any ground, but the low run output raised questions Francona and his lineup will have to answer moving forward.
    HELP FROM THE NORTH
    The Tigers have left the door open for the Tribe, going 4-5 in the nine games sandwiching the break, and failing to take advantage of hte momentum and separation they gained with a series win in Cleveland from July 5-8. Ace Justin Verlander has been in a slump of his own of late, going 2-3 in his last five decisions and allowing five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings Saturday against the Royals, and Detroit has been unable to ride the production of an offense that ranks second in MLB in runs scored with 486.
    There won't be many chances for direct competition between the Tigers and Indians the rest of the way, as only two series remain on the schedule.
    A four-game series in Cleveland in early August and a brief, two-game tilt in Detroit to end the month are all that is left in terms of head-to-head matchups between the division's top two teams. They won't see each other at all in the final month of the season, making their six remaining games even more vital.
    Page 3 of 3 - There are plenty of challenges left for the Indians and they will likely need very good health and players such as Kipnis and Kluber to continue playing above their normal levels in order to run down the Tigers, but the Tribe's rebound from their struggles of last month suggest that this isn't the same team that nose-dived late in the year each of the last two seasons.
    Reach Andy at 330-899-2872 or andy.harris@TheSuburbanite.com.
    On Twitter: @aharrisBURB