Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Tribe Tall Tale, headlined by Russell Branyan, hit batters and drag bunts

Branyan with the Mariners (Photo: Matt McGee)
Russell Branyan.

The name alone has a bit of that Paul Bunyan quality. You know, that larger than life, tall-tale kind of feel, and in many ways, Russell Branyon the person fits the name perfectly.  Sure, you could make the analogy that his prodigious swings at a baseball were the stuff of legends. When "Russell the Muscle" walked up to the plate, chances were pretty good that two things were going to happen:

  1. Russell Branyan was going to swing for the heavens...and...
  2. Russell Branyan was going to strike out
But, you see, that's not the tall tale that I want to discuss with you today.  No, today the focus is less on how Russell Branyan swung the bat, and more on how Russell Branyan helped Cleveland rob the Seattle Mariners.

Last night, the Cleveland Indians continued their miraculous 2011 season with a come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati Reds.  The Tribe entered last night's game with a 26-15 record, which was the best in baseball.  While they had lost their last two games against the Chicago White Sox, they had maintained a five-game lead in the Central.  At home, Cleveland had won their last five games in their last at bat.

Why mention last night's victory?  It has the tall-tale, Russell Branyan feel to it.  The Indians fell behind the Reds and starter Travis Wood, 4-0.  Wood, a wily lefty, was weaving one of those improbable games from a starter that keeps most of his pitches below 90.  Through five innings, Wood was pitching a no hitter.  

Indians fans who have been waiting for the bottom to fall out of this season were starting to climb atop their soap boxes, ready to begin their diatribes about how all the signs were there for the end.  Grady Sizemore went on the DL earlier in the week, depriving the Tribe of the motor of their offense.  Travis Hafner then went on the DL, depriving the Tribe of the muscle of their lineup.  Gone were, in many ways, the two main cogs in the Indians offense.

Then, during last night's game, Alex White, the Indians #1 prospect, was pulled from the game after the third inning with a "middle finger strain."  Indians' announcer Rick Manning immediately connected the injury to that of Adam Miller.  Miller was the Tribe's top pitching prospect during the mid-90's, throwing a mid-to-upper 90's fastball that would occasionally hit 100.  Then, in 2007, he missed most of the season with a strained tendon in his middle finger.  The problem was still there in 2008, and he had to have a procedure that many thought would end his career.  Well, it didn't, but that story would pull us too far away from our current one, so that's for another day.  Long story short, by the sixth inning yesterday, Indians fans were faced with getting no-hit, losing their third game in a row (with two more against Cincy), no Sizemore, no Hafner, no White (who may or may not be facing a similar injury to his finger as Adam Miller, who then missed four seasons), and with a not-so-friendly schedule coming up (Cincy/Boston/Tampa).

Our tall tale picks back up in the sixth inning.  With one out and Wood pitching, former Reds player Austin Kearns broke up the no-hitter with a single up the middle.  Jack Hannahan and Michael Brantley would follow with singles of their own, scoring Kearns, which broke up the shut out.  Asdrubal Cabrera walked, loaded the bases.  Then Shin Soo Choo was hit, scoring another run to make it 4-2.  That was it for Wood.

In came this giant of a kid, 6'8" Logan Ondrusek for the Reds.  He walked his first batter, Carlos Santana, to make it 4-3.  Shelley Duncan than hit a sac fly, tying the game, before Ondrusek would end the inning.

The game would remain tied until the eighth inning, when Russell Branyan would pay HUGE dividends.  

Earlier in the day on Friday, the Tribe placed Hafner on the DL and called up Columbus centerfielder Ezequiel Carrera.  Carrera was lights out in Columbus, hitting .317, with 33 runs scored and 15 stolen bases in 37 games.  He's also one of the best fielding outfielders in the Tribe's system.  Carrera was obtained by the Tribe last summer for, you guessed it, Russell Branyan.

Well, Carrera wasn't in Friday night's line up, but it was widely assumed that he would be playing center and starting against righties (moving Brantley to left), and used as a pinch hitter in the other games.

With two outs in the eighth inning, Shin Soo Choo found himself on third base after a near-homer-turned triple that had skirted down the wall in left field.  Reds pitcher, lefty Bill Bray, then intentionally walked Carlos Santana, putting runners on first and third.  With righty Shelley Duncan coming up to hit, the Reds decided to bring in righty Nick Masset to face him.  Manny Acta countered with...Zeke Carrera.

What happened next was the stuff of legends.  Mind you, Zeke had never...ever...played in a major league game prior to last night's game.  This was his first at bat as a big league player.  So, it was the eighth inning of a tie ball game.  So, there were runners on the corners with two out.  Other than that, everything was normal...right?!?  You have to admit, there's a bit of Russell Branyan-ness to the moment, isn't there?

Carrera came up to bat with ever right to take a pitch or two to take in the moment, or to at the very least, find his footing.  Instead, the peppy centerfielder lept at his one chance at surprise, and did something that only Willie Mays Hayes or Kenny Lofton would think of, he dropped a drag bunt down the first base line towards all star Joey Votto.  Votto fielded it and lunged at the fleet-footed Carrera, who nonchalantly stepped out of the way without breaking stride.  Carrera was safe on first, while Shin Soo Choo scored what turned out to be the winning run.

It was a huge win for the Indians, and a big moment for Carrera.  Carrera was believed to be a marginal prospect after his acquisition for Branyan last year, but he's definitely more than that, even in an outfield utility role.  He clearly understands his game, and based on the havoc he wreaked last night, has a bright future for the Indians.  All for Russell Branyan.

By the way, the winning run was scored by Shin Soo Choo, also acquired from the Mariners way back in 2006.  Choo was acquired from the Mariners for Indians first baseman, Ben Broussard.  How did the Indians get Broussard?

In 2002, the Indians acquired Ben Broussard from the Cincinnati Reds, for Russell Branyan.

In a final twist of fate, today Russell Branyan was released from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Drew Pomeranz tests hamstring in first start since tweak

Cleveland Indians 2009 #1 pick Alex White rightfully garnered much of the attention of most Indians fans yesterday as he made his first start with the big league Indians, some of that focus will shift to the Tribe's 2010 #1 pick, Drew Pomeranz.

While White was still pitching for Columbus, there seemed to be a growing sentiment that he wasn't the top pitching prospect in the organization.  Many were pointing to Pomeranz, whose first two starts were nearly perfect.  Pomeranz suffered a bit of a hiccup in his third start, giving up three runs while pitching with a tight hamstring.

Pomeranz' injury came in an evening start in Salem, Delaware.  The temperature never went above 60 degrees, and the big lefty found himself sitting a bit longer than normal prior to making his first pitch.  He had warmed up as he normally does prior to the game, but when the K-Tribe offense made a bit of noise in the first, Pomeranz admittedly tightened up.  Instead of stretching, and perhaps warming up a bit prior to taking the mound, he went out cold.  Pomeranz tweaked the leg facing off against Salem's lead-off hitter, Peter Hissey.  Ironically enough, the tweak came on the pitch struck out Hissey.  From that point on, he pitched a different game, even while pitching a solid game.

Pomeranz would give up his first professional homer in the next inning, but other than a visit to the mound from the trainer and manager Aaron Holbert, it was hard to see that Pomeranz was even hurt.  He struck out the first two batters that he face in a perfect first inning.  In the third, after giving up his first professional home run in the second, he pitched out a bit of adversity.  Hissey would hit a one-out double, then steal third.  With his back to the wall, Pomeranz did what he does best...he struck out the next two batters to get out of the jam.

Pomeranz would take himself out of the game, fearing that the hamstring would cause his delivery to change, which in turn could hurt his shoulder.  It's good to know that this kid gets it early on.

Pomeranz admittedly had quickened his delivery in his prior start against Wilmington, which kept his fastball from getting in on right-handed hitters.  While his overpowering fastball is generally too much for the high A hitters, if you throw enough over the plate, sooner or later someone's going to hit it. He gave up three runs during that outing, by far the most of in his first four starts of the season, but had figured how to slow down his delivery.  Then came the injury.
“That’s the way it works, right?” Pomeranz said. “I feel the best I’ve felt in a month and a half, two months. And the third pitch — perfect pitch, curveball — and it does that. I was like, ‘Aw, come on!’ ”

Overall, Pomeranz is 0-0 with a 2.00 ERA.  He's gone 18 total innings, while striking out 27.  He's walked a grand total of five batters.  He's equally tough against righties as he is lefties.  Left-handed hitters are hitting .167 against him, while right-handers are hitting .143.

Today, Pomeranz should be able to pitch on a more normal count, and continue his ascension through the Tribe's minor league system.  As he continues to pitch well, the comparisons with White will surely continue.  Who's better?  I'm sure if you talked with Drew, he'd immediately point to the fact that White has been with the organization for over a year, and has already pitched in the majors.  Of course, that doesn't mean the debate won't rage on.

White piggy-backed with Nick Hagadone during his run with Kinston last season.  He went 2-3 with a 2.86 ERA in 44 innings of work.  He struck out an impressive 41 batters, while walking only 19.  Opposing batters hit only .204 against him, which was third in the league.  White was bumped up to Akron during the third week of May.

Pomeranz enters May without nearly as many innings.  The other numbers not only stand up to White's, but are a bit better early on.  With the organizational pitching shuffling around because of injuries to Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco, Pomeranz may have an opportunity to move up soon.  Will it be before White's late April call-up from a year ago, or will the Tribe brass give Pomeranz a few more starts because of the depth of pitching?

As far as the debate goes, does it really matter?  At the end of the day, these two impressive starters aren't going to be facing off in a steel cage match.  Instead, they'll be facing off against opposing major league hitters, as two aces for your Cleveland Indians.

Orlando Cabrera continues Tribe's dramatic ride through April

Orlando Cabrera (Photo: Malingering)
Cleveland continued to win in dramatic fashion, as Orlando Cabrera took a first pitch fastball deep into center to score Michael Brantley.  Brantley had led the inning off with a single to right field off of Brayan Villarreal, who had just entered the game.  Brantley moved to second when Villarreal questionably tried to pick him off at first.  With first base open, Asdrubal Cabrera sacrificed Brantley to third.  Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana were then intentionally walked, bringing up Cabrera.

Cleveland had to come back from a two-run deficit when minor league sensation, and former first round pick Alex White gave up two 4th inning home runs to Miguel Cabrera and Ray Rayburn.  Cleveland would come back quickly though.  Carlos Santana belted a line drive home run in the bottom of the fourth, and Brantley would tie it with a home run of his own in the sixth.

White was solid in his first appearance, going six innings, giving up six hits, two runs and four walks (with two intentional), while striking out four.  As good as he was, the bullpen was better.  Joe Smith, Vinny Pestano, Chris Perez, Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp combined to give up only five hits with one walk and eight strike outs.

The Indians finished the month at 18-8, with the best record in baseball.  Boy, it sure is hard to say goodbye to April.