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Second Thoughts Game #89: Tigers 4, Indians 2

Questionable late innings decisions from Francona contribute to tough loss

Second Thoughts Game #89: Tigers 4, Indians 2
July 9, 2013
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After dropping the first two games of this series to the Tigers in hopeless fashion, the Indians still had a chance to split the four-game wraparound on Monday. The offense managed just two runs, but were well within position to win it throughout, thanks to mostly quality pitching. Down the stretch, it was a series of questionable coaching decisions that helped lead to a brutal loss.

This contest ultimately came down to a lot of unconventional decisions, so I'm going to approach it in an unconventional way.

Things that mattered before the ninth inning

 Scott Kazmir pitched well enough against a tough lineup, albeit in typical inefficient Indians starter fashion. Three walks and five strikeouts ran his pitch count up over 5.2 innings, but he only allowed two runs on four hits. Over his last four starts (24.2 innings), he has allowed just six runs (2.19 earned run average), while accumulating a 19-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Lonnie Chisenhall came up with two on and two out in the second inning. The at-bat was interrupted by a 20-minute rain delay after the count had gone to 2-2. When play restarted, he laced the first pitch into right field for a two-run single to give the Indians the lead (and their only two runs of the game). He now has nine runs batted in in his last 11 games. More on him later...

- The Indians missed all kinds of scoring chances. Seven, to be exact.

Nick Swisher chose not to run after hitting a squibber down the third-base line that clearly had a good chance of staying fair. It did, and he was tagged out standing around home plate looking wholly indifferent.

Mark Reynolds ended his 0-for-24 skid with an infield single to lead off the fourth. He would add another leadoff single in the ninth.

Where the real game started

 In the Indians' half of both the ninth and tenth innings, Terry Francona made a number of interesting and debatable (non)decisions. They are presented as follows:

2-2 score, ninth inning, zero outs, Drew Stubbs at first, Chisenhall at the plate, left-handed Drew Smyly pitching:

Pickoff throw to first... Chisenhall shows no sign of sacrificing. The first pitch is a ball, and he does not square around. Clearly, there is no bunt here. The next pitch is thrown to the backstop, and Stubbs gets into scoring position, anyway.

2-2 score, ninth inning, zero outs, Stubbs at second, left-handed Chisenhall at the plate, left-handed Drew Smyly pitching:

The situation obviously changes with Stubbs now at second and the Indians only needing him to score to win the game. But again, no bunt. Chisenhall is instructed to swing, and he flies out to center, not advancing the runner. Yan Gomesand Michael Bourn would go quietly after him.

Many encourage the sacrifice bunt, but I am not one of them, even when Stubbs was on second. But the bigger issue here is... why Chisenhall?

Whether the decision is to bunt or swing away against a left-handed pitcher, Chisenhall is probably not the ideal candidate. He's not a bunter (three sacrifice bunts in 2,436 minor and Major League plate appearances), and he struggles against left-handed pitching (career .192/.220/.395 splits). At the time, the Indians' bench featured both Carlos Santana and Ryan Raburn, who can both hit right-handed and are better hitters than Chisenhall.

After the game, Francona said that he didn't like the bunt in either situation. He also referenced that they wanted Stubbs to steal third so that a bunt wouldn't even be necessary, but Stubbs couldn't get comfortable footing because it rained for, quite literally, the entire game. And even that decision is questionable. Stubbs' speed or not, can you really risk him getting thrown out at third for the first out on a mud track?

No matter how you feel about the bunt or Chisenhall, Francona made a decision or didn't make a decision that probably upset you.

4-2 score, 10th inning, two outs, Michael Brantley on first, Swisher on third, right-handed Mike Aviles at the plate, right-handed Joaquin Benoit pitching:

Why exactly is Aviles hitting here? Santana is still on the bench, and Jason Giambi becomes an option now with a right-hander on the mound.

Aviles, lifetime against Benoit: 1-for-3
Santana: 2-for-15, double, home run, four runs batted in, walk, five strikeouts
Giambi: 2-for-12, home run, run batted in, six walks, three strikeouts

Frankly, I don't think there's enough there in or out of anyone's favor to make a decision based on history.

Benoit has been a very good reliever for a long time, and is pretty split-neutral, although he is actually slightly better against left-handers. Slightly. Francona pointed to this, but again, it's not a big enough disparity worth trying to outsmart the Tigers over.

The ninth inning situation sparked a number of different opinions on Twitter that held weight. This one was pretty one-sided. Pinch-hit Santana, who is one of your best hitters, and a far better option than Aviles. Francona stuck with Aviles, who struck out to end the game.

Francona has seen it all and won plenty, and it's not easy to second-guess him. But in both innings, you have to wonder how differently each inning could have played out (if it even made it to 10), had he made any of the other choices. The reality, though, was a tough loss that put the Indians three and a half games behind their foes from Detroit.

Up next: The final homestand of the first half of the season continues, with the Blue Jays coming into town on Tuesday.Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson are slated to start games one and two, but the Indians will need to call up a starter for the finale on Thursday. It could be the Major League debut of Danny Salazar.

User Comments

July 9, 2013 - 9:37 PM EDT
One factor that Tito should have considered is this: Carlos Santana's walk off grand slam vs Tigers in April 2011 was served up by none other than Joaquin Benoit ! Awww, Tito. What if?
July 9, 2013 - 11:43 AM EDT
I can't really question Francona's use of the hitters in the 9th and 10th. I would have let Kazmir go deeper unless his back was getting tight. What did Scherzer throw 130? He does it pretty much every game and the dude was throwing 98+. I would have stayed w Cody Allen as well. I am not an Albers fan. What is Fielder batting after Cabrera walks .450? What is Martinez batting after Fielder walks .450? The Indians have crappy relief pitching and it is being exposed now when the games are getting more meaningful. I'd like to see C.C. Lee up here sooner rather than later. The Indians minor league system is pretty weak on pitching judging from the ERA's. There are guys like Haley, Armstrong, Stowell, Bryson who are turning into perennial wannabe's but Lee may be the only one who can make the jump and get major league hitters out now.

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