What we learned Monday: Indians look to claim American League prize

1. The Cleveland Indians might be the American League’s best team after all: In a league dominated by offense-heavy Goliaths in Toronto, Boston, Baltimore and Texas, the Indians were supposed to be different this season, with a strikeout staff leading the way. That’s not how things have really worked out, with Cleveland third in runs scored per game and sporting a 4.83 ERA in August entering Monday night’s contest. Josh Tomlin now leads the majors in home runs allowed, and Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have both stumbled in recent starts.

Still, of the four other AL teams with more than 70 wins at this point, none has an ace like Corey Kluber, who has rolled along with one of the best stretches in his career. The Indians have that surprising offense, fueled by the strong sophomore season of Francisco Lindor, the renaissance of Mike Napoli, the continued efforts of Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis, and the emergence of Jose Ramirez. And they might have something else that the rest of the AL contenders do not: A No. 2 starter candidate in Trevor Bauer.

Bauer held the Twins scoreless through six innings on Monday, allowing just one walk. A fly ball pitcher in previous seasons with the Indians, Bauer has doubled down on a sinker this season as the most featured pitch of his kitchen sink repertoire. Seven of Bauer’s outs on Monday were groundouts, and as we look ahead to the season’s final stretch, there’s no reason to think his new approach can’t keep working.

Cleveland squeaked out its 1-0 win in the 10th Monday night and the Rangers, Blue Jays and Red Sox all won, but the unbalanced schedule is a gift that might keep on giving for the Indians, who are 34-17 this season against other AL Central teams. Given how out of whack the Rangers’ run differential is with their record, and that the AL East teams have many games left against each other, it’s starting to look like it might be the Indians who take the AL prize this season.

2. The Orioles’ playoff chances are dwindling: Marco Estrada was at his best on Monday, and he didn’t just steal hits from Baltimore. Before the game began, the Orioles had a two-game lead in the race for the second AL wild-card spots, and a 40 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. After Monday’s games, that number has slipped to 31 percent, with the Detroit Tigers picking up a win against the Chicago White Sox.

The Orioles lead baseball with 205 home runs, but this stretch run will highlight the importance of a sturdy back end of the rotation. Wade Miley, Yovani Gallardo and Chris Tillman have combined for a 3-8 record and 6.25 ERA in August. With Tillman on the shelf, the Orioles’ starting depth is looking even thinner.

3. Carlos Martinez is the best six-inning pitcher in baseball: Scrambling to hold off the Pirates, Mets and Marlins for the National League’s second wild-card spot, the Cardinals saw their FiveThirtyEight playoff odds rise from 43 percent to 48 percent.

Martinez now has a 1.20 career ERA against the Brewers in 18 games after Monday’s dominant performance in which he set a new career high with 13 strikeouts. Eleven of those strikeouts were swinging, and during the second and third innings he picked up five whiffs in a row. Martinez’s K/9 rate had dropped from 9.22 in 2015 to 7.33 this season as he made an effort to go deeper into games, but Monday’s outing told us all we needed to know about whether he can turn it back on when necessary.

4. Revenge is a dish best served top shelf: Leonys Martin has had an up-and-down season with the Mariners after the Rangers made him pack his bags last November, but it was mad ups for the center fielder Monday night. Martin leaped on a dead run to right-center to rob Ian Desmond of what would have been a home run of about 380 feet. The taste of revenge might have been all the more sweet after ex-Mariner Adrian Beltre had a little fun at Pat Venditte‘s expense.

5. Great games happen in late August: Say what you will about one-game playoffs under the wild-card format, but we get some thrilling games such as the Marlins-Mets contest. Jose Fernandez pitched six scoreless innings, setting a new franchise record for strikeouts in a season and bucking an astonishing home/away trend that had him with a 4.42 ERA in road games this season. Kyle Barraclough pitched a perfect seventh, showing his new form in which he has been less effectively wild (6.25 BB/9 in first half) and more wildly effective (2.13 ERA in second half). Rafael Montero walked six in just five innings but managed to prevent the Marlins from scoring on his watch.

In the eighth inning, the Marlins’ Xavier Scruggs knocked in the first run of the game and the 1,382nd of Ichiro Suzuki‘s career, and Jose Reyes beat A.J. Ramos to the plate on a wild pitch, a play that highlighted the game’s playoff feel. Only three batters came to the plate for each team in the ninth and 10th, but the last was Yoenis Cespedes, who hit a 105 mph blast to left-center for the second walk-off homer of his career.

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