As the Red Sox were beating the Indians in Cleveland last Tuesday night, Corey Kluber was 42 miles away in Akron allowing one run over four innings in a Double A game against Trenton.
“By all accounts he looked kind of like Kluber,” was the matter-of-fact assessment of manager Terry Francona.
Kluber, who has been on the injured list since he fractured a bone in his right arm on May 1, is scheduled to pitch for Triple A Charlotte on Sunday and could soon rejoin the Cleveland rotation.
He represents the latest reason why the Indians may be just as much a threat to win the American League as the Astros or Yankees.
After a 28-29 start that left them 10½ games out of first place in the AL Central at the end of May, the Indians went into the weekend having won 45 of 65 and were challenging the Twins for the division lead.
“We had a different team at the beginning of the year,” Francona said.
With Francisco Lindor on the injured list to start the season and an outfield with little power, the Indians averaged 4.01 runs in their first 57 games. It’s 5.18 since.
The Indians had Leonys Martin leading off on Opening Day with Tyler Naquin batting third and Hanley Ramirez batting fifth as the designated hitter. Brad Miller was at second and Eric Stamets at shortstop.
Martin, Miller, and Ramirez have since been released. Jake Bauers and Stamets are in Triple A and Naquin is at the bottom of the order.
It wasn’t until late May and June that the Indians started to look like the team Francona envisioned in spring training before injuries hit.
“At that point things started to get better,” he said. “We got healthy and the guys that we got back had enough at-bats under their belt. Frankie wasn’t just Lindor in name. He was Lindor the player.
“Jason Kipnis started swinging the bat. Roberto Perez started swinging the bat. We called up [rookie outfielder Oscar] Mercado and he gave us a jolt and Jose [Ramirez] got hot. It kind of started to come together at that point.”
That the Indians were only a game under .500 going into June was largely due to Francona finding creative ways to use what he had to stay in contention.
Then president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff put together a three-team deal at the trade deadline that landed righthanded-hitting thumpers Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes.
“Our lineup was susceptible to not necessarily lefthanded starters but lefthanded relievers. Now we’re better suited to combat that,” Francona said.
The Indians are a puzzle for opposing teams now. Left fielder Greg Allen, Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Carlos Santana all switch-hit. Kipnis and Naquin are lefties. Puig and Reyes offer the power that was lacking.
The 275-pound Reyes has 29 home runs this season. He’s more of a DH than an outfielder, which is why the Padres traded him. But he’s a good fit for the Indians, who now have a deep and balanced lineup that is tough to pitch to.
“That’s the idea. You try to play to your team’s strengths,” Francona said. “If you have power hitters, you let them hit. If you’re fast, you let them run. I think we’re now — after the trade — more well-rounded.”
The Indians also made life easier for Francona by including righthander Trevor Bauer in that deal, sending him to Cincinnati.
Bauer had a 3.79 ERA in 24 starts for the Indians but on July 28 showed a lack of respect for Francona by throwing the ball over the center-field fence in Kansas City when the manager came to take him out of the game.
Several players said they were jusFt as angry as Francona about the incident. At the time of the trade, the Indians were considering suspending Bauer.
Bauer, while very talented, is an iconoclast and a parting was inevitable at some point. The Indians took advantage of the situation to add power to their lineup knowing that Kluber would be on the way back.
In the interim, former Northeastern righthander Aaron Civale has held down a rotation spot. The Indians won 11 of 16 after the trade with Civale starting twice and allowing two earned runs over 12 innings.
“He doesn’t overwhelm hitters but he can attack them from both sides of the plate,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “For a guy who wasn’t invited to spring training, he’s come a long way. We like him.”
The bullpen is solid, too. Cleveland’s relievers lead the AL with a 3.34 ERA and a 3.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio. All-Star Brad Hand is a strong closer, averaging nearly 14 strikeouts per nine innings.
“We were losing pitching at one point but the guys who were coming up were holding their own,” Francona said. “There’s depth.”
The Indians made some other smart moves, too.
Santana, a productive hitter, left for the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent after the 2017 season. After Santana struggled in the National League, he returned to Cleveland via two trades through Seattle. He has a .966 OPS this season.
Jose Ramirez, who finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting in 2018, was hitting .218 with a .652 OPS at the All-Star break. He has hit .321 with a 1.068 OPS since.
“[Francona] believed in me when I was down,” he said. “That made a difference.”
Francona is now in his seventh season with the Indians, one shy of his tenure with the Red Sox. At 60, he is riding a streak of 14 seasons with a winning record and appears to be as content as ever.
The Indians don’t have the same financial resources or fan support as the Red Sox. But their organization lacks the palace intrigue and pressure that can make working for the Red Sox wearying.
If this isn’t the job Francona retires out of, it will be a surprise. He also could pick up a third World Series ring.
But there is still a connection to Boston that will never be broken.
Francona is very concerned about David Ortiz but has yet to speak to him since the June shooting. He has kept tabs on Big Papi’s condition through Red Sox team physician Larry Ronan and Sox manager Alex Cora.
Francona hopes to speak to Ortiz soon
“I want to be respectful of David’s privacy but I’d love to at some point. But I’ve checked on him numerous times,” Francona said.
Dustin Pedroia is the only player from the 2011 team, Francona’s last with the Red Sox team, who is still in the organization.
IF AT FIRST
Dalbec will add option to roster
Bobby Dalbec hit .308 with an .828 OPS in his first 11 games for Triple A Pawtucket with two home runs. But what’s even more interesting is that he started six games at first base.
The 24-year-old Dalbec is an excellent third baseman with a powerful and accurate arm. But with 22-year-old Rafael Devers locked in at third base for the Red Sox, Dalbec needs to be versatile to find a spot on the major league roster.
With Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce free agents after this season, the Sox will need a first baseman and spring training could be a competition between Dalbec and Michael Chavis for the job.
Moreland and Pearce are on the payroll for $12.75 million this season. Using Chavis or Dalbec will be an easy way to cut costs.
Both are righthanded hitters, so one alternative could be moving Chavis to the outfield or using one of them in a trade to improve the pitching staff.
Chavis has been adequate at second base but that’s probably not a long-term position for him. He could end up a super utility player, perhaps.
A few other observations on the Sox:
■ Devers’s six-hit game against the Indians this past week brought back memories for NESN’s Jerry Remy, who was 6 for 10 for the Sox in an 8-7 loss against the Seattle Mariners in a 20-inning game on Sept. 3, 1981.
The sixth hit actually came the next day because the game was suspended in the 20th inning because of a curfew.
“It was kind of weird, coming back the next day,” said Remy, who had all singles and scored twice. “But I didn’t have a game like Devers. One of my hits was a little dribbler up the first base line. They were all singles.”
Devers had four doubles among his six hits.
“One of the best games I’ve ever seen a hitter have,” Remy said.
■ Terry Francona on Devers: “He reminds me of a lefthanded Vladimir Guerrero. There’s not a pitch he doesn’t think he can hit, and he hits most of them.”
■ One more on Devers: He is on pace to finish with 56 doubles and 33 home runs. Only Todd Helton (2000), Carlos Delgado (2000), and Chuck Klein (1930) have hit those marks. No player has ever had 60 doubles and 30 homers.
■ Xander Bogaerts went into the current homestand with a .947 OPS, 27 home runs, and 92 RBIs. Nomar Garciaparra topped out at 35 home runs (1997), 122 RBIs (1998), and a 1.033 OPS (2000).
■ Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .479 with a 1.511 OPS on balls hit to the opposite field.
■ You won’t be surprised to learn that the Red Sox lead the majors with 15 games that have lasted four or more hours. Only six of those were extra innings. They also have the fewest games that have lasted less than three hours with 27.
■ There seems to be little chance Steven Wright pitches again this season, and perhaps not for the Red Sox again. Wright, who is on the injured list with toe and elbow injuries, is arbitration eligible after the season but will be 35 and at this point has appeared in only 31 games the last three seasons.
He is a prime candidate to be non-tendered.
■ There’s still enough summer left to read a good book on the beach. So pick up a copy of “Homegrown” by Globe colleague Alex Speier. The book details how the Red Sox developed the core of the 2018 World Series team and the behind-the-scenes triumphs and travails that went into it.
Schilling risking chance at Hall?
Curt Schilling has trended up in the Hall of Fame voting the last two seasons, recovering the votes he lost in 2016 after posting on Twitter that a T-shirt endorsing the lynching of journalists was “so much awesome.”
Schilling got to 60.9 percent last winter and has three years left on the ballot to get to the required 75 percent.
Now Schilling is “absolutely considering” running for Congress in Arizona, according to a statement he gave the Arizona Republic.
How a political campaign could affect Schilling’s Hall of Fame candidacy will be interesting to track. It’s not hard to imagine Schilling making more vile comments about the media that will alienate some BBWAA voters and cost him some votes again.
I’ve voted for Schilling every year he’s been on the ballot and will continue to do so. Applying the Hall’s “character clause” to Schilling (or any other candidate) is not something I would do unless it involved some sort of violent crime. My job is to evaluate their baseball career.
But Schilling dropped 7.5 percent after the lynching comment and another similar episode could keep him out of Cooperstown.
Politics also had a hand in the schedule for 2020. The main reason the season will start on March 26 and end on Sept. 27 was Major League Baseball’s desire to have the World Series over with well ahead of the Nov. 3 election and what is sure to be wall-to-wall media coverage leading up to it.
It won’t matter for either pitcher if they perform well in the postseason. But waiting until June to sign hasn’t worked out particularly well for Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel. Kimbrel allowed eight earned runs on 13 hits and eight walks in 12⅔ innings for the Cubs before going on the injured list with swelling in his right knee. Keuchel is 3-5 with a 4.39 ERA in 11 starts for the Braves. Atlanta was 5-6 in those games. Keuchel ended up with one year and $13 million from the Braves after turning down a $17.9 million qualifying offer from the Astros. Keuchel, who turns 32 in January, could be an option for the Red Sox in free agency if they part with Rick Porcello . . . Yordan Alvarez, who made his debut on June 9 with Houston, is the favorite for Rookie of the Year at this point. He went into the weekend with a 1.093 OPS and was third among rookies with 52 RBIs and 17 home runs . . . The Tigers could finish with 112 losses, maybe even more considering how they have crumbled since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera is signed for four more seasons at $132 million, which includes his $8 million buyout for 2024 . . . Ryan Court, a 31-year-old outfielder, made his major league debut with Seattle on July 26 after spending parts of eight seasons in the minors with four organizations, including the Red Sox from 2016-17. That was the nice part of the story. Then he was optioned back to Triple A Tacoma on Aug. 10, a day after he hit his first home run . . . Tyler Thornburg, who was released by the Red Sox on July 10, is pitching for Triple A Oklahoma City in the Dodgers system. He allowed two runs on four hits and two walks over 4⅔ innings in his first five games . . . The 26th annual Old-Time Baseball Game will be Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. Peter’s Field in Cambridge, and Roger Clemens is scheduled to pitch. The game, organized by Steve Buckley of The Athletic, will benefit Compassionate Care ALS . . . Happy 53rd birthday to Bob Zupcic, a supplemental first-round pick of the Red Sox in 1987. He was taken with the compensation pick the Sox received for failing to sign Brockton’s Greg McMurtry, their first-round pick in 1986. McMurtry went on to play football for Michigan and eventually the Patriots. Zupcic played parts of four seasons for the Sox and hit only .250, although he was a good defensive outfielder. His claim to fame is that he’s last alphabetically among players in Red Sox history. Zupcic retired from baseball in 1997 and now works for a car dealership in South Carolina.