Indians Ready to Battle with The Bulls in Playoffs
Photo Credit: IconSportswire/Getty Images
INDIANAPOLIS - Now, the scoreboard is king, and all that matters in Victory Field. Now, the summertime priority of player development, and having bodies ready when the phone rings from Pittsburgh, is off the table.
The playoffs start Wednesday in Durham. Now, everything changes for the Indianapolis Indians.
So said manager Andy Barkett, nodding toward his clubhouse. "It's all about winning at that point. It'll be different for them because they're not used to that."
And pitcher Tyer Glasnow: "It's a refreshing change of pace, especially in the minor leagues . . . I think this team has so much heart, we all just want to win together."
And pitcher Clay Holmes: "All that other stuff is kind of out the window. It's full competition mode. It's you vs. the guy in the box. Everybody is playing for each other, and that's what make these games fun. I think we're all ready for it."
He needs to be. He's starting game 1. Glasnow, game 2. The best-of-five series shifts to Indianapolis Friday for how many ever games it takes. Lined up in order are Indians starters Nick Kingham, Drew Hutchison and Tyler Eppler.
Now, Durham is the team to beat.
The Bulls and Indians met 10 times this season, Indianapolis going 4-6. Among the Durham troublemakers for Indy have been Yonny Chirinos, who struck out 16 and allowed only one earned run in 13.1 innings. Guess who's probably starting game 2 for the Bulls? Also infielder Kean Wong, who hit .371 against Indians pitching, and outfielder Johnny Field, who hit .345.
This was back in the summer at Victory Field. Maybe one of those nights in June, when Durham pitching was allowing the Indians seven lonely hits in consecutive shutouts. Barkett remembers turning to his coaches - Stan Kyles and Butch Wynegar - and making a prediction. "That team," he said of the Bulls, "is going to be there at the end."
And so they are. The Indians, too. "Pretty complete team," catcher Jacob Stallings said of Durham. "Similar to ours."
Indeed, the two seem rather like cousins. They are separated for the season by only four runs scored, seven doubles, one triple and seven home runs. One number stands out above all others for Durham - its pitchers have set a minor league record in strikeouts. But in their 10 meetings, the Indians staff actually owned more whiffs, 90-83.
Now, it comes down to pitching.
"We don't outhit people," Barkett said. "If we pitch, we have a chance. If we don't pitch, we're not going to beat somebody 12-11."
Barkett believes a split of the first two games in Durham would be big, because he likes the Indians' odds of taking two of three in Victory Field, where they went 44-27. And he thinks he has the two starters to do it - maybe even steal both.
Holmes won 10 games this season and had a 1.64 ERA in two starts against Durham. "One reason he's starting game 1 is that he's got a power sinker, a power two-seam fastball," Barkett said. "That short wall in Durham, you need power pitching in that ballpark. If you try to be tricky and you hang something, it's a home run."
Glasnow is 9-2, and in one start against the Bulls, struck out 12 batters and threw two-hit, shutout baseball over seven innings. "If somebody else has got a better 1 and 2 than Glasnow and Holmes on any Triple-A club," Barkett said, "I'd like to see it."
Glasnow, third in the International League in strikeouts, will be paired against Durham's Chirinos. Together, they have 260 Ks. Might be a breezy game 2 Thursday night with all the swings and misses.
Now, the Indians wait for Wednesday, and not the phone to ring from Pittsburgh.
The Pirates decided not to call up a wave of players when the rosters expanded in September, letting them finish the postseason here. That probably meant some disappointed guys, who were eager to advance. But now, the playoff drive is on in the clubhouse.
Said Glasnow, "I think that's kind of rare, especially in the minor leagues, especially at this level. That's all everyone is thinking about. I think everyone's put the no-callups-in-September behind them. Maybe it fueled people a little bit; it's all about winning now."
And Stallings, "We're embracing it. Nobody's taking it too seriously, not getting called up. We're having fun and excited to go into the playoffs."
Barkett understood there was some talking to do on that issue.
"It was addressed September 1. We had a meeting and I said, `Nobody's going to the big leagues today. Is it fair? I don't know, you could argue it. Is it right? I don't know, you could argue it. We can talk about it all we want. You can be upset about it and throw a fit about it and cry and get angry. But at the end of the day, all we're going to do is wait for you to done with your fit, and then we've got to get back to work, because we've got games to play."'
He mentioned catcher J.T. Realmuto, a major-league bound prospect on his Jacksonville team that won the Southern League playoffs in 2014.
"He did not take one pitch off during those playoffs. He did not complain one day, `I could be making all this money in the big leagues, but now I'm stuck here playing in the Double-A playoffs.' He was leading us to the championship and had a lot of fun doing it."
Barkett mentioned his own college summer league experience, when his team faced elimination after losing the first game of a postseason series, and the players were so eager to lose and go back to their schools and their girlfriends, they packed before the next game, hoping to be finished off. They even offered encouragement to the opposing pitcher. Then they started off the first inning with a quick run, and everything changed.
"We went into competition mode. It had been all talk. As soon as we started playing, we started to kick butt, and won the championship."
And he reminded the Indians how a postseason can help their major league dreams by proving something to the Pirate brass.
"The good news is they're all going to be watching," Barkett said to his players. "Now you get a chance to showcase who you are in a championship setting. What's better than that if you're trying to make it to the big leagues?"
Sitting in his office, Barkett described his strategy.
"A lot of this is psychology. A lot of this is keeping them motivated. It's also sharing the lessons of my career.
"Yes, it's about development, because Tyler Glasnow is going to pitch in a playoff game that means something. And we're going to see what Tyler Glasnow's all about. Jacob Stallings is going to catch during the playoffs and we're going to see the leadership ability of Jacob Stallings. To me, if you're going to develop championship players, they're going to have to know how to play for a championship."
Now, it's about managing differently.
During the season, Barkett --- like all minor league managers - usually had to let his starters get to their pitch counts, no matter had badly they were getting pummeled.
"That doesn't happen in playoff baseball. It shouldn't. And it's not going to happen for us," he said. "You learn managing down in winter ball, whatever inning you're getting ready to get beat on, the second or the seventh, you have to stop the rally with your best arms. That's how I'm going to manage starting Wednesday."
Expect quicker hooks, and more liberal use of the bullpen.
He also is going to emphasize the Indianapolis batters take a smart and short-swinging approach against the strikeout machine that is the Durham staff.
"Not a great matchup versus our club, because we strike out a heck of a lot," he said.
"We don't have anybody here that's got 20 homers and a hundred ribbies, so there's no need for us swinging out of our butt, trying to hit them. Put the ball in play, let the pitching keep us in the game, and let's see what happens."
Now, the Indians look for heroes.
Could it be Holmes, who has been so steady?
"It's an honor to get the ball in game 1," he said. "Nothing really changes for me. I'm trying to get the ball on the ground. That's what I've been doing all season, I'm not going to do anything different there. I'm going to stick to my strengths."
Or Glasnow, who fixed a lot of things in a hurry after being sent down in June? His fastball got quicker, his curve and change came along, the ERA shrank, the strikeout victims piled up.
"I've been this pitcher before, I just got away from it. I kind of got in a rut and I didn't know what it was. It was weird. In my first start in Norfolk, I'm thinking, `I have nothing else to lose. I just got sent down, I'm in Norfolk right now with like five people in the stands. I'm just going to go out and not care about anything, and do what I used to do.'
"I completely changed my mechanics. I felt like in my first warmup pitch, that's it, I've found it. That's exactly what the problem is. I have felt the same and done the exact same thing for all of my starts. In the big leagues that wasn't the case. I was always tinkering because I never felt comfortable."
Or Stallings, solid as always with his catching, and savoring a renaissance season at the plate -- a previous .237 career hitter who finished this season at .301? "It's been gratifying in a lot of ways. I've worked really hard to get my offense where it is right now. It's nice to reap the benefits."
It would be nice to have several, because it's time.
This was just two years ago, on the last night of an epic Governor's Cup with Columbus. The two teams split four one-run games, the Indians staying alive with Josh Bell's walkoff hit to tie the series 2-2. They seemed to have all the momentum for the clincher, but were shut down by the Clippers' Mike Clevenger, 3-0.
Wynegar was hitting coach then, too. "When the game was over, I didn't cry, but I felt so bad for the guys, they had worked so hard." he said. "This team reminds me of that team two years ago."
Now, losing hurts. The playoffs are here.