Indians rookie center fielder Oscar Mercado dragged a 1-for-25 slump into Monday night’s game against Detroit. Tribe manager Terry Francona said a few hours earlier that it was something most young players go through their first time in the big leagues.
True enough, but do most rookies come out the other side the way Mercado did in the Indians’ 8-6 win over Detroit at Progressive Field? Mercado singled, stole a base and hit two homers in his best game in the big leagues.
The Indians (52-40) pulled within six games of first-place Minnesota in the AL Central. The Twins were off Monday. Cleveland remained tied with Oakland for the second AL wild card position, and two games behind Tampa Bay for the first wild card spot.
Mercado’s second homer came after a 54-minute rain delay in the seventh inning. Mercado started the bottom of the seventh with a homer to left to break a 5-5 tie off Victor Alcantara (3-2). Carlos Santana and Jordan Luplow followed with singles. Ramirez brought them both home with a sharp double down the right field line for a 8-5 lead as the crowd of 15,735 serenaded him with a chorus of “Jose — Jose, Jose, Jose — Jose, Jose.”
“That was really fun to watch,” said Francona, referring to Mercado’s big game. “Before the game I saw it’s not realistic that a kid isn’t going to have a hiccup or hit a bump in the road. Boy, did he come out of it tonight.”
Francona said Mercado, in trying to hit the ball to right field, had closed off his stance. He’s worked on opening his stance so he can drive the ball to all fields.
“He got himself back to where he can be freer (with his swing) because he’s got really good hands," said Francona. “And you saw what happened.”
It has not been a pretty season for Ramirez. They held the All-Star Game in Cleveland last week without him, but he’s starting to hit. He went 2-for-4 on Monday and is hitting .333 (20-for-60) since June 21.
“He kept the ball fair tonight,” Francona said. “The balls he hits hard, some of them have been foul. Those are hits, but he’s not getting credit. He kept his hands in and kept the ball fair. His batting average isn’t going to look good for a while, but he’s starting to look more like Josie.”
The Indians are 9-1 against Detroit this year and 29-7 since Sept. 1, 2017.
The win went to Nick Wittgren (4-0), who came out after the rain delay and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Brad Hand gave up a leadoff homer to Jordy Mercer in the ninth, but still earned his 25th save.
Adam Plutko, pitching in his first game since June 28, gave the Tribe 5 1/3 innings. He allowed five runs, including three homers, but he kept his offense within striking distance.
The Tribe’s 2-0 lead thanks to Mike Freeman’s second-inning homer did not last. Mercer’s double and a sacrifice fly by Harold Castro in the third made it a 2-1 game.
Christin Stewart’s two-run homer in the fourth gave Detroit its first lead at 3-2. Mercer’s leadoff homer in the fourth made it 4-2, but Mercado answered with a homer of his own in the fifth to make it 4-3.
Plutko reached the end in the sixth. Freeman a made a great stop-and-spin throw from behind second to get Nicholas Castellanos to start the sixth. But Jeimer Candelario hit a 449-foot homer to center to make it 5-3 and end Plutko’s night.
“Look at Mike Freeman, a long layoff didn’t affect him at all,” said Plutko. “I’m pretty frustrated with my performance tonight as a whole.”
Tyler Olson relieved, but didn’t help as he issued a walk and a single before A.J. Cole came in and retired John Hicks on a pop up that was called an infield fly and struck out Mercer.
In the sixth, with dark clouds drifting over Progressive Field, Tyler Naquin pulled the Tribe into a 5-5 tie with a nice piece of hitting. Naquin, with Roberto Perez on third, Freeman on second and two out, poked a double down the third base line. Detroit had shifted to the right against the left-handed hitting Naquin.
The game started with bang-bang play at the plate.
Victor Reyes hit a leadoff single. Castro followed with a double off the wall in center. Strong relay work by Mercado and Francisco Lindor cut Reyes down at the plate as he slid headfirst into catcher Roberto Perez’s lap.
The question was did Perez block the plate? The Tigers challenged plate umpire Laz Diaz’s out call. The review took 1:35 and the call the field stood. It was determined that Perez’s set-up was legal and that Lindor’s throw took him into the path of Reyes for the tag.
“I know the umpires have told us that on relay throws or throws from the infield, the catcher doesn’t have time (to open a lane for the runner),” Francona said. “If that’s from the outfield, the catcher has time (to set up with an open lane to the plate). But when it’s coming from a relay or an infielder, I’ve had umpires tell me don’t challenge (that a catcher is blocking the plate) because you’re not going to get it.”
In the second, the Indians were victimized by overaggressive base running. Ramirez opened the inning with a liner off the left field wall. He tried to stretch a single into a double, but was an easy out. It cost the Tribe a run as Perez drew a two-out walk and Freeman homered to left for a 2-0 lead.
The Indians had four hits and a walk in the inning, but scored only two runs.
The game was delayed by rain for 54 minutes in the seventh inning with the Tigers batting.
Rookie right-hander Zach Plesac (3-3, 4.00) will recalled before Tuesday night’s game and face the Tigers at 7:10 p.m. The Tigers are expected to start lefty Ryan Carpenter (1-5, 8.36). SportsTime Ohio and WLKR 95.3 FM will carry the the game.
The Indians optioned Plesac to Class AAA Columbus on July 6 so he could make a start during the All-Star break. He struck out nine and allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings against Indianapolis. Plesac beat the Tigers on June 23, allowing one run on five hits in seven innings.