June 27, 2016

Partly cloudy

Tribe notes: Bullpen has been pleasant surprise

CLEVELAND – The Indians entered the season with offense as a perceived strength and pitching a weakness. It’s worked the other way around.

While Cleveland’s offense has lagged at the bottom of the American League for the majority of the season, the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, has consistently improved to the point of bright-spot status.

“We’re very happy with the progress of the entire pitching staff,” said Indians manager Manny Acta. “I think a lot of people thought it was going to be kind of scary. I think the big thing is we’ve got good performances from our starters. Fausto (Carmona) has pitched well, and Jake (Westbrook), while he was here and some other guys have stepped up as well.

“But the bullpen has been a big-time step up for us. We’ve got a closer in place and we’ve got a lot of guys that can set up and pitch middle innings.”

With closer Chris Perez at the back end in place of Kerry Wood, and Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, Justin Germano and Frank Herrmann bridging the gap, the Indians’ relief corps has been one of the AL’s best as of late.

Though Cleveland’s bullpen ranked ninth in the league with a 4.13 ERA through Friday, it had posted a 1.61 ERA over the last 15 games and a 2.89 ERA over the last 168 1/3 innings.

Central casting

Call him crazy but probably the biggest reason Acta thinks the last-place Indians can contend next year is the Central Division, which is considered one of baseball’s weakest divisions and is largely void of superstars.

“The division’s our best friend. We love our division,” said Acta, whose club entered Saturday owning a 23-25 record within the Central. “Minnesota and Chicago show that anybody can compete. It doesn’t help to lose your best players (as the Indians did), but you get two good (starting pitchers) and you can compete.”

The Twins led the division by 3½ games over the White Sox through Friday. Minnesota has been bolstered by former Indian Carl Pavano (15-9, 3.56 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.41), while Jon Danks (12-8, 3.31) and Mark Buehrle (12-10, 3.93) have led Chicago’s rotation.

Key cog

Though Shin-Soo Choo is considered the Indians’ best overall player, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera might be just as important.

“He’s real big for this ballclub,” Acta said. “He does a lot offensively and defensively, and he’s become a little bit of a leader.”

The leadership role is a surprising one for Cabrera, who is in just his third season and has never been real vocal publicly on or off the field.

“He may be quiet in English, but he’s not so quiet in Spanish,” Acta said. “He brings a lot of energy.”

Minor details

Right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who is expected to be promoted sometime in September, allowed just a run on five hits in seven innings of Triple-A Columbus’ 2-1 loss to Louisville. Carrasco (10-6, 3.65 ERA) has limited the opposition to two runs or fewer in 13 of his 25 starts, while striking out at least six 13 times.

• RHP Corey Kluber won for the second time in three starts Friday, allowing a run on eight hits over seven innings of Double-A Akron’s 5-2 victory over Erie. Kluber, acquired in the Westbrook trade with St. Louis, is 2-2 with a 3.76 ERA in five starts since joining the Aeros, with his 156 strikeouts between Akron and Double-A San Antonio ranking sixth in minor league baseball through Friday.

Roundin’ third

The Indians have tossed six complete games this season, which ranked sixth in the majors through Friday.

• Matt LaPorta drove in three runs and Michael Brantley two in the Indians’ 15-4 win Friday. It accounted for just the second time in 60 games that the key acquisitions from the CC Sabathia trade with Milwaukee in 2008, each drove in more than one run while in the lineup together.

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.