The Cleveland Indians have struggled this season to repeat the success that springboarded them into the 2013 postseason. The Indians' offense hasn't enjoyed the typical production from mainstays such as Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana while also dealing with injuries to Michael Bourn and Jason Kipnis. And the pitching staff has struggled throughout most of the season as Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar have fallen short of expectations in the rotation and closer John Axford stumbled out of the gate.
Cleveland’s troubles have been particularly noticeable on the road. Before their win Saturday in Texas, Cleveland was just 9-20 on the road -- and those nine wins were the lowest total in all of baseball. They lost all six games on a road trip at the end of April and then won just two of seven games in their most recent road trip, including the final four games.
On May 30, they came home 19-25 and 10.5 games out of the AL Central race to face the Colorado Rockies and the Boston Red Sox. To the surprise of many, Cleveland swept the six-game homestand and, in the process, lowered its deficit in the standings to just 3.5 games. The series sweeps gave the Indians nine straight home wins (they swept Detroit at the end of the previous homestand).
Cleveland has been playing a better brand of baseball over the past three weeks. Since the beginning of the series against Detroit on May 19, Cleveland has improved its team batting average 41 points from .244 up to .285. Leading the offensive surge during that time has been Lonnie Chisenhall, who has hit .359/.377/.625 in recent weeks and .362/.411/.539 overall this season. Chisenhall’s bat has been a pleasant surprise for Cleveland as he hit just .244 with a .694 OPS coming into the season, but he's been making more consistent and harder contact.
Cleveland’s overall offense has shown much improvement in getting on base. Six players, including Chisenhall, Santana, Swisher, Bourn, Kipnis and Yan Gomes, have on-base percentages of at least .333 and have helped Cleveland score 95 runs (5.3 per game) since May 19. Kipnis is the only player in that group whose on-base percentage is below .350.
The turnaround of the pitching staff has been even more impressive as the staff has lowered its ERA from 4.22 to 3.48 in recent weeks. The staff has a new ace in Corey Kluber, who has taken the reigns from Masterson. Since his complete-game shutout of Kansas City on April 24, Kluber has seven quality starts in nine outings and has struck out 80 batters while allowing just 51 hits in 63 innings. Kluber has received support from recent call-ups Josh Tomlin (3.32 ERA; 11.2 K/9) and Trevor Bauer (10.7 K/9).
The bullpen, after a very troubled start to the season, appears to have found its groove, with Axford, Carlos Carrasco, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Josh Outman leading the charge. Since being removed from the closer role on May 10, Axford has been scored upon just one time in 11 outings and has held opposing batters to a .182 average.
The Indians' 8-3 victory over the Rangers keeps them 4 games behind Detroit and 1.5 games out of the wild-card race. Having gotten a taste of the one-game wildcard format last season in a loss to Tampa Bay, the Indians' goal this season is to win the division. Their play in recent weeks has put them in a much better position than they were in mid-May, but they must find a way to continue their success at home as well on the road.
Sixteen of their next 25 contests are on the road, including stops in Kansas City, Boston and a swing out west to Arizona, Seattle, and Los Angeles. If the Indians don't turn around their struggles on the road in short order, they will give back what they have worked so hard to gain these past three weeks.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.