April showers have doused Indians' offense but not their confidence

"We know we're good, and we're not pressing," Jason Kipnis, who enters Sunday batting .181, said of the Indians' offensive struggles. David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

BALTIMORE -- Batting average is an antiquated and lightly regarded statistic in the modern era, but it's still the number displayed most prominently on big league scoreboards. As the Cleveland Indians trooped to the plate in the first few innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday afternoon, they took solace in small sample sizes and the realization that April is one day closer to becoming May.

The Indians beat the Orioles 4-0 on a two-hitter by Mike Clevinger to raise their record to 10-8. They're jockeying for position with Minnesota at the top of the American League Central behind a dominant starting rotation, which is carrying the team while the hitters provide more moral support than run support.

The Indians entered Saturday's game ranked 28th in the majors in runs (57) and OPS (.623) and tied with the Minnesota Twins for last among MLB clubs in total bases (201). In the absence of offensive consistency and/or cohesion, they're just trying to tune out the static.

"It's early in the season,'' shortstop Francisco Lindor said. "That's the reason why people pay attention to it. If it was in the middle of the summer and everybody was hitting .290 or .300, nobody would be saying anything. It's just part of the game. We all get it. It's just a matter of trying to turn it around a little quicker.''

Like so many other clubs, the Indians have encountered their share of bad weather in the first three weeks. They left Arizona for a six-game West Coast swing through Seattle and Anaheim to begin the season. On April 8 in Cleveland, they survived a game-time temperature of 32 degrees -- the lowest in the 25-year history of Progressive Field -- to beat the Kansas City Royals 3-1. Then they endured back-to-back rainouts against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 14 and 15.

The weather was balmy at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico for a two-game series between the Tribe and the Twins, but the trip was anything but relaxing. The Indians lost 2-1 in 16 innings Wednesday, and it was 7 a.m. Thursday when they arrived at their team hotel in Baltimore. By all accounts, the trip was a grind for Lindor, who had to process the emotion off returning to his storm-ravaged home while playing goodwill ambassador and tending to his family duties. During the finale in San Juan, the TV cameras caught Lindor politely asking kids behind the Cleveland dugout to stop yelling his name, because he couldn't sign autographs during the game.

The underlying numbers suggest the Indians are in bad-luck mode right now. They're last in baseball with a .242 batting average on balls in play (Colorado is 29th at .261), and, according to FanGraphs research, they rank 12th in the majors with a 34.8 hard-hit-ball percentage. One way to counteract that is by launching balls where no one can reach them, and the Indians relied on that means of operation Saturday while scoring three of their four runs on solo homers by Yan Gomes, Jose Ramirez and Yonder Alonso off Baltimore's Chris Tillman.

Alonso's homer was a big-boy blast. He became the 94th player since Camden Yards' inception in 1992 to clear the right-field stands and hit one onto Eutaw Street on the fly.

"I thought we had a good approach all day,'' manager Terry Francona said. "We started out using the whole field, and then we kind of grew into hitting the ball out of the ballpark as opposed to trying to yank everything. Hitting balls the other way is a good way to approach it. I think then, when you do get a ball you can handle, you have a better chance of hitting the ball out of the ballpark.''

While Ramirez is averaging .371 (13-for-35) in his past nine games, some other Cleveland hitters are suffering through their typical early-season woes. Edwin Encarnacion's .746 career OPS in April is easily his worst of any month. The same goes for Kipnis, who has a .636 OPS in April. Growing up in Chicago hasn't helped him in that regard.

Kipnis' slow start is a stark contrast to the way he mashed the ball in Arizona in March. While Shohei Ohtani was eliciting doubts in the Cactus League, Kipnis was endangering parked cars. He slugged .769 and hit six homers -- one fewer than Alonso, who made a nice first impression with the Indians by tying for the major league high with seven spring training homers.

Since Opening Day, it has been a slog. Kipnis' .231 BABIP ranks 160th among 186 MLB regulars, so even when he does hit the ball with authority, chances are it's finding a glove.

"If I was given up on after all my Aprils, I would never have two All-Star Games or be the player that I am,'' Kipnis said. "I would never have my Mays, Junes and Julys if everyone just gave up in mid-April.

"Guys are going to figure it out. They're going to turn it on. We just need something to jump-start us and get the offense going. You give a lot of credit to the pitching staff for keeping us afloat until we do. We know we're good, and we're not pressing. It's not like we're 10 games back or anything like that.''

Until balls start finding holes, Kipnis will do his best to be patient and resourceful. He walked in his first plate appearance Saturday against Tillman and dropped a bunt single to a vacant left side while the Baltimore infield was in a shift. The single gave Kipnis a seven-game hitting streak -- during which he has batted .290 -- and that's something to build on.

Here's another encouraging sign: Kipnis is seeing 4.22 pitches per plate appearance compared to 3.88 last season, so the ugly early numbers haven't forced him to expand his strike zone to his detriment.

"If I was just walking up there and swinging a wet newspaper and getting myself out, I would know my average is what it should be,'' Kipnis said. "But I'm seeing pitches. I'm not chasing all over the place. It sucks to see a [.181] up there, but at the same time, I'm keeping my head up. I've had bad Aprils in some of my best years, so you just get through April.''

As long as Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Clevinger, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are on the scene, the Cleveland hitters have the luxury of time to figure things out until that incendiary game or at-bat that sets the offense in motion.

"All it takes is one pitch,'' Lindor said. "That's the beauty of the game.''