BOSTON — With the notable exception of Michael Brantley, the outfield has been a medical and statistical wasteland for the Cleveland Indians this season.
Cleveland’s center fielders rank 28th in the majors with a combined .628 OPS, and the right fielders had an aggregate 12 home runs and a .399 slugging percentage entering Tuesday night’s game at Fenway Park. Bradley Zimmer (shoulder) and Tyler Naquin (hip) are recuperating from season-ending surgery, and Lonnie Chisenhall’s calf issues have been persistent enough to temper expectations that he’ll be back anytime soon.
When Indians ace Corey Kluber sees an opening, he usually takes advantage of it, whether it means winning an intense game or claiming some hardware.
Boston owns MLB’s best record and Cleveland has a clear path to the AL Central crown as the teams start a four-game showdown. Who would have the edge if they meet in October?
The front office tried to upgrade the product by acquiring Leonys Martin from the Detroit Tigers at the non-waiver deadline July 31. He lasted a mere six games and 15 at-bats before a life-threatening bacterial infection derailed his season. There’s no timetable for his return.
So what’s a manager to do? Keep running out the names at his disposal, pat a few guys on the fanny and hope the production exceeds the résumés.
While Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez were going a combined 0-for-8 Tuesday, the Indians got some big contributions from complementary sources. Melky Cabrera went 3-for-4 with a home run, and Greg Allen was strong on both sides of the ball in a 6-3 victory over Boston at Fenway Park.
It was the Indians’ second straight win over the Red Sox, who are in the midst of only their second three-game losing streak this season.
This one was a statement game on behalf of veteran players who keep hanging around for the love of the game and prospects who show flashes of promise through a combination of confidence and opportunity. In the first two games of the series, Cabrera and Allen are a combined 8-for-13 with three home runs.
Cabrera, 34, was one of baseball’s premier hit collectors during his peak. In 2011, he batted .305 with 201 hits and 102 runs scored for the Kansas City Royals. But his reputation took a hit in 2012, when he received a 50-game PED suspension and participated in a fake website scam in an attempt to cover his tracks. He even relinquished his 2012 batting title with the San Francisco Giants because he didn’t want to benefit from an achievement that he considered “tainted.”
After stops with the Blue Jays, White Sox and Royals, Cabrera couldn’t get a sniff on the free-agent market last winter. He was all but begging for a job when the Indians signed him to a minor league contract in April.
Even then, opportunity was short-lived. The Indians designated Cabrera for assignment in late May, only to bring him back in July because of the ongoing health issues of Chisenhall and Zimmer. But even in those uncertain times, Cabrera refused to concede that he might be done.
“That really didn’t cross my mind,” he said through an interpreter. “At that time, you really just can’t let your head down, so I didn’t. I was home working in the cage. I was hitting. I was going to the gym every single day just hoping for another opportunity. Thank God, the Indians called me and gave me that opportunity.”
In his recent hot stretch, Cabrera has homered in three straight games and five of his past nine. He has found a comfort zone in the Cleveland clubhouse, where the Indians value his presence rather than dwell on his past.
“He’s a good teammate,” Francona said. “He cares about the right things, and he’s given us a lot of stability out there.”
Allen, 25, is still in the process of discovering whether he belongs. The Indians regarded him as an intriguing prospect when they selected him in the sixth round out of San Diego State University in 2014. But Allen still needs to develop consistency as a switch-hitter to go with his plus speed and extraordinary glove in center.
The past two weeks have been promising. Allen’s 14-game hit streak is the third longest by an Indians player this season.
“He’s using the whole field and keeping the ball out of the air to left field, so he’s on balance,” Francona said. “And when he gets something inside that he can handle, he’s driving it a little bit. He’s staying through the ball so much better, hitting line drives up the middle and to left field.”
It’s a rare night when Jackie Bradley Jr. isn’t the best defensive center fielder at Fenway Park, but Allen turned in two acrobatic catches on Tuesday. He slammed into the wall to steal extra bases from Xander Bogaerts, and he ranged deep into the triangle to rob Mitch Moreland in the seventh inning.
“You can’t really count him out,” said Shane Bieber, the starter and winning pitcher for Cleveland. “He’s so fast and gets such good jumps and has such a good feel for playing the outfield, he’s always got a chance.”
Realistically, the Indians are pushing their luck to expect Cabrera and Allen to keep performing at this level, so they’re keeping their options open for another trade. San Francisco’s Andrew McCutchen, a pending free agent for a club that has faded from contention, seems like a natural fit. But Indians officials privately express doubt that McCutchen would be exposed to waivers and would go through all 15 National League teams and much of the AL and still be available when their turn rolls around.
And so Allen plays center, and Cabrera is logging the bulk of time in right, and they’re enjoying the ride for however long it lasts.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for me, and I’m really thankful to the Indians for giving it to me,” Cabrera said.
He can rest assured that the feeling is mutual.