Indians to use closer-by-committee approach

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CLEVELAND — The Indians’ opener is Thursday in Detroit. Their closer isn’t nearly as definitive.

Cleveland enters the season with uncertainty at several positions, questions about whether their offense can produce enough to back a strong starting staff and manager Terry Francona deciding not to christen a closer from an interesting assortment of bullpen arms.

For now, the closer’s job is shared.

After the Indians parted ways with All-Star Brad Hand this winter, it was assumed that hard-throwing right-hander James Karinchak, who had 53 strikeouts in 27 innings last season, would move into the vital closer spot.

However, partly because of Karinchak’s struggles during camp (6.10 ERA in 12 appearances) and because he has other options, Francona will use a rotation of relievers to close with Karinchak, Emmanuel Clase and Nick Wittgren all getting a turn.

“It’s more how we get to a point in the game,” Francona said Wednesday on a Zoom call from Comerica Park. “I’ve never been real comfortable trying to get to wait for the ninth inning and losing in the seventh. They have a little bit different skill sets in what they offer and I think we have a better chance of winning by allocating them in different ways.

“We’re trying to develop Karinchak at the same time, and have him be a weapon at the same time. So, rather than pigeon-holing him into a certain inning, I think we can help that along, too.”

Because he’s earned Francona’s trust, Wittgren will likely be the first summoned to close. In two seasons with the Indians, the 29-year-old is 7-1 with a 2.99 ERA in 80 games.

“Since the day he has arrived here, he has been nothing but a pro,” Francona said. “He has been reliable, accountable and is a leader. He has been a huge part of our bullpen and will continue to be.”

While Karinchak may be infatuated with Charlie Sheen’s Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn character in the film “Major League” (he wears No. 99, screams into his glove and styled his hair like Vaughn’s last year), the 25-year-old also possesses a wicked curve ball that complements an overpowering fastball.

The right-hander’s issue is that he’s not always sure where it’s going.

And then there’s Clase, who dazzled the Indians in Arizona after missing last season due to an 80-game PED suspension. In Tuesday’s exhibition finale, Clase threw five pitches over 100 mph.

“102,” Francona said, chuckling about Clase’s top speed. “That was fast.”

The Indians weren’t exactly sure what they had in Clase, who came over from Texas in the 2019 trade for two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber.

“When a guy doesn’t compete for a whole year, you kind of wonder if he’s going to throw strikes or if he’s going to be spraying balls,” Francona said. “If anything he might throw too many strikes. If that’s the biggest problem we have, we’re OK. But I mean he pounds the strike zone with all his pitches. You rarely see him pitch from behind in the count.”

Along with the three potential closers, the Indians’ bullpen has some interesting pieces. There’s experience in Oliver Perez and Bryan Shaw, Rule 5 pickup Trevor Stefan and Phil Maton, young right-handers Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill will give Francona length and maybe an occasional start.

Beyond that group, converted outfielder Anthony Gose, who throws 100 mph and made major strides this spring, is waiting in the wings with lefty Kyle Nelson.

Following Clase’s performance, starter Aaron Civale said the Indians have a group of relievers that could open eyes.

“It’s not just Clase, he said. “We got some premium arms in the bullpen. Not everyone might know their names, but I think by the end of the year a lot of people will. It’s very comforting to pitch with those guys behind you.”

NOTES: With the Tigers starting LHP Matthew Boyd in the opener, Francona will start Jordan Luplow in center and Yu Chang at first. Chang was one of Cleveland’s best hitters in camp and Francona said the 25-year-old has matured. “He’s stronger. He’s more agile. He’s more sure of himself,” Francona said. “Are there going to be hiccups? I don’t know. There usually are. But he’s situated to handle things better than he has in the past.”

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.