It’s always good to have your best player back — especially when your second-best player is hitting .139.
The happiest player in the Indians lineup about the return of Francisco Lindor has to be the .139-hitting Jose Ramirez, who has been Lennon without McCartney in what so far has been the worst lineup — by far — in the American League.
At the start of hostilities Saturday, the .201 team batting average was not only the worst in the American League, it was a $50 cab ride from the rest of the pack.
The Indians ranked 15th in the AL in hitting at .201. Detroit ranked 14th at .215. Small wonder, then, that the Indians were so anxious to get Lindor’s bat into the lineup that in order to make that happen they chose to get rid of a player who was second on the team in home runs and second in RBIs.
That would be Hanley Ramirez, who became an ex-Indian when, in order to activate Lindor off the injured list, the team designated Ramirez for assignment prior to Saturday’s doubleheader with Atlanta. Manager Terry Francona explained that it was a reluctant DFA of Ramirez, who took one for the team that no longer employs him because until Lindor gets fully back into game shape, he may have to be occasionally used at designated hitter, which heretofore was Ramirez’s address.
H-Ram exits with two home runs and eight RBIs, which might sound a little light, but in the Indians’ flyweight lineup, those are heavy numbers. Only Leonys Martin had more home runs, and only Carlos Santana had more RBIs than H-Ram.
But sometimes a team has to do what a team has to do to make room for the best shortstop in baseball. Lindor’s 2019 debut came in the second game Saturday.
“I’m ready to go. I’ll give 100 percent of what I’ve got every day. I feel I’m in a good spot, ready to play in a big league game,” said the captain of Major League Baseball’s all-smile team.
It was a truncated spring training for Lindor who, just as he was getting over a right calf strain, suffered a left ankle sprain. Mr. Strain & Sprain started the season on the injured list, and it’s to his teammates’ credit that the ship didn’t take on water while waiting for the return of its first mate.
To the contrary, the Indians won 11 of 18 games while waiting for Lindor. That was good for first place in the AL Central.
How did they do that?
In the most unexpected of ways: with a bullpen that was expected to be the team’s leaky faucet. Instead, at the start of play Saturday the Indians and Houston were tied for the best bullpen ERA in the league at 2.68.
“They’ve pitched when the phone rings, and they’ve all done a good job,” Francona said.
Say what you will about the Indians’ payroll-slashing ways over the winter, but this is a front office that has always been able to construct a bullpen from spare parts gathered from other organizations. It’s still early, but it looks like the Indians have done it again.
With Jason Kipnis and Lindor back, the Indians’ injured list has gone from standing room only to sitting room only. Still on the shelf are Bradley Zimmer (shoulder), Mike Clevinger (back) and the ghost of Danny Salazar, who is who-knows-where, rehabbing who-knows-what.
But the return of Lindor is huge, because so is his talent.
“He’s one of the best players in the game,” Francona said. “He’s a difference-maker everywhere. The clubhouse, the dugout, at shortstop, at the plate, everywhere.”
Lindor, who over the last three years had only missed 11 games, has already missed 19 this year — and it wasn’t easy being a spectator.
“I missed everything. The games, the flights, the hotels. I missed my teammates. But what I missed most was the celebrations after every win,” he said.
“Frankie was miserable not playing,” Francona said.
Now Lindor is back, coming off the best year of his career in 2018, a 7.9 WAR season in which he led the American League with 129 runs scored, led the league in plate appearances and at-bats and belted 38 home runs with 92 RBIs — while hitting in the leadoff spot — while still finding time to steal 25 bases.
He’s finished sixth, fifth and ninth in the MVP voting the last three years, won two Silver Sluggers, one Gold Glove and he’s still only 25.
Francona said the Indians will ease Lindor back into the lineup.
“We want him to help us, but we don’t want to run him into the ground,” said the manager who, with a suspect bullpen and without his best player, somehow maneuvered the worst-hitting team in the league into first place.
It’s the Tito Factor.
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