Fearsome Karinchak-Clase duo keys another win

59 minutes ago

DETROIT — A lot of things are going right for the Guardians, as they sit atop the American League Central. Their starting rotation is settling in. Steven Kwan and Amed Rosario have been as deadly a 1-2 punch at the top of the lineup as any duo in the Majors. But it might be the bullpen that’s been the biggest bright spot.

The grit the bullpen showed in the 3-2 victory over the Tigers on Wednesday night at Comerica Park was a perfect representation of the way Cleveland has been able to lean on its relievers since the second half of the season got underway. Aaron Civale came off the injured list and tossed four innings, giving up two runs. With just a one-run lead, the combination of Sam Hentges, Nick Sandlin, Bryan Shaw, Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase held Detroit scoreless over the final five frames to secure the win.

“They have a tremendous pitching staff,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “They’ve got a young, athletic roster, and then to complement that, they have some go-to guys that, what they do, they do very well.

“Karinchak spins the ball a ton. Bryan Shaw has as much experience, a kind of high-end cut breaking ball, the veteran guy down there. Clase is as good of a closer as you’re going to find in the big leagues. Stephan, Sandlin. So when they get the lead, they’ve got matchups, they’ve got arms, they’ve got spin. That’s why they’re above .500.”

Entering the day, the bullpen ranked first in the Majors in fWAR (1.3), ERA (2.45), FIP (2.79) and walks per nine innings (8.73) since the All-Star break. And that was before Wednesday’s five scoreless frames without a walk.

“We got a bunch of great guys down there,” Karinchak said. “I love cheering all of them on. Everybody’s got great stuff. I think everybody believes in each other when they go in the game. I think that’s showing.”

Kwan and Rosario are becoming quite the duo at the top of the lineup, but Karinchak and Clase are coming together into another deadly 1-2 punch to close out games.

Clase has been nearly untouchable, having given up just two runs since May 20 and owning an AL-best 26 saves. But he hasn’t been an untouchable closer forever; he’s grown into the role, and the way he’s done so over the past year has been impressive for his team to watch. Clase has learned to be available multiple days in a row, and he’s now pitched in four consecutive games (with an off-day Monday), earning saves in the past three.

“He does a really good job warming up,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I know we talk about him a lot like he’s a veteran, but he’s learning fast.”

The rise of Karinchak has arguably been the most pleasant surprise for Cleveland. It’s what the Guardians hoped would happen, considering they were used to this level of success from the righty at the start of 2021, before the wheels fell off the cart for him around midseason. He was optioned to Triple-A Columbus, and then dealt with a right back strain at the beginning of ’22, raising more questions about whether he could return to form.

When he first returned to the Majors, Karinchak was working in low-leverage situations. Now, he’s earned the eighth-inning role. He’s tossed 13 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to July 9, and he has fanned 47% of the batters he’s faced in that span (25 strikeouts, 53 batters).

This makes the timing of the upcoming series in Toronto difficult. Karinchak is the only member of the Guardians who is not vaccinated, so he will not be with the team for the series, just as it is desperately looking to create some separation in the division race.

“It’s a tough blow, but I’m going to cheer my guys on the best I can from wherever I’m at,” Karinchak said.

The bullpen has managed without Karinchak already this season, and it will try to do so again over the weekend. And with the way the group is pitching collectively, there’s little reason to doubt what it can do with or without him.

“Trust is the thing,” Civale said. “When we’re ready to hand that ball over, we know they’re going to take care of the rest of the game.”