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CLEVELAND — Playing against a strong playoff team like the Astros can easily expose some of your biggest weaknesses, and navigating a difficult lineup has been a challenge for the Guardians this season.
Cleveland starter Zach Plesac failed to reach the sixth inning for the fifth consecutive start and his offense was held to just three hits in a 6-0 loss to Houston at Progressive Field on Thursday night, as Astros starter Justin Verlander cruised to his Major League-leading 15th win of the season.
“I’m being tested right now,” Plesac said.
Cleveland’s approach to the Trade Deadline caused many to scratch their heads. The team was rumored to be checking in on backstop Sean Murphy, but wasn’t willing to part ways with some of the pieces the A’s asked for in return. Maybe this young lineup could survive without a boost, considering it had won 11 of its last 17 entering Thursday with Steven Kwan, who extended his hit streak to 18 games, at the top of the order and Andr?s Gim?nez being a consistent force behind him.
Bullpen help could have been another target. Emmanuel Clase has been lights out in the back of the ‘pen, but no other arm has been consistently reliable. Eli Morgan and Trevor Stephan have both had their moments, but because they’ve ebbed and flowed, it’s been difficult to trust them 100% of the time. Even still, the bullpen could manage without an upgrade. In that 17-game span entering the opener against the Astros, Cleveland’s relief corps collectively pitched to a 1.83 ERA.
Here’s where we get to the bigger problem: Starting pitching has not been the strength it once was in Northeast Ohio.
Aside from Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber, there isn’t a starter that has been dependable for the Guardians as of late. Cal Quantrill has run into difficulties. Plesac’s rough stretch continued on Thursday. And the last spot in the rotation has been pieced together by the bullpen the last two times through before Hunter Gaddis will get his chance to make his Major League debut as Friday’s starter.
Cleveland wants to contend in 2022, and it can since no team has run away with the AL Central yet. Picking up a starting pitcher that could join McKenzie and Bieber in a critical playoff series (especially if it’s a three-game Wild Card set) would have been an enormous lift. Instead, Plesac is hoping to figure out a way to pull himself out of this funk he’s found himself in over the last month.
In his last five starts, Plesac is 0-4 with a 7.04 ERA. He posted a 1.50 ERA in his previous four outings. But if there’s any silver lining to this rocky stretch, it’s that Plesac has run into a tremendous amount of bad luck with soft hits and errors behind him rather than losing feel for his stuff — and the stats back it up.
He’s owned a 7.04 ERA over his last five outings, but hitters have only had a 36.4% hard hit rate against him in that span. And on Thursday, he gave up four runs on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, but the average exit velocity against him was 80.9 mph — the lowest in a game of his career.
“That’s why we try to keep it game-to-game, because if you don’t, things can pile up,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said when asked about the tough breaks Plesac has had over the last month. “That’s why we talk so much about staying in the moment.”
Staying in the moment will be the approach the team has to take the rest of the season. There’s no going back to change the outcome of the Trade Deadline. There’s going to be plenty of new faces attempting to thrive in the big leagues just like Gaddis will on Friday. And there’s still two months remaining before the playoffs for Plesac to get himself back on track and help strengthen this rotation for the homestretch of the regular season.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to help us win, trying to do everything in my power to not focus on things that aren’t going my way,” Plesac said. “I think it’s just one of those periods where I’m really being tested if I’m going to give in or if I’m going to prevail. It’s something I’m never going to back down from.”