CLEVELAND, Ohio — It remains unclear just how Terry Francona will use Indians relievers James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase once 2021 regular season games get underway, but on Sunday both pitchers expressed their desire to close games in the ninth inning.
That could set up an intriguing competition throughout camp between a pair of candidates with plenty of arm talent who are ultimately short on experience in the closer role.
Karinchak was 1-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a rookie in 27 appearances last season. He told reporters Sunday during a Zoom interview from Goodyear, Arizona that 2020 showed him he still needs to develop consistency for the times when it matters most.
The 25-year-old righty is clearly still stinging from the go-ahead grand slam he surrendered to Yankees infielder Gio Urshela in the fourth inning of Cleveland’s Game 2 wild-card series loss to the Yankees in September. Though 2020 was overwhelmingly positive for Karinchak, that last lesson is one he’s obviously taken to heart.
“Unfortunately in this game there’s going to be failure,” Karinchak said. “If you fail you’ve got to come back the next day and be ready to succeed. Just being positive and confident every day no matter the circumstance. That’s what the best closers are.”
In the offseason, Karinchak addressed his mechanics, focusing on keeping his head more stable during his delivery in the hopes that he can earn Francona’s trust late in games.
“I just want to get the ball in leverage innings, whatever that is,” Karinchak said. “We’ll find out soon.”
Karinchak said he is open to pitching earlier if the situation dictates that he is needed, but closing games is where he ultimately sees himself.
“If they trust me with the ball in the ninth inning, I’ll be glad to do it,” Karinchak said. “We’ll see after spring training starts and once the regular season starts, if they give me that job I’ll be more than excited to do it.”
Francona said Saturday that it’s still early to start defining roles for relievers, but acknowledged that it is something the club is going to have to work through in spring training.
“I know (Karinchak’s) big goal this spring is to be pitching at the end of the game,” Francona said. “We’ve got to see how our bullpen looks as it starts to come together and what makes our best bullpen.”
Karinchak appeared in 12 situations where a save was in order last year, producing eight holds, one save and three blown saves. Francona and Sandy Alomar Jr. trusted Karinchak to put out fires in the seventh or eighth inning on several occasions with opposing runners on base.
“Sometimes the game is won or lost maybe in the seventh inning as opposed to somebody coming in with a three-run lead, nobody on in the ninth,” Francona said. “Sometimes you need a guy that can miss bats with bases loaded, two outs … I think James is gonna fall into that category. That’s something we need to talk through.”
Francona likened the situation to the way Andrew Miller was used in the 2016 playoffs. He said Miller’s ability to enter games early and shut down opposing lineups would not have been possible without the ability of Bryan Shaw and closer Cody Allen to finish things off behind him.
“Without those guys doing what they did, you’d be kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul and not be able to finish the game,” Francona said.
With a handful of veterans in camp who have experience closing games, including Nick Wittgren, Blake Parker, Heath Hembree and Bryan Shaw, the Indians could ease Karinchak into the closer role throughout the season, picking and choosing when to give him the ball late in games.
That is, of course, if Clase doesn’t make a case for the job himself.
Clase’s 2020 experience was completely different from Karinchak’s. The 22-year-old righty missed the entire season while serving a suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s joint policy on performance enhancing drugs.
After suffering a shoulder injury early in camp, Clase was relegated to eight weeks of rehab followed by unsupervised workouts in the Dominican Republic during the pandemic quarantine. He returned to Goodyear once the season was over to continue making up for lost time.
“It was just a disappointment not being able to be there with the team competing,” Clase said through interpreter Agustin Rivero. “But I kept working and I kept focusing on my things and I think that’s the bottom line.”
Clase said his positive test took place in December 2019 and was unexpected. He decided, along with his agent, not to appeal the suspension and instead focus on returning to compete in 2021.
“I’m really proud to be here,” he said. “That desire to play is still there. This is what I love doing. I’m really looking forward to getting back into uniform and playing the game.”
The final remaining vestige of the Corey Kluber trade for either the Indians or Rangers, Clase exuded confidence, saying his goal is to become the closer in Cleveland and to help the team compete. The 6-foot-2 righty said he’s back to the form that saw him touching 104 mph in Class AA with a heavy sinker that Francona described as a “bowling ball” last spring.
“I feel my stuff is just nasty,” Clase said. “Right now, it’s playing out really well out of the hand. … Obviously my role is a closer and that’s what I’m going to compete for.”
Francona said the excitement surrounding Clase from last spring is still there. Seeing him throw bullpen sessions has been encouraging.
“He’s come into camp and seems like he’s in a much better spot, a lot more comfortable, even in his own skin, being with a new ball club and everything,” Francona said. “That’s a big arm. We are excited to watch him. And we need to remember, he basically missed the whole year. But I’d be lying if I said we weren’t excited.”
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