KANSAS CITY -- Throughout this season, Indians manager Terry Francona has stressed the importance of getting first baseman Nick Swisher and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera going in the batter's box. So far in September, that duo has helped lead Cleveland's charge toward contention.
"For us to get where we wanted to, we know we needed them," Francona said. "Now, it seems like they're swinging a potent bat. That's nice to have. Every once in a while, you need a three-run homer. You can talk all you want about playing the game right, and we certainly try, but it's nice to spread a game out with a three-run homer."
Entering Monday night's game against the Royals, Swisher was batting .324 (12-for-37) with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a 1.162 OPS in his past nine games, while Cabrera was hitting .241 (7-for-29) with five homers, 11 RBIs and a 1.071 OPS in his last nine games. Their respective hot streaks cover Cleveland's last 10 contests, during which the team has gone 7-3 while hitting .274 with an .824 OPS and an average of 5.9 runs per game.
In the previous 31 games -- a stretch dating to Aug. 2, when the Indians had an eight-game winning streak snapped -- Cleveland hit .222 with a .649 OPS as a team, while averaging 3.3 runs per game in that span. Perhaps not coincidentally, Swisher and Cabrera hit .208 (.658 OPS) and .198 (.558), respectively, in that stretch.
Francona believes Swisher, who signed a four-year contract worth $56 million with the Indians in the offseason, put too much pressure on himself earlier this year.
"I think he was trying too hard," Francona said. "It's something you respect and you appreciate. It's the opposite of a guy getting a contract and laying back. He wanted so desperately to fulfill that. Sometimes you try too hard."
The manager added that Cabrera has handled his season-long struggles as well as a player can.
"I've been really impressed with Cabby all year," Francona said. "You can never tell if he's gets hits or not, and I mean that in a good way. He doesn't drag his head. It's been tough on him, I think. He's a good player and he just keeps playing. He doesn't want days off. I've been really impressed with that side of him."
Masterson building toward bullpen session
KANSAS CITY -- The Indians continue to hold out hope that injured starter Justin Masterson might be available to pitch before the end of the regular season.
Cleveland just is not sure whether that that will be out of the rotation or bullpen. Manager Terry Francona said that decision will be saved for another day.
"What we'd like to do is have him be healthy," Francona said before Monday night's game with the Royals, "and then figure out how to best use him as a weapon."
Masterson, who has been shelved with a strained left oblique sustained in a Sept. 2 start, played catch up to a distance of 110 feet on Monday at Kauffman Stadium. Barring any setbacks, Francona said the right-hander might be cleared to throw off a mound in a bullpen session on Friday back home in Cleveland.
Francona called that the "best-case scenario" for Masterson.
The manager praised the pitcher's effort to return in time to help the club's push toward a possible postseason berth.
"He actually beat me to the ballpark today," Francona said. "That's a guy that's trying. That makes you feel good. He's logged a lot of innings. He's a leader for a reason. To see him try so hard to come back, that part is even uplifting."
In 29 starts, the 28-year-old Masterson is 14-10 with a 3.52 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 189 1/3 innings. The sinkerballer went 4-2 with a 2.87 ERA in the nine outings leading up to his ill-fated matchup with Baltimore, which sent just five batters to the plate before Masterson left with the injury.
Francona said the club would consider bringing Masterson back as a reliever simply due to the fact that he will not be stretched out enough to handle a full workload.
"We'll figure out what is best to our advantage," Francona said. "Obviously, you don't just take a guy and pitch him nine innings. But, do you start him for two or three or four? Or do you bring him out of the bullpen?"
In 2008, Masterson pitched out of the bullpen for Francona's Red Sox, turning in a 2.36 ERA in 27 relief appearances in the regular season and a 1.86 ERA in nine postseason games.
"Yeah, he did OK," Francona said with a smirk.
Aviles credits Francona with Tribe's success
KANSAS CITY -- Indians infielder Mike Aviles played for manager Terry Francona while with the Red Sox three seasons ago, when Boston underwent an historic collapse over the last month that ultimately cost the manager his job. This September, Aviles has been with Francona as Cleveland tries to make a run at an American League Wild Card spot.
Whether it is a September slide or a run up the standings in the final month, Aviles said Francona features the same attitude and approach.
"He was cool during that, too," Aviles said of Boston's collapse from contention in Francona's final season with the Red Sox. "That was one of the reasons why I had an absolute blast playing for him the last two months in 2011. We were all frustrated, like, 'What's going on?' And our manager is calm, cool, had no worries. It was, 'Hey, I have trust in you. I have faith in you.' We could feel that."
Aviles, who serves as a super utility man off Cleveland's bench, was traded twice over the offseason. Boston traded him to Toronto, which later flipped him to the Tribe, along with catcher Yan Gomes, in exchange for pitcher Esmil Rogers. Francona played a key role in the Indians' targeting of Aviles as a backup shortstop and utility man this year.
In his first year with the Indians, and second with Francona, Aviles believes the manager has played a critical role for a team that has experienced drastic ups and downs.
"The big role too is just his demeanor," Aviles said. "There's been stretches in the season where we've been the worst team in baseball, and there's stretches where we've been the best team in baseball. ... Sometimes you get in situations where you're in a bad stretch and you're looking around at everybody on the team. Everybody's trying to get out of it, but you just don't know.
"Then you look at Tito and he's the same guy, joking around with you like nothing happened, like we didn't just lose 14-0 yesterday. You're like, 'You know what? If he's cool, then why am I stressing out?' I think his demeanor rubs off on everybody You see how cool, calm and collected he is. Maybe he's stressing out on the inside. I don't know. That's not what he portrays, and I think that's been a huge help for everybody."
Quote to note
"When you get a guy like that at the helm, there's nothing you won't do for him. Everybody in this locker room would run through walls for that guy."
--Indians infielder Mike Aviles, on manager Terry Francona
• Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall headed into Monday's game against the Royals hitting .333 (10-for-30) with seven extra-base hits and six RBIs in his past 11 games. In his previous 21 contests, Chisenhall hit .127 (7-for-55) with two extra-base hits and three RBIs for the Tribe.
"I think he's taking better swings at fastballs," manager Terry Francona said. "Even on some that he's fouled off, because he fouled it off, he's got the right to hit another pitch. And he's hit it. He's done some damage with some of those pitches, which is very welcome."
• White Sox left-hander Chris Sale might be the favorite for the American League Cy Young Award if not for the Tribe. Sale's loss to the Indians on Sunday dropped his record to 0-4 with an 8.74 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in 22 2/3 innings against Cleveland this year. Against all other teams, Sale is 11-9 with a 2.37 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 178 2/3 innings.
• The Indians entered Monday with a 3.98 rotation ERA (sixth in the American League) and a 3.73 bullpen ERA (ninth in the AL) on the season. It represented the first time since April 7 (3.60/3.00) that the team's rotation and bullpen ERA were each under 4.00 overall.
• Cleveland's pitching staff boasted a 3.17 ERA (172 earned runs in 488 2/3 innings) over 54 games in since the All-Star break, entering Monday. That mark currently represents the lowest second-half ERA for an Indians team since 1972 (2.82).