February 25, 2024

Encarnacion and Bruce’s Return to Cleveland Overshadowed by Naquin Walk-Off

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If you watched the Indians-Mariners game Friday night and experienced flashbacks to the 2017 American League Divisional Series, you’re not alone.

On a cold, foggy and downright depressing early May evening in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio, the Indians began a seven-game homestand by playing host to the Seattle Mariners. Seattle, who entered the game with an 18-15 record sitting half a game back from the Houston Astros for first place in the AL West, sent to the mound 27-year-old Japanese rookie starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi to face off with Cleveland’s 23-year-old second-year man, Shane Bieber. At first pitch, the Indians sat at 16-13 and three games behind the frontrunning Minnesota Twins in the AL Central.

This being the first game of the only series the Mariners will play in the Cleveland this season. Friday night’s affair marked the first time both Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce returned to Progressive Field to square off with their former club. Encarnacion played for the Tribe from 2017-18 before being traded in a three-team deal in December that sent him to the Mariners and Carlos Santana back to the Indians.

Jay Bruce, meanwhile, has been gone from the shores of Lake Erie since October 11, 2017, otherwise known as the date of Game 5 of the 2017 ALDS between the Indians and Yankees. New York, the Wild Card winner from that season, beat the Tribe by a score of 5-2 to eliminate Cleveland, a team favored by many to win the World Series, and advance to the ALCS to play the eventual World Series Champion Houston Astros.

That Game 5 in Cleveland was the last one Jay Bruce ever played in a Cleveland uniform. Not to wax too nostalgic for Bruce—after all, he only played in a total of 48 career games with the Tribe—but he was a key piece on that 2017 squad. Down the stretch and into the playoffs, his bat and, surprisingly, his defensive play in right field, helped spark the Indians to an unprecedented 22 straight victories. Technically, Bruce only hit .248 during his tenure with the Indians, but don’t let that deceive you. From the middle-to-lower-part of the batting order, Bruce woke up this lineup and sent the team heading into the postseason on fire.

However, that late-season success didn’t follow the Indians into the playoffs, where the Yankees shocked Major League Baseball and vanquished the reigning American League Champions. Encarnacion only appeared in three of the series’ five games due to an ankle injury, but Bruce hit .278 with two home runs in five games played. 

With that, free agent Jay Bruce signed with the New York Mets, for whom he’d already played from 2016-17 before being traded to Cleveland. The Indians didn’t play the Mets at all in 2018, meaning that Bruce, who’s now back in the American League with Seattle, is playing the Indians for the first time since he left.

On the season thus far, Encarnacion is pretty much right on pace with his numbers from last year. His batting average of .231 is a little lower than the .246 average he finished with in Cleveland in 2018, but Encarnacion has notoriously been a slow starter throughout his career. And with eight home runs through about 1.5 months, Encarnacion is on track to end up with more than the 32 he wound up with last season.

Bruce, on the other hand, is hitting a measly .187 in 26 games with the Mariners in 2019, having already recorded 33 strikeouts and sporting an on-base percentage (.272) 100 points lower than Encarnacion’s (.372).

In Friday night’s game, Encarnacion and Bruce both went 1-4 in their return to Cleveland, with Bruce also tallying Seattle’s only RBI of the night on his solo home run in the fourth inning, for which he received boos from the home fans (then again, they could have been chants of “Bruce”). However, Bruce was also the guy to come up firing on the Tyler Naquin pinch-hit single to right field that ultimately scored Leonys Martin from second and gave the Indians the walk-off winner. Bruce was in right, and he fielded the ball and threw home, but the attempt was futile, as Martin’s excellent speed helped him easily cross the plate standing up.

Indians 2, Mariners 1.

It was a frigid night for baseball in Northeast Ohio, but the Indians didn’t disappoint in spoiling the welcome party of two former players and taking home the victory. It was nice seeing Encarnacion and Bruce in Cleveland again, but make no mistake about it: despite the offseason subtractions and injuries, the Indians are still trying to win it all this year, and anyone who stands in their way is nothing but an obstacle.

In other words: if you don’t wear navy and red, you don’t matter.

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