In the first sign that not everything has broken just right for the Indians in this American League Division Series, Edwin Encarnacion did not make a startling recovery in time to crack the lineup Sunday night. Before the game, manager Terry Francona said he did not expect to use the regular cleanup hitter at all, “Unless you see him pulling a Willis Reed.”
Or, for people more familiar with the World Series than Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, it would entail something as unlikely dramatic as Kirk Gibson limping up to home plate and hitting a home run to make Encarnacion a factor. He still was out with the ankle injury he incurred during his team’s stunning, happenstance-filled 9-8 victory in 13 innings Friday.
The team missed Encarnacion, who severely twisted his ankle in Cleveland’s one bad break the previous game. In his place, the Indians used Michael Brantley as the designated hitter. Brantley was thrilled to finally have his chance. What he did not have was his timing. He grounded out, hit into a double play and drew a walk being removed for a pinch runner in the eighth.
Brantley has had only one hit since August 6, when he homered in an 8-1 loss to the Yankees. Two days later, he sustained the injury that kept him out for 50 games. He played briefly at the end of the regular season, then looked overmatched in five at-bats as Encarnacion’s replacement in Game 2.
“It’s not ideal. I think he’d say that,” Francona said late Sunday afternoon. “But if anybody can find his swing, it’s Brantley. There’s not very many moving parts.”
Brantley’s swing was arguably the best and most productive on his team before he injured his shoulder last season. The injury caused him to miss Cleveland’s run to Game 7 of the World Series and made him hungrier to be part of the postseason this year. Rusty or not, he was pumped to give it a shot. “Everything has been going great,” he said after a workout in the Bronx Saturday. “I’m very happy, where I’m at right now.”
He is relying on the batting mechanics that became second nature when he was 10 in the backyard batting cage his dad, Mickey, built for him in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The elder Brantley was a Mets minor-league hitting instructor in 1997 — he later would become the big-league hitting coach as part of the coaching purge during the 1999 Subway Series — and brought home the Mets’ old pitching machine.
The techniques learned back then helped the younger Brantley become a two-time All-Star and a third-place finisher in the 2014 AL Most Valuable Player voting.
Whether they can be dusted off and fired up on the fly remained to be seen, entering Sunday. “It’s awful nice having him able to slide in there,” Francona said before the game. “We’re hitting him seventh tonight because he hasn’t been playing much. He’s not a seven hitter.”
But at the moment, he is not the hitter he always has been, either.