DETROIT -- Indians starter Zach McAllister lives and dies with his fastball. It is the right-hander's most important pitch, and it has been a key to the success experienced during his past two turns in the rotation for Cleveland.
One aspect of McAllister's approach that was especially effective in Wednesday's 3-2 win in Detroit was elevating his fastball at times. Pitchers are instructed to pound the lower half of the strike zone and, when McAllister is doing that consistently, he can then use the upper portion of the zone to his advantage.
"When he elevates by design, it's good," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "Part of that is, when he's throwing the ball down and he changes their eye level, that's when you see the swing and miss."
One example came in the fourth inning on Wednesday night. With runners on the corners and two outs, McAllister sent a 93-mph fastball up in the zone to Detroit's Alex Avila. The Tigers catcher swung through the pitch for an important strikeout in a critical situation.
McAllister has a 2.04 ERA through three starts, and he has only allowed one run with 11 strikeouts against two walks in 13 2/3 innings in his last two outings. In his season debut on April 2, McAllister struggled with his fastball command, walking four and laboring through 86 pitches in only four innings at Oakland.
"My first start, you could tell I was up [in the zone] the whole entire time," McAllister said. "Those balls get fouled off if you just live up there. For me to be able to get the ball down was a big adjustment for me. I'm definitely happy I was able to make it and that I'm able to elevate it when I need to."
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has also been encouraged by McAllister's recent turnaround.
"I think it's huge, because he's such a fastball guy," Callaway said. "I thought the biggest adjustment the last two games is he's pounding the zone, but he's doing it down in the zone. So, when he leaves the ball up, he gets a swing and miss or maybe it eats them up. That makes that high fastball effective."
Kipnis tossed for arguing balls and strikes
DETROIT -- Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis expressed some frustration in the third inning on Thursday and promptly paid the price.
Following a three-pitch strikeout at the hand of Tigers starter Justin Verlander, Kipnis received his first career ejection from home-plate umpire Lance Barrett. After swinging through a pitch, Kipnis had a few words for Barrett as he walked out of the batter's box.
Barrett immediately ejected Kipnis, who was replaced in the field by Mike Aviles.
"It was the first pitch of the at-bat that I thought was down a little bit, so it got to me," Kipnis said after the 7-5 loss to the Tigers. "It was a short at-bat, so it's still fresh in my head. To that point, we had one of the tougher pitchers on the mound and, with a chance to get him on the ropes there early on, emotions were running a little high.
"I didn't think I showed him up. I didn't try to stand there. I'm not here to show the guy up. I was just walking away and I told him that the first pitch changed the entire at-bat and you don't need to be helping a guy like that out. Obviously, I used a couple words to express [myself], but that's the full sense of what I said."
Indians manager Terry Francona did not have much to say about the topic, other than he was surprised that Kipnis was ejected so quickly. As for the first-pitch strike call, Francona echoed Kipnis' belief that the pitch was low.
"I agree with him," Francona said.
Following the first-pitch strike, which came with the bases loaded and two outs against Verlander, the Indians' All-Star second baseman fouled off the next pitch and then went on to strike out on the third offering from the right-hander.
"I don't think Lance is a bad guy," Kipnis said. "I don't even think he's a bad umpire. I just think he was expanding a little bit there, even before my at-bat. I didn't think he needed to be helping a guy like Verlander out. Emotions were just running high. It was unfortunate how it turned out."
Through 15 games played this season, Kipnis has hit .212 with two home runs, three doubles, seven RBIs, seven runs and three stolen bases for the Indians. On April 4, Kipnis signed a six-year extension worth $52.5 million with Cleveland.
When a reporter mentioned that it was Kipnis' first career ejection, the second baseman smirked.
"It's a celebration tonight back in Cleveland. You're all invited," Kipnis joked. "It's always good to get the first one out of the way. You just go out there and play and relax now. It's going to happen. Sometimes emotions run high in this game. It's going to happen from time to time. Sometimes some good can come from it. You learn from it.
"But at the same time, it's not a good feeling being in the locker room watching the rest of the game and not being able to help the team out."
Chisenhall adjusts mentally to role off bench
DETROIT -- There is always a danger in reading too much into a hot start at the plate. If anything, the solid opening act by Lonnie Chisenhall is a testament to the comfort level he has found in his new role with the Indians.
Chisenhall entered this season unsure of how he would be used by Cleveland manager Terry Francona. Through the first two weeks, which included a recent three-day trip to the paternity list for the birth of his second son, Chisenhall has embraced and excelled in his redefined job off the bench.
"It's important to get off to a quick start," Chisenhall said on Thursday morning. "I'm normally a slow starter, but I've settled down a little bit this year instead of being over-anxious trying to prove myself with one swing. I'm in a different role this year, so I've talked to a few guys who have been in this role before. There's more than one way to approach it, and I kind of like where I'm at right now."
Through seven games, Chisenhall has received three starts at third base and four as the designated hitter. During Thursday's 7-5 loss to the Tigers, Chisenhall served as the DH and churned out a career-high four hits (all singles), including two against ace Justin Verlander and one off lefty Phil Coke. Chisenhall has only had two at-bats against left-handers dating back to Aug. 9 of last season.
With that showing, Chisenhall is now batting .522 (12-for-23) with four doubles and five runs scored. No one is about to make too much of 23 at-bats, but Francona has been pleased with the early returns from the Tribe's former starting third baseman.
"He's done a really good job of staying ready," Francona said. "I think he's been on time more often. I actually think he has the ability that, when he really figures it out, then I think he can be dangerous for a long time. He's got bat speed. He's got the ability to adjust to offspeed pitches. I think there's some thunder in that bat."
Chisenhall said he entered this season with a new mental approach.
"If I started out the game 0-for-1 [in the past], I'd try to get two hits in my second at-bat," Chisenhall said. "That's kind of how I felt. It wasn't beneficial. ... I still feel over-anxious every once in a while. I just step out of the box and gather myself. It's been a long road to get here, but I feel better about where I'm at."
Axford bounces back with save, works on control
DETROIT -- Sometimes the best remedy for a bad outing is the chance to swiftly take the mound again. One game after his first blown save of the season, Indians closer John Axford was asked to shut the door on the Tigers on Wednesday night.
Axford was happy to have that opportunity and was thrilled to seal the Tribe's 3-2 win in Detroit, which could not cash in after putting a runner on third with one out in the ninth inning. For Axford, it marked his fifth save in six chances.
"It's good to get in a game right after," Axford said. "To get back out there, especially in a tough situation as well, getting the guy on third base there, it's good to back up a blown save with a save."
One thing that Axford is working on right now is lowering his uncharacteristically high walk rate. Through eight games and 6 2/3 innings, the right-hander has issued six free passes. He is quick to point out that four came in two games (he walked two on March 31 and two more on April 6), and he is confident that he can get back to his usual level.
Last season, Axford walked 26 in 65 innings between his stints with the Brewers and Cardinals, turning in a rate of 3.6 walks per nine innings. That represented the second-best rate of his career, only above the 3.1 average he had in 2011, when he saved 46 games and had a 1.95 ERA for Milwaukee.
"It's really just a matter of making sure I attack the hitters," Axford said, "and do that a little more aggressively than what I have been. That still remains a focus of mine when I go out there. I just have to make sure I accomplish it."
Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway pointed to Axford's track record, which includes a number of slow starts. Axford's April statistics for ERA (5.86), WHIP (1.56) and opponents' on-base percentage (.346) are each the highest for any calendar month. Based on the closer's career, Callaway expects Axford to improve as the season wears on.
"He's always battled early in the season," Callaway said. "He's trying to work through it a little bit. Any time you get those big guys with long limbs, it's always going to be a challenge to throw a strike, it seems like. He's just got to make sure that he's attacking the right way. I think he's going to be good."
Quote to note
"I think we have to remember that he's got like 10 Major League starts. It's easy to forget, because he had such a meteoric rise and he pitched in the playoff game. He's still a young pitcher that's learning, but there's a lot to like. He embraces challenges."
-- Francona, on starter Danny Salazar
• In his first game off the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday, Indians center fielder Michael Bourn went 0-for-4 with one walk and one run scored. Defensively, Bourn was able to test his left hamstring with a handful of running catches. Bourn was happy to be back in the lineup and pleased with how he felt.
"It felt great," Bourn said. "It's always great to get back out there and play with your teammates, man. That's the thing I've been waiting on for the last two, two and a half weeks. The conditions [Wednesday] ... I chose a good one to come back, when it was almost 20 degrees out there. It felt like it with that wind blowing a little bit. Hey, I was just happy to be out there and be a part of the team."
• Francona was asked on Thursday if he considered intentionally walking Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera in the eighth inning, when Cleveland was clinging to a 3-1 lead. Francona said his preference in that particular situation was to have setup man Cody Allen face Cabrera, who was hitting .227 through 11 games.
"You always think about things like that when it comes to Miggy," Francona said. "I also think it's the middle of April and it's cold. I think when he's in midseason form, you think about it more than that. But putting the tying run on base there, I think we believe in Cody so much I'd rather [pitch to him]."
• With their 3-2 win over the Tigers on Wednesday, the Indians improved to 55-31 in one-run games over the 2012-14 seasons. Cleveland's .640 winning percentage in one-run games during that time period leads the Major Leagues. Atlanta ranks second at .626 (57-34).
• McAllister and right-hander Corey Kluber combined to allow eight runs in 7 1/3 innings in their first starts of the season. In their four combined outings since, the duo has gone 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA, striking out 25 and walking only two in 27 innings.