Jose Ramirez is feeling it. (MLB Gifs)

With an off-day looming Monday, the Yankees host the Indians for four games in a series more important for the opposition than the Bombers.

Their Story Thus Far

At 72-49, Cleveland heads into the Bronx just a half-game behind the Twins in the AL Central. That’s remarkable after trailing by 11.5 games a couple months ago, though the Indians were heavily favored before the season. After taking two of three in Minnesota, Cleveland dropped two in a three-game set with the Red Sox.

This isn’t the same Indians team that beat the Yankees two of three in early June. Thanks to called-up relievers and a healthier rotation, Cleveland was able to trade Trevor Bauer at the trade deadline to infuse their roster with talented outfielders, namely Yasiel Puig and Franmil Reyes, in addition to prospects.

Between Puig, Francisco Lindor and an electric staff, this is a fun team right now. They’ve gone 9-4 since the deadline while the enigmatic Bauer has scuffled in Cincinnati.

Even with an improved lineup, this is a team based around its pitching. Cleveland has the league’s best ERA-, are tied for second in FIP- and are third in pitching fWAR. In two of the Yankees next three series, they’ll face some of the best pitching in baseball between the Indians and Dodgers.

Injury Report

The Indians have three pitchers who could return soon from the IL as starter Corey Kluber and relievers Tyler Olson and Dan Otero are all on rehab assignments. Former Yankee A.J. Cole, OF Jordan Luplow and RHP Danny Salazar each are on the 10-day IL.

Meanwhile, the 60-day IL is packed. RHPs Cody Anderson, Jefry Rodriguez and Carlos Carrasco join 3B Christian Arroyo and OF Bradley Zimmer (as well as Kluber and Otero) with long-term injuries.

The good news is that Carrasco, who has dealt with chronic myeloid leukemia, has been cleared to face hitters. Truly wonderful news.

Player Spotlight: Jose Ramirez

At the 2018 All-Star break, Jose Ramirez was a top-three MVP favorite and the engine behind the Indians’ offense. However, from that All-Star Game through June 30 this season, Ramirez was a bad hitter. Over 619 plate appearances in that span, he hit .216/.334/.369 with an 85 wRC+.

His swoon really started at the end of last season and continued into this year as he posted just a 46 wRC+ in April and cratered against this June. Ramirez’s agent stated that Ramirez had been trying to beat the shift and go the other way instead of taking advantage of pitches on the inner half of the plate as before.

Now, he’s back to being himself. He’s hit .313/.338/.667 with 12 homers and a 150 wRC+ since the beginning of July. Though his walks haven’t quite returned, he’s back to being a tremendous positive for the Indians.

Ultimately, that changes the complexion of Cleveland’s lineup. Utilizing the additions of Puigs and Reyes alongside a resurgent Ramirez, the Indians aren’t just a Lindor and Carlos Santana-led operation anymore. The team has a starting nine and formidable offense that could make the team scary come October.

Puig!!!! (MLB Gifs)

Potential Lineup

  1. Francisco Lindor, SS (.303/.358/.522, 123 wRC+)
  2. Oscar Mercado, CF (.270/.317/.429, 91 wRC+)
  3. Carlos Santana, 1B (.287/.410/.536, 143 wRC+)
  4. Yasiel Puig, RF (.263/.313/.484, 101 wRC+)
  5. Jose Ramirez, 3B (.246/.317/.438, 92 wRC+)
  6. Roberto Perez, C (.223/.309/.450, 93 wRC+)
  7. Jason Kipnis, 2B (.256/.318/.406, 85 wRC+)
  8. Franmil Reyes, DH (.242/.296/.508, 103 wRC+)
  9. Greg Allen, LF (.238/.295/.385, 74 wRC+)

Off the bench, the Indians features backup catcher Kevin Plawecki (63 wRC+), outfielder Tyler Naquin (97 wRC+) and infielder Mike Freeman (95 wRC+).

Pitching Matchups

Thursday (7:05 PM ET) Chad Green/Bulk Reliever vs. Adam Plutko (vs. Yankees)

The Yankees get lucky to avoid All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber this series, but they haven’t had much success against his alternates. Plutko carries a 4.68 ERA in 65.1 IP and worse peripherals, sporting a 5.95 FIP thanks to few strikeouts and 17 home runs, or 2.3 per nine. Still, the right-hander held the Yankees to just two runs in a quality start in June.

In that June win, Plutko allowed a home run to Didi Gregorius in the first inning and shut down the Yankees from then on. Gregorius’ homer was one of just four balls hit above 90 mph in the start as Plutko induced plenty of weak contact. That’s been his calling card this season: Limiting walks and hard-hit balls.

The right-hander attacks with a four-seam fastball in the low-90s about half the time while working in a slider, changeup and curveball. The curveball has a high-spin rate and teams with the slider as his best out pitches.

Plutko (Baseball Savant)

Friday (7:05 PM ET) Masahiro Tanaka (vs. Indians) vs. Adam Civale (Never faced NYY)

Civale is just three starts into his career. Despite being a lesser prospect on the back-half of the Indians’ top 30, he’s off to a dazzling start, allowing just two runs in 18 innings while striking out 18 and issuing just four walks. He’s yet to surrender a home run.

Fangraphs’ Brendan Gawlowski broke down Civales’ repertoire, which features a high-spin fastball of different shapes and a strong curveball. The 24-year-old righty used two-seam sinker and cutter a combined two-thirds of the time, using them to play off each other at the top of the zone. Meanwhile, he also has a changeup, slider and curve he uses at least 8.5 percent each.

In the past, it always seemed like the Yankees were mowed down by pitchers they’d never seen before, though that almost always proved false. Now, with a lineup that typically wears down pitchers of all shapes and sizes, they should be game for this new challenge.

Civale (Baseball Savant)

Saturday (1:05 PM ET) James Paxton (vs. Indians) vs. Zach Plesac (vs. Yankees)

Plesac has been another pleasant surprise as a 24-year-old rookie for Cleveland this season. Coming up at the end of May, the righty has made 14 starts and has a 3.27 ERA, well outpacing his 5.03 FIP. Just as with Plesac, he had the Yankees’ number in June to hand New York a loss.

In that start, he gave up two early runs on a Clint Frazier double and Aaron Hicks home run. After the Hicks dinger in the third inning, he retired 14 of his final 15 batters faced.

With just OK stuff (see below) and middling peripherals, it would appear Plesac has gotten a little lucky this season. He’s mostly a fastball-changeup-slider pitcher, going to his 94-mph four-seamer half the time.

Plesac (Baseball Savant)

Sunday (1:05 PM ET) CC Sabathia (vs. Indians) vs. Mike Clevinger (vs. Yankees)

With Kluber and Carrasco on shelf and Bauer across the state, the fourth-year starter is the old man of the staff right now at 28-years-old. Despite missing significant time with injury this year, he’s been a rock for the team when on the mound.

Among pitchers with at least 250 innings since the start of 2018, Clevinger has the 11th best ERA at 3.10. He strikes out 35 percent of batters he faces, third-best among starters, and has cut down his walks the last two seasons to 8.2 percent. Already decent at keeping the ball on the ground, he avoids home runs as well, making him a complete starter.

Clevinger’s mid-to-upper 90s fastball is his primary offering alongside a low-80s slider, each of which get plenty of whiffs. His curveball and changeup have also been decent, though it’s the former two pitches for which to look out.

Clevinger (Baseball Savant)

Bullpen Status

Here’s the breakdown of the Indians’ bullpen by handedness:

RHPs: Adam Cimber, Tyler Clippard, Nick Goody, Nick Wittgren, Hunter Wood
LHPs: Brad Hand, Oliver Perez, Logan Allen

Hand is the Indians’ All-Star closer while former Yankees Clippard and Goody work ahead of him, as does the former Marlin Wittgren. Despite taking a defeat to the Red Sox, Wittgren has emerged as a strong option for Terry Francona this year.

Meanwhile, the submariner Adam Cimber works best against righties while Oliver Perez handles southpaws. Acquired from the Rays before the deadline, Hunter Wood looks like he’s in a long relief role, while Logan Allen made his Cleveland debut in long relief Wednesday after coming over in the Bauer deal.