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Oscar Mercado’s miracle catch in center field on Wednesday night shifted the perception of the White Sox-Indians series quite a bit. It saved the individual game, and it also saved the series, which would have been an even costlier blow to Cleveland’s playoff hopes. A split couldn’t keep them from falling behind Oakland in the hunt for the second wild card spot.
The catch also took away a double and multiple RBIs away from Eloy Jiménez, but Jiménez also absorbed friendly fire on the play. Jose Abreu’s baserunning boner meant that Jiménez felt a loss in two columns — he didn’t get an RBI, and he didn’t get a sacrifice fly that would have saved an out on his batting average. Abreu probably still feels terrible about it.
“My mistake,” Abreu said through a translator. “I got too excited because I never thought that Mercado had a chance to catch that ball, and that cost us a run. I feel bad. I apologized to Eloy, I apologized to Ricky. That was the right thing to do because when you make a mistake like that, you are costing one of your teammates some stats. I apologize to all of them.’’
In previous series, Mercado’s robbery could have been credited with stealing more than a couple of stats from Jiménez. It would’ve stalled a sense of progress, and everybody’s inability to catch a break on the few occasions something should’ve gone right.
But when Jiménez reaches his final form, one stolen extra-base hit shouldn’t make much of a difference in his week.
You wouldn’t have known he got unlucky in Cleveland from the numbers alone. Jiménez went 8-for-17 with two homers, three doubles and two HBPs over the four-game series, good for a line of .471/.526/1.000. He didn’t need an extra double to make him look adequate.
More than that, here was a series where you didn’t need positive results to know he looked better. He entered the game with a ground-ball rate of 50 percent, but 11 of his 13 batted balls at Progressive Field stayed in the air. On top of that, seven were hit over 100 miles per hour, including the one Mercado caught.
He’s been lacking this kind of spray chart:
And this is while Jiménez is still susceptible to being lured out off the plate. He swung at 13 pitches out of the zone, including seven sliders away and five fastballs high. One of the latter turned into the ball Mercado caught.
Jiménez can still be fooled, but Mike Clevenger said it’s not such a simple proposition anymore:
“I feel like he knows now how you’re gonna attack him and how you’re gonna beat him,” said Cleveland starter Mike Clevinger, who allowed two hits in seven innings, both to Jiménez. “He’s a good enough hitter now that that same slider — if you look at his second AB, his first AB, the slider hung up a little bit, got off the wall. Second AB, I threw the good slider I normally throw. He swung and missed, and I feel like he knew it was coming still. Third AB, I was kind of fatigued and didn’t want to go back to the heater, and I was like, ‘If I just get this slider away, I’m gonna get him again,’ and it hung up, and he’s good enough that if you hang it up in the zone, he’s gonna put it out.”
Jiménez showed what Clevenger meant on Thursday. Zach Plesac retired Jiménez the first two times, but both outs came on fastballs hit over 100 mph to the outfield. The third time up, Plesac tried to start him with a pair of sliders, but he hung the second one, and Jiménez found room along the left-field line for his eighth hit of the series, and his sixth on a slider.
This is what you want to see from Jiménez the rest of way, most obviously because it’s fun to watch. Most crucially, I wouldn’t want to see him overhaul his swing in the winter when nobody in the minors, inside or outside the organization, thought it posed a hazard in the majors.
The hope is that the first five months were all about the world’s most talented pitchers taking advantage of an enthusiastic hitter, and he needed that time to rewire his brain and sand down his most self-defeating impulses. He might still average a strikeout a game at this level at this age, especially when he faces a slew of tough righties like the ones Cleveland threw back-to-back-to-back, but I won’t care as long as the balls stay in the air. Be it launch angle or selectivity, if he can get one element of his game reliably in order, the other should eventually follow.