Questions remain about fifth rotation spot

Questions remain about fifth rotation spot

CLEVELAND -- This is not an ideal situation for the Indians. They feature one of the top rotations in baseball, but their fifth spot is not occupied by just one pitcher. That is a precarious way to operate in the middle of a pennant chase, but they're giving it a go.

On Monday night the Indians used a bullpen day to temporarily fill the hole in their starting staff, and an eight-man arsenal pitched decently enough in a 6-2 loss to the Astros.

Though lack of offense and some ill-timed errors were the real culprits in the defeat, the rotation issue loomed large.

"I'm not sure what we are going to do," manager Terry Francona said. "It's not like it's during the middle of the year, where you are putting your bullpen in jeopardy. I'll want to talk to the guys and see what we think is best for us."

The Indians, holding a 4 1/2-game lead over the Tigers in the American League Central, have a Cy Young contender in ace Corey Kluber, and three strong arms behind him in Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Beyond that there are only question marks for the remainder of the regular season.

The reality is this: Cleveland is not sure how it will proceed from here. Five days from now, maybe the team will go with a bullpen day again. The Indians might also consider stretching out rookie right-hander Mike Clevinger or giving righty Josh Tomlin another chance. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway said the team will not hesitate to use either before Saturday if it is deemed necessary.

"It's nice to have a lead," Callaway said, "now that we're trying to figure out what our fifth starter is going to look like. The good part is, if we do make it [to the playoffs], you don't need a fifth starter. So there's not as much panic as I think there would be if it were April, because you can't do this for a whole season."

Clevinger was the first one up against the Astros; he exited after throwing 43 pitches in 1 2/3 innings, during which he allowed one run. Clevinger has been the Tribe's top rotation alternative for most of the season, but he last started on Aug. 13, and his pitch total against Houston was the most for him in an outing since Aug. 18.

Clevinger is not ready to handle a starter's workload, and the Indians like what he offers as a multi-inning reliever. The same goes for Cody Anderson, who opened the season as the No. 4 starter but lost his spot in the rotation and has worked exclusively in relief between Triple-A and the Majors dating back to June.

Clevinger is confident that he could last longer if called upon to start again.

"I don't think I was really losing a whole lot at the end there," Clevinger said. "I definitely could feel it -- not having thrown that many innings and pitches. But I think, with the amount of pitches I threw before the game, I could be stretched out a little more than this."

The Indians will keep him as an option, along with Tomlin, who went 0-5 with an 11.48 ERA in six August starts. Tomlin took over in the ninth on Monday and had no major issues in 13 pitches. Callaway and Francona were encouraged by what they saw but are not ready to commit to him as the No. 5 starter just yet.

For now Cleveland will focus on the positives. Rookies Perci Garner (2 2/3 innings) and Joseph Colon (two-thirds of an inning) gave solid efforts, and Anderson struck out four in his 1 1/3 innings. Jeff Manship, Dan Otero and Bryan Shaw also appeared.

"A lot of [teams'] fifth starters probably doesn't do as good as we did tonight going into the seventh," Callaway said. "I think we've got the bullpen to do it."

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.