CLEVELAND -- The way Jason Kipnis sees it, things could not get any worse this April than they did in April 2013. In order for the second baseman to add a trip to the All-Star Game to his career resume last summer, first he had to dig out of a deep first-month hole.
Kipnis' early-season slump this year hardly seemed like a setback in comparison.
"The way I put it is, I set the bar so low last April that it's kind of gravy here on out," Kipnis said with a laugh. "Even with my average not being that high, I'm having good at-bats, swinging at the right pitches, not chasing too many."
During Wednesday's 5-3 win over the Royals, Kipnis delivered the decisive blow with a two-out RBI double in the seventh inning. Heading into Thursday's tilt against Kansas City, the second baseman had a .279 average and an .881 OPS over his past 12 games.
On the young season, Kipnis was batting .243 with three home runs, five doubles, 10 RBIs, 11 runs scored and three stolen bases through 21 games as the No. 3 hitter. Prior to his recent 12-game turnaround, though, he opened the year with a .194 average and .688 OPS in his first nine games.
While going through the initial struggles, Kipnis focused on the success that was hard to see in the box score. The second baseman said he has improved a lot in that regard, finding positives in some at-bats that ultimately turned into outs.
"Absolutely," Kipnis said. "Before, I would rather take a swinging bunt [single] than a line-drive out, but you're starting to learn there are quality [at-bats] and there's a right way to go at the situational hitting. The three-hole comes with some responsibility and I think I'm handling it well so far."
Kipnis also knows now not to worry too much about a gradual start.
Last season, Kipnis hit .200 in April and saw his average drop to .189 in early May. The second baseman then hit .340 to pull his season average as high as .301 by the beginning of July. That extremely strong offensive push convinced former Tigers manager Jim Leyland to add Kipnis to the AL All-Star team.
"He has less far to climb this year," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "He really dug himself a hole last year and he climbed all the way out of it. He's always a threat. Every time. Whether it's left-handed or right-handed, because he can hit the ball all over the field, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark, he can beat you with his legs.
"I don't really look up and see what Kip's batting average is, because we want him hitting all the time."
Axford delivers solid early work in closer's role
CLEVELAND -- There has been some drama to a handful of John Axford's outings this month, but Cleveland's new closer has still found ways to piece together a solid opening act.
Entering Thursday, Axford led the American League with eight saves and had a 2.79 ERA through 11 appearances out of the bullpen. It has not only been a welcomed early showing for the Indians, but also for the pitcher, who has labored historically in April.
"It's definitely better than what I felt last year," Axford said. "In years past, I've always felt pretty solid -- the numbers just have not been there. It's always been a struggle for me in April -- ERA, walks, WHIP, everything.
"Coming into the season, I just wanted to focus on making sure I got off to a good start and trying to put my best foot forward, I guess."
Axford is one of only four closers in Indians history to chalk up at least eight saves in the first month of the season. Joe Borowski (nine in 2007), Mike Jackson (nine in 1998) and Jose Mesa (nine in 1996) also accomplished the feat. Axford's eight saves are a personal best for April, topping the five he collected in the first month of both '11 and '12 with the Brewers.
Through 9 2/3 innings, Axford limited batters to a .176 average with nine strikeouts and seven walks. While the early walk rate is higher than the right-hander and the Indians would prefer, manager Terry Francona said he has seen improvement of late.
"He's starting to, like [on Wednesday], he stuck some fastballs," Francona sad. "[He] really stuck them, right where he wanted to throw them. When he does that, that makes that breaking ball so effective. He's got a few more walks to this point than he wants, but not lately. He's starting to really stick that fastball, which is good."
Masterson working on revving up his velocity
CLEVELAND -- Justin Masterson is five starts into his season and still searching for the kind of fastball velocity he featured in recent years.
The Indians have not been able to pinpoint a specific reason behind the noticeable decrease in pitch speed, but both pitching coach Mickey Callaway and Masterson are tackling the issue behind the scenes. Callaway said the big right-hander has increased the volume of four-seam fastballs during bullpen sessions in an effort to build more arm strength.
"I think right now, he just can't find that four-seam velocity that he had last year," Callaway said on Thursday morning. "I wouldn't say he's reinventing himself. I think he's playing the cards that he's dealt right now. We're working towards finding the four-seam velocity again and he's been working hard."
Masterson has averaged 88.7 mph on his fastballs (four-seamers and two-seamers combined), which is down from 91.6 mph in 2013, 91.9 mph in '12 and 92.7 mph in '11. Over that same stretch, Masterson's slider has gone from roughly 83 mph on average over the past three years to just 81.1 mph this season.
During Wednesday's start against the Royals, Masterson had very little difference in velocity between his four-seam fastball (90.3 mph) and two-seam sinker (89.5), according to PITCHf/x data. In April of last season, he was averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer and 92 mph with his sinker.
"In Spring Training, I don't think it was as noticeable," Callaway said. "I thought it was more he was working on just two-seaming the ball to really hone in on that aspect of his game, and really start trying to command that two-seamer. Maybe with that approach, he didn't build enough arm strength where he could go get that four-seamer. Whatever it is, I know we're working toward getting that back."
Callaway said the encouraging aspect is that Masterson has still been able to perform well on the mound in his last two outings, during which he has posted a 2.84 ERA with 15 strikeouts and four walks in 12 2/3 innings. In the previous two starts, the righty had a 10.80 ERA with 11 strikeouts and eight walks in only 8 1/3 innings.
"He's confident he's going to find it," Callaway said. "He just doesn't have it right now. He's doing whatever he can to win with the stuff he's got. He's pitching with what he's got. Every pitcher goes out there that day and they don't know what they have.
"He's trying to do the best with what he's got and he's done a pretty good job of that in his last two starts."
Quote to note
"They made it tough last year and it's going to be tough again this year. That's kind of the way you see it in the Central. Everybody plays each other really tough, some good young talent. We're all going to make some mistakes as we go about it, but I think whoever limits their mistakes the most is going to be on top."
-- Indians starter Justin Masterson, on the Royals
• Yankees starter Michael Pineda was ejected from Wednesday's game against the Red Sox for pitching with pine tar smeared on the right side of his neck. While using a foreign substance on the baseball is not allowed per Major League Baseball rules, many pitchers within the game use something to assist with their grip.
"I think everybody knows that most people do it," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "We know why they're doing it, what they want it for. You just have to be a little more discreet about it, if you're going to do it. Especially in cold weather, the ball does get very slippery."
• With one scheduled start left in April, Masterson has no decisions through 28 innings and five starts this season. There have only been two pitchers in Cleveland history (Ken Schrom in July 1987 and Bobby Locke in June of '61) to finish a month with at least 28 innings and no wins or losses.
"As long as we're winning, I'm happy," Masterson said. "That's perfectly fine. I'll take however many no-decisions come as long as we keep winning the games."
• Entering Thursday's game against the Royals, Indians left fielder Michael Brantley led the Tribe in hits (23), home runs (four), RBIs (18), total bases (39), runs (tied, 12), stolen bases (four), average (.295) and OPS (.875). Brantley signed a four-year, $25 million extension at the onset of Spring Training.
• Right-handed reliever Vinnie Pestano, who was optioned to Triple-A Columbus on April 9, has enjoyed a solid stretch since joining the Clippers. Through five appearances, the former Tribe setup man had a 1.80 ERA with nine strikeouts, two walks and a .176 opponents' average in five innings.