A month ago today, Jason Kipnis wasn’t in the major leagues, hadn’t ever been in the major leagues, probably didn’t think he’d be in the major leagues anytime soon.
Now, he’s looking like the savior to the Indians’ playoff hopes.
The rookie second baseman was called up in late July, and since has ignited a sluggish offense — hitting .295 with six home runs and 11 RBIs in his first 16 major league games. While some will say Cleveland gave up too much young talent for Ubaldo Jimenez, there were rumors Kipnis would also be part of that package. He wasn’t, and it’s looking like he’ll be making a difference in a super-tight, three-team race in the AL Central.
On Wednesday night, Kipnis was a one-man wrecking crew, going 5-for-5 with four runs scored and three RBIs in the 10-3 shellacking of the Tigers as the Indians clawed within two games of first.
With that performance, he became just the 14th rookie in major league history with at least five hits, four runs and three RBIs in one game, Elias Sports Bureau says. Among the others are some impressive names, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and Fred Lynn.
Of course, personal accolades are nice. But helping a team in a playoff drive — especially a team so many of us expected to fade out of sight by September — is much sweeter.
On Tuesday, his bat didn’t lead to the win. But his glove might’ve saved it. He made a superb diving grab to his right on Alex Avila’s screaming liner in the 14th inning. Missing would’ve put Tigers on first and third with one out. Instead, it killed a rally, and the Tribe won it the next half-inning.
Here’s how manager Manny Acta described Kipnis, generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, to the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“A dirtbag. A dirtbag is one of those guys who’ll run through a wall to win. His uniform is always dirty. He’s not concerned about how he looks on the field. He just wants to win.”
“I feel like we’ve found our own Dustin Pedroia or Chase Utley. Maybe somewhere in between.”
Now Acta probably is getting a little ahead of himself. But it’s hard to ignore the early returns.
Kipnis, 24, was a second-round draft pick by the Indians in 2009 out of Arizona State. He chose not to sign a year earlier with the Padres, who selected him in the fourth round.
He’s had a nice three years in the minor leagues, though nothing that blatantly screamed future star. He’s played at all three levels in the system, hitting .297 overall. He never topped 16 homers in a season. He was batting .279 with 12 home runs and 55 RBIs at Triple A when the Indians — desperate for some offense, with Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore on the shelf — called him up last month.
In his first six games, he hit .118 with no home runs and just a single RBI. Still, Cleveland brass thought so much of him, they traded their veteran second baseman, Orlando Cabrera, to San Francisco.
The next day, Kipnis hit his first major league home run. The day after that, his second. The day after that, his third. And the day after that, his fourth. Four homers in four days for the rookie. Since the Cabrera trade, he’s batted a scorching .364 — all while the upstart Indians try to win a division they’ve led 96 days in 2011, but not at all since July 20.
Here’s Kipnis’ take, in a chat with MLB.com:
“When I got up here, I was still kind of struggling with my swing and my approach. I might have been pressing a little bit, maybe forcing the issue. I think I’ve come back down and stayed within myself, just stayed through the ball and tried to swing at better pitches.”
Done and done. If he keeps it up, and Choo can return from the DL with a better approach and a clear head, the Indians might not fade after all.
At least, certainly not anytime soon.