Say you’re the Cleveland Indians. You’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams, but you’re in Detroit against the defending pennant winners, you got routed in the first game of the series, and you’re facing Justin Verlander, who’s still on top of most people’s lists for best pitcher on the planet.
How to beat all of those seemingly insuperable challenges and pull off a win? Easy: It takes the whole Tribe.
Consistent with what has worked for the Indians so far this season, that’s how they pulled off an upset 7-6 victory Saturday in the Motor City to make it clear that the American League Central is a race that has months to run. Put on the spot, Cleveland's offense did the best things possible against Verlander: The Indians scored early and often, but most of all, they used him up to get to the Tigers bullpen early. The Tribe had already pushed Verlander to 90 pitches through the first four innings. Even allowing for Jim Leyland’s understandable willingness to let his ace achieve feats of strength racking up big pitch counts, that’s not what long nights from your best pitcher are made of.
Getting four runs off Verlander through five innings was big, but getting the next three runs with nine baserunners against the Tigers’ bullpen over the following three innings was the decisive reward, an opportunity created by a top-to-bottom lineup that, even as some hitters have struggled, is doing a good job of creating shark attack-like feeding frenzies in-game.
That might sound easy enough, because the Indians rank second in the league to the Tigers in runs per game, and they’re first in OPS for the time being. Those numbers create an illusion of strength this lineup has not yet made good on, though: As my old Baseball Prospectus compadre Joe Sheehan noted last week in his excellent newsletter, the Tribe has been far from consistent in terms of scoring -- plating two runs or less in 12 of their first 34 games -- but thanks to 13-0, 19-6 and 14-2 wins in the early going, they project as a statistical powerhouse only in the aggregate.
However, look at that info, and it would be easy to overstate their failings, because Cleveland's offense has qualities most teams would kill for. The Indians are grinding down opposing pitchers, they’re exploiting the flexibility and depth they built up over the winter, and what problems they do have are ones that can be fixed.
Consider their grinding approach on offense. The Indians are next-to-last in the league in swinging strikes, and fourth in the league in pitches per plate appearance. Which is not to say they’re enjoying perfect success; their walk rate of 8.0 percent is below league average. But walks aren’t the sole goal of getting deep into counts -- they’re just one of the positive outcomes, but getting your pitch and simultaneously using up the opposing starter are the others. The Indians extend their at-bats and make opponents work, but it’s interesting to note that they’re not collectively watching strike three go by: Unlike the sabermetrically-beloved Rays and their league-leading 30 percent clip for being called out by those oh-so-human umps on their whiffs, the Indians are down around league average at 25 percent.
One of the other cool features of the Indians’ assemblage is that theirs is a lineup stocked with moving parts. Nick Swisher rotating from first to right field to designated hitter from night to night is no surprise, but he’s not the only roving corner in Terry Francona’s playing-time scheme. Mark Reynolds has split his time among first, DH and third. (To some of us among the chatterati, Reynolds might have initially seemed like a free agent signed too soon for too much, but with a league-leading homer tally and that value at multiple lineup slots, the Indians may well get the last laugh.) Carlos Santana is doing his variation on a Buster Posey theme by moving to first or DH when he isn’t catching. Mike Aviles provides considerably more power than your average utility infielder, which is why he starts more regularly than one.
That flexibility could come even more into play as we get deeper into the season. Now that Michael Bourn is back from the disabled list, you might wonder how much Francona will still be able to keep all of his hitters active and sharp with an everyday player back in the mix. But the silver lining of losing Bourn for a couple weeks to injury might just be getting to (over)expose Drew Stubbs for what he is, now that he’s 28 and been doing this for years: A fine defender and baserunner, but not a regular at a corner.
That isn’t the Indians’ only lineup issue: Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall’s early-season struggles force the question of whether he’s going to turn the corner and stick as an everyday player. He came into Saturday with a career .288 OBP in 466 PAs; if he fielded like Brooks Robinson or slugged like Rob Deer, that’s a survivable blemish, but he doesn’t do those things. He’ll need to improve, or risk losing at-bats to some combination of Aviles and Reynolds.
If players like Stubbs and Chisenhall come around, that’s great. But if not, the Indians already have the depth on hand to make some hard choices. If Francona wants to keep putting pressure on opposing pitchers, that will continue to mean expanded playing time for his duo of handy platoon bats from the bench -- lefty thumper Jason Giambi at DH and lefty-masher Ryan Raburn -- thanks to the position flexibility his other starters and semi-regulars possess. And if the Indians still don’t have a happy answer by the end of July, renting a free agent-to-be at the trade deadline wouldn’t cost much in talent or treasure.
That’s because the Indians shouldn’t have to indulge Chisenhall or Stubbs their struggles all season, not as a contender. Because that’s what these Indians should be: Contenders. Maybe just for the AL Central title, and maybe because the Tigers fail to run away with it. But contenders just the same.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.