On Opening Day, more than 41,000 fans showed up in Cleveland and saw the home team fall behind 14-0 after four innings. The next day, the Indians fell behind 5-0 in the top of the second and lost 8-3. On the third day of the season, the White Sox led again, 1-0 in the fourth inning and had two runners on with nobody out.
And then came the play that turned around Cleveland’s season. At least, it will go into mythology that way if the Indians continue their magical run beyond this eight-game winning streak that has the baseball world wondering if the Indians are for real.
Alexei Ramirez squared around to bunt for the White Sox, the runners took off, Ramirez popped the ball up toward first baseman Carlos Santana -- normally the team’s starting catcher -- and Santana made a diving catch that turned into a triple play. Justin Masterson settled down from there, the Indians won 7-1 and haven’t lost since.
"You don't win or lose a division in the first week or even the first month," Orlando Cabrera said after the game. "But getting that first win is always huge. The triple play got us going."
So the question: Are they for real?
Before attacking that issue, let’s back track to 2010 for a moment. The Indians had a tough season, with major injuries to Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore. They shuffled players in and out of the infield all season -- four guys started at least 20 games at second base, three started at least that many at third base and three started at least 14 at shortstop. With Sizemore sidelined, Trevor Crowe and Michael Brantley tried center field, but neither hit. Overall, the defense was subpar -- 21st in the majors in defensive efficiency per Baseball Prospectus, 29th in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) per FanGraphs.
So the offseason challenge: Bide time until the team’s top two prospects, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and second baseman Jason Kipnis, are ready, but do it on the cheap. Famous ex-shortstop Cabrera was brought in to play second base and good-field, bad-hit Jack Hannahan won the third-base job out of spring training. Far from perfect solutions, and while both are off to good starts at the plate, they’ll sink to their true offensive abilities soon enough. But they at least will anchor a much-improved defense and help a starting rotation that lacks strikeout pitchers.
Following Monday’s 4-0 shutout of the Angels, that Indians staff is on a roll: After those first two disasters, the starters have pitched 52 1/3 innings, allowing just 33 hits and nine runs. Dominant? Well … sort of. They’ve struck out only 37 batters in that span, meaning that hit ratio isn’t going to continue, no matter how good the defense performs.
Mitch Talbot epitomized this run with his outing against the Angels. He pitched into the ninth inning, not overpowering with four strikeouts, but allowed just five hits. He did induce 13 ground balls, but eventually more of those grounders will find holes. That’s what’s been happening. Josh Tomlin has allowed a .139 average on balls in play in his two starts. Masterson pitched seven innings of one-run baseball against the White Sox without striking out a batter.
This doesn’t mean the Indians can’t surprise. I’ve watched both of Tomlin’s starts and despite middling stuff, he has an idea of what to do out there. He can be a solid back-of-the-rotation guy if he keeps the ball in the park. Talbot has better stuff than Tomlin but not much of a track record. Carmona and Masterson come with a better pedigree but must show consistency and throw strikes. I still have doubts -- it’s really a staff of No. 4 and No. 5 starters -- but the defense will at least be helping rather than hindering this year.
Anyway, it’s a good time for Cleveland to get hot. After two more games in Anaheim, the Indians host Baltimore for three, have four in Kansas City, three in Minnesota and return home for the Royals and Tigers. If they can navigate that fairly easy stretch with a nice record, you could see this team gaining a little confidence.
And then there’s the big picture. A year from now, the Indians could be throwing out this lineup:
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
CF Grady Sizemore
C Carlos Santana
3B Lonnie Chisenhall
1B Matt LaPorta
2B Jason Kipnis
LF Michael Brantley
They need LaPorta to improve (I’m skeptical) and Chisenhall and Kipnis to live up to their potential, but that could be one of the better lineups in the league.
Unfortunately, attendance has suffered in recent years and the front office has cut the payroll to bare bones (26th in the majors in 2011). Hafner’s $13 million per season contract runs through 2013 and Sizemore’s health remains such a great unknown that it’s possible the team won’t pick up his $8.5 million club option for 2012.
For a franchise in which not much has gone right in a long time, it’s at last nice to see something positive happening for a change.
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