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Homecoming no time to get nostalgic

CHICAGO -- Terry Francona has already returned to Boston as a martyred hero during the centennial Fenway Park celebration, as a broadcaster for ESPN, as the subject and co-author of a best-seller.

On Thursday, Francona will come back to Fenway as the manager in the visitors' dugout. Yes, that will be different, Cleveland's manager said Wednesday morning during an interview on WEEI's "Dennis & Callahan Show."

"Oh sure, I mean it was probably healthy the way it worked out, having a year in between,'' Francona said. "I mean, it was probably healthy in a lot of aspects. I had probably lost some perspective.

"Eight years in Boston, I think I was pretty honest about it: It's one of the most awesome jobs you can ever have, but it's difficult and it wears on you. And sometimes when it wears on you, some of your warts start showing, maybe it be stubbornness or losing patience, and that's not healthy, either.

"So having a year to kind of reflect and just recharge and actually miss the game was really good for me.''

Francona, who won two World Series to Boston, returns not as the manager of a team of laggards, either. The Indians have been one of the surprise stories of the season thus far. Despite losing 5-1 to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday night, the Indians are in first place in the American League Central with a 26-18 record, a game-and-a-half ahead of the Tigers.

"I don't think people understood when this job opened up, it was a destination,'' Francona said on an appearance on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike" show on Wednesday. "I knew right away this was the place for me.''

This is Francona's second go-round with the Indians. After being fired as the Phillies manager in 2000, Francona was hired by Mark Shapiro, now the Indians' president, to work in the team's front office for a year. It was then that he met Chris Antonetti, now the team's general manager.

"Chris is probably the smartest guy in the room who doesn't make you feel dumb, which is quite a quality,'' Francona told ESPN hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. "I kept in touch with those guys for years and years.

"I want to be in a place, where I am in my life and in baseball, where … I knew the environment would be healthy for me. And Chris is pretty open about having challenges and things like that, and I said, 'OK, we'll tackle them together.' And I enjoy that. We're not afraid to have a challenge. We'll figure out a way to tackle it.''

Since being swept three straight by the Red Sox in mid-April to fall to 5-9, the Indians have gone 21-9. They've been winning the close games (11-3 in one-run games), they've been winning late (5-0 in extra innings) and they've been winning dramatically, beating the Mariners last weekend in walk-off fashion three times in the span of four games.

"I think everybody in baseball is watching,'' Red Sox manager John Farrell said the other day. "They've got a very good baseball team, they're playing with a heck of a lot of confidence, they walk a win off seemingly every day. We've got our work to take care of in this series [in Chicago] but this weekend will be a strong challenge for us.''

The Indians' run differential of plus-33 is just one run behind Boston's and ranks fourth in the AL, and their slugging percentage of .455 leads the league.

"Well, we didn't start out very well,'' Francona said. "We got banged around a little bit; our starting pitching was having a tough time too often. And then all of a sudden, when our starting pitching started giving us a chance -- our bullpen is pretty good and is pretty deep, we have some speed, we can hit the ball out of the ballpark, we catch the ball. So when we stay in games, we look pretty crisp.

"Again, every team can probably say that. It's not any magic button you're hitting. We've got a good group; we're kind of enjoying trying to see how much better we can get, doing it together.''

After hiring Francona, the Indians spent more money than they have in recent offseasons, and their acquisitions have paid off. Mark Reynolds, signed on the cheap from Baltimore, has 12 home runs and 37 RBIs; Nick Swisher has an OPS of .875, Michael Bourn .831. And 42-year-old designated hitter Jason Giambi, who interviewed last winter for the Rockies' managing job, has been a godsend, Francona said, even though he's batting just .176 with a couple of home runs.

"Jason Giambi is not 'a veteran,' he's 'the veteran,''' Francona told ESPN. "I can't tell you how many times I've leaned on him. This guy is so much help even when he's not in the batter's box, that makes your team special.''

Francona told Golic and Greenberg that from the day he was hired, he reached out to players in an attempt to build relationships, because he said he didn't want being new used as an excuse.

"In our game, you still come back to [the fact] we play 162 games and we're with each other all the time, and there's a lot of dead time,'' Francona said. "So you can choose to either pick each other up or pick each other apart.

"From day one in spring training, we tried to have an atmosphere where the guys want to do the right thing. If you can get to that point, you're ahead of the game, and if you have good players, which I think we do, and they want to do the right thing, I think you're going to be OK.''

The ace of the Indians' pitching staff has been former Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson, the sinkerballer traded to the Indians for Victor Martinez at the 2009 trading deadline. Martinez played just one more season for the Sox before leaving as a free agent; the Sox chose to trade for Adrian Gonzalez instead. Masterson has rebounded from a down year in 2012 (11-15, 4.93 ERA) to go 7-2 with a 2.83 ERA so far this season, including two shutouts.

"I thought it was a terrific trade,'' Francona told WEEI regarding the 2009 deal, "but I thought it was a difficult one, because Masty was so special. But getting Victor at that point in the year is what we needed to try to get over the hump. So I understood it, I agreed with it.

"It's still difficult because you can't be around Masty and not really care about this kid. Reuniting with him was fun to begin with, and now watching him take this rotation and put it on his shoulders and lead it, I'm really proud of him.''

Francona's book, "Francona: The Red Sox Years," was written with Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy and spent several weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list. It was not as well-received by Red Sox owners, who were cast in an unflattering light in a number of passages. Chairman Tom Werner referred to the book as "fiction"; during a spring training media session, Lucchino ignored questions from Shaughnessy. Francona told WEEI he has not spoken with the owners since the book's publication.

"It's just, you know, it is what it is, using the Bill Belichick term,'' Francona said. "You deal with it and move on.''

Francona, who was let go by the Red Sox after the team collapsed in the final month of the 2011 season, was portrayed in the Boston Globe as distracted by use of pain medication and a failing marriage, told WEEI again Wednesday that he wouldn't have scripted his departure that way.

"Saying that, as time moves on, the Red Sox are in a really good place right now,'' he said. "They've got a very good manager. They got to feel good about things. I'm thrilled about where I'm at. It allows you to kind of look back and remember some of the good times as opposed to some of the things that hurt.''