It’s easy to forget. On Opening Day, in the fourth inning, the Indians trailed the White Sox at home, 14-0.
“Fausto (Carmona) gave up 10 runs,” Indians closer Chris Perez recalled. “The team was getting booed.”
The final score was 15-10, White Sox. The Indians lost the next day as well, 8-3.
“But on the third day, we got a great start from (Justin) Masterson,” Perez said. “And from that day on, it’s been quality start, quality start, quality start.”
Twenty of 27 in all, tied with the Angels and Phillies for the most in the majors. And remember, this is the team that traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
The AL Central standings, please…
The Indians, 19-8, lead the Royals by 4-1/2 games, the Tigers by 7-1/2, the Twins and White Sox by — are you sitting down? — 10 each.
Some knucklehead will write today, “No team has ever won a division after trailing by 10 games on May 1.” True enough, according to STATS LLC. But also true: Since the inception of divisional play in 1969, 12 teams have rallied from a 10-game deficit after May 1 to win a division.
The White Sox and Twins, then, aren’t dead. The Indians, in fact, can’t possibly sustain every aspect of their success. They’re batting .319 with runners in scoring position, third best in the majors. Their rotation, too, is bound for an adjustment — its strikeout rate is the sixth lowest among the 30 clubs.
Then again, the Indians’ defense is much-improved — third baseman Jack Hannahan, a career journeyman, has been such an all-around find, the Indians might not need to rush top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall. And, as with all winning clubs, the vibe on the Tribe is contagious.
“There are some people who don’t believe in team chemistry. They believe in talent. Well, we’ve got both,” veteran shortstop Adam Everett says.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s rejuvenated me personally. It reminds me back in the day, playing for the Astros, early in my career, ’04 and ’05, making those runs. We all pull for each other. We’ve got a great mix of veteran guys and young guys, and also guys in between.”
The depth of the Indians’ rotation remains the team’s biggest question — only Carmona and Masterson are anything close to proven, and righties Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot already have been placed on the DL.
But Carrasco, barring a setback, will make only one rehab start Thursday before rejoining the club, and Talbot is expected to need only two rehab starts. Righty Alex White, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2009, made a strong major-league debut Saturday, and is in position to throw 190 to 195 innings this season, if necessary.
Thus, the Indians do not plan to pursue right-hander Kevin Millwood, who opted out of his contract with the Yankees on Sunday.
Millwood, 36, won the American League ERA title and was a positive influence with the Indians in 2005. But he wants a major-league job and the Indians are not about to disrupt a good thing.
Amazing, isn’t it?
No one imagined this in spring training. No one imagined this with the Indians down 14-0 in the fourth inning on Opening Day.
Speaking of the Indians, maybe the best news of the weekend was the walkup crowd of 8,059 at Progressive Field on Saturday, the third largest since the ballpark opened in 1994. The overall crowd of 26,433 was the Indians’ largest since Opening Day.
I’ll say it again: There was no better atmosphere in baseball than at Jacobs Field during the Indians’ runs in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. The electricity at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia today is very similar to what the atmosphere at “The Jake” was back then.
Saturday evoked those good old days.
“It was the first day we actually had decent weather,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti says. “Every other day at home the forecast was cold and rain. Even (Sunday), the forecast was a 40 percent chance of rain all day. I would hope once we get out of the 40s and 50s and rain, we should have more days like (Saturday).”
The crowd Sunday was a modest 14,164, but the Indians wound up selling approximately 30,000 tickets during the weekend, both for the series at hand and future games.
“There is a really good buzz around town,” Perez says. “With all the stuff happening lately . . . it’s no secret with LeBron, how bad the Cavs are, how bad the Browns are, how bad we’ve been the last couple of years, there has been really nothing good for Cleveland to cheer about.
“All of the fans were looking for another basement finish. All of the experts had us fourth or fifth. But the atmosphere has been awesome. They just keep buying in.”
Still, part of my premise was that the Mariners badly needed to infuse talent into their organization. The team’s current 9-5 run hasn’t completely changed my mind, but perhaps I underestimated the Mariners’ young players — and the potential impact of new manager Eric Wedge.
On April 16, the Mariners dropped to 4-11 with a desultory 7-0 loss in Kansas City. Wedge blistered his players afterward, then told reporters the team’s play was “unacceptable.”
Such eruptions often are overrated, but the Mariners’ turnaround began the next day.
What exactly did Wedge tell his team?
“It was no different than what I was talking about all spring,” Wedge said. “Just reminding them how we’re going to do things, approach things, the club we’re going to be.
“It will be a work in progress all year. But we’ve competed from Day One. The energy level has been good from Day One. We just weren’t finishing off innings, finishing off games.”
Can the Mariners contend again before Hernandez is eligible for free agency after the 2014 season? Well, the Indians went from 68 wins to 80 to 93 in Wedge’s first three seasons. And after one month, M’s right-hander Michael Pineda and first baseman Justin Smoak look like emerging stars.
Triple-A second baseman Dustin Ackley figures to join them this season, and several other young players impressed Wedge in spring training. The team also holds the No. 2 pick in the draft and the resources to bring in additional veterans. Left fielder Milton Bradley ($12 million) and second baseman Jack Wilson ($5 million) will come off the books after this season.
“We’ll still have a lot of ups and downs,” Wedge said. “But we’ll get there.”
Bautista leads the majors in walks (30), on-base percentage (.530) and slugging percentage (.762), and is second with nine homers.
His 1.292 OPS is more than 200 points higher than the next closest AL hitter, Miguel Cabrera. And get this: He has struck out a mere 16 times, which doesn’t place him in the top 100 in the majors.
“His game awareness is as good as you’re going to get,” Blue Jays manager John Farrell says. “His ability in that regard takes him to another level.
“He’s able to look for a pitch and change on the fly based upon what he feels the opposing pitcher is doing against him. He’s not just stumbling into things. He’s got a clear-cut plan.
“He just has a very consistent approach not just to his work, but also to what is going on in the box.”
BRAUN VS. AARON
Hank Aaron, who began his career with the Milwaukee Braves, was one of the great sluggers in major-league history.
Ryan Braun, the latest great Milwaukee slugger, probably won't reach the level of Hammerin' Hank. But Braun’s first 600 games were remarkably close to Aaron’s, according to STATS LLC.
Now, before setting the odds on Braun hitting 755 homers, keep in mind that Aaron was 24 through 600 games while Braun was 27. No matter; the validity of the overall comparison is a statement in itself.
HE’S SMOAK-ING AFTER ALL
Remember all the talk about how the Mariners might have made the wrong move in obtaining Smoak rather than the Yankees’ Jesus Montero as the principal chip for Cliff Lee?
Well, Smoak made quite an impression by going 5 for 15 with a homer, two doubles and 10 RBI in his first four games after coming off the bereavement list following the death of his father, Keith.
“He’s a strong young man that is up there ready to hit,” Wedge says. “For a young player, he has a pretty good understanding of the strike zone. He hits with a lot of confidence.
“Obviously, he has a lot of ability, a lot of power. But I love his even-keeled approach. It’s helping him along. And it will really help him over time.”
A scout who recently saw Orioles Class-A shortstop Manny Machado says, “Dare I say it? Maybe A-Rod.”
The comparison might be a stretch, but it’s only natural. Machado, like A-Rod, is 6-foot-3, a right-handed hitter and native of Miami. Both were first-round picks out of high school — A-Rod No. 1 in 1993, Machado No. 3 in 2010.
As for the scout, he couldn’t help but gush after seeing Machado recently hit home runs in three straight games. The scout says Machado has not only a tremendous swing, but also a 70 arm on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
“He looks like a man playing with little boys,” the scout says of Machado, who does not turn 19 until July 6. “He can be in the big leagues in two years.
“Fans in that area have something to look forward to. There are two 18-year-old kids in the Baltimore-Washington market who are going to be special.”
The other, of course, is Nationals Single-A outfielder Bryce Harper.
PADRES SHOWING . . . LIFE?
No one will mistake the Padres for a good offensive team, but some of their early trends were bound to improve, if not even out.
Entering the weekend, the Padres were batting a major-league-low .172 with runners in scoring position; the Athletics were the next worst at .204.
Well, those mighty Pads went 9 for 24 with runners in scoring position in winning two of three from the Dodgers, including 5 for 10 on Sunday.
The Athletics, using the same rationale, figure their offense can only get better, too.
Something else to consider: The A’s played 16 of their first 25 games on the road; the Rangers played 16 of their first 25 at home.
AROUND THE HORN
*Casey Kotchman has hit well in his first 48 at-bats, but the Rays ultimately could require an upgrade at first base. The problem is, a true difference-maker might not be available.
Someone like the Diamondbacks’ Russell Branyan would not be much better than what the Rays have, and the Brewers likely will keep Prince Fielder, not that the Rays could afford the remainder of his $15.5 million salary.
Ideally, Kotchman will get back to what he was for the Angels in 2007 and the first part of ’08. He remains a plus defender.
* The Rockies’ biggest concern is right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, but they also have room for offensive growth. While the team ranks fourth in the NL in runs per game, it is only 12th in batting average, seventh in OBP and eighth in SLG.
Dig deeper into the stats, and the Rockies’ offensive performance seems almost certain to improve. The team is 13th in the NL in batting average with runners in scoring position and 12th in batting average on balls in play.
* Speaking of the Rockies, look for Triple-A left-hander Rex Brothers to make an impact in the bullpen before the end of the season.
Brothers, the 34th pick in the 2009 draft, has impressed scouts by striking out 21 and walking five in his first 12 innings. At 6 feet, he draws comparisons to Billy Wagner and projects as a future closer.
*Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit, signed to a three-year, $16.5 million free-agent contract, has allowed nine earned runs in his past three outings, 10 on the season. He allowed only nine earned runs all last season with the Rays.
*One rival executive says that the Cardinals, for better or worse, are the most entertaining kind of club — one with a great offense and shaky bullpen.
“It’s like trying to park a car with no brakes,” the exec said.