Indians, Royals are nice surprises

Jered Weaver can’t lose. Andre Ethier can’t miss. Hanley Ramirez can’t hit a home run. Carl Crawford can’t hit . . . at all.

The Marlins are a traveling no-hitter alert. The White Sox have closophobia (fear of the 27th out). The Red Sox have rejoined the pack after their spectacular face-plant from the starting blocks.

But the most shocking baseball moment of April 2011 came Tuesday, when an intrepid correspondent (OK, me) gassed up his 12-year-old station wagon and traversed the Ohio border, in search of the only series in America pitting a first-place team against its second-place challenger.

Indians vs. Royals, of course.

“I like it,” nodded Cleveland starter Justin Masterson, whose 9-4 triumph over Kansas City gave his team the best record in the American League at 14-8. “Yeah, it’s been a pleasant surprise.

“We’re a young team. We’ve been putting things together. Really, what’s great is it hasn’t been perfect. We haven’t made all the plays. We haven’t been hitting lights out. We haven’t always been pitching great. But we believe we can win ballgames, just like we’ve been doing.”

Masterson said this while wearing a T-shirt with the Sheen-inspired expression: DUH, WINNING. Might Rick Vaughn get a call-up the next time Cleveland needs a reliever?

I should level with you: I don’t think the Indians will win the American League Central. I don’t think the Royals will win the American League Central, either. I picked the Detroit Tigers at the end of spring training. No reason to change now.

And yet, these are two likable teams — particularly the Indians. Both have (mercifully) improved since last year. The Indians averaged 90 losses over the past three seasons. The Royals averaged 97 over the past seven. Fans of each franchise have seen a lot of lousy games. This is their reward, however long it lasts. “It’s good for baseball,” Indians manager Manny Acta said.

In Kansas City, the uptick in optimism was somewhat expected — albeit for a slightly different reason. To scouts, the Royals’ farm system looks like a baseball Rushmore. On Tuesday, manager Ned Yost acknowledged the possibility that some of the organization’s highly touted prospects will begin arriving later this year. Yost didn’t name names, but first baseman Eric Hosmer, 21 years young and raking at Triple A, should debut first among the position players.

In the meantime, how tempting would it be for the Royals to promote prospects in response to major league needs — and not the players’ timetables?

“Can’t do it,” Yost answered quickly. “You’ve got to stick by your plan. You start doing that, you’re asking for trouble. You’ve got to make sure that they’re ready. When the time is right, you naturally do it. Stay with the plan.”

So, the Royals’ early success has been in the vein of, ‘While you wait, here’s some decent baseball.’ The bullpen has acquitted itself well, despite including five rookie relievers. Alex Gordon, the No. 2 overall pick five years ago, is delivering on his promise at last. Veteran outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera seem to be reviving their careers.

True, the Royals have lost four straight. True, they are probably a year (or two) away. Kansas City fans have to wait, and they know it, but this season could amount to some above-average hold music.

Cleveland is a different case. The organizational progress was harder to decipher at first — but the Indians’ chances of contending this year are a little better.

This may surprise you, but the Indians aren’t a young team. They have one rookie on the roster, reliever Vinnie Pestano. He was last seen inheriting a no-out, bases-loaded jam in Tuesday’s eighth inning — whereupon the Royals’ 4-5-6 went down 1-2-3. So Pestano is a rookie who doesn’t pitch like one.

It was only four years ago that the Indians came within one victory of the World Series. Three regulars remain from that team: Grady Sizemore, Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner. First-year general manager Chris Antonetti signed veteran infielder Orlando Cabrera in February, apparently because Antonetti is wise to one of my favorite baseball factoids: O.C. has appeared in six of the past seven postseasons — with five different teams. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo started slowly but nonetheless is a two-way star in his prime.

So experience isn’t an issue for the Indians. Health was — at least until Sizemore returned from microfracture surgery on his left knee. He made his season debut 10 days ago and has looked magnificent, after what amounted to a two-year hiatus. Fans have neglected Progressive Field for the better part of three years, but games there have a different tenor when public address man Bob Tayek can say, in staccato cadence, “NUMBER TWENTY-FOUR … GRADY SIZEMORE.”

“His presence alone brings a lot — just having our franchise player,” Acta said. “The way he stepped out there, like before he was injured, it’s terrific.”

While evidence at the turnstiles remains tepid — Tuesday’s crowd was announced at 9,650 and quite smaller than that — the locals love their Grady. So great is the enthusiasm for Sizemore’s return that his first-inning double to the base of the wall fooled the ballpark pyrotechnician into triggering the fireworks display reserved for home runs.

“Maybe someone had Grady on his fantasy team,” Masterson quipped.

Sizemore doubled again in the fifth — and homered in the eighth for good measure. He’s batting .406. Acta speaks in measured tones about the importance of rest for Sizemore, making clear that the 28-year-old is not yet ready to play every day. Sizemore acknowledges that the knee requires treatment before and after games. He isn’t sure if it will get better or worse as the season goes along.

But it certainly looks like the Indians have their All-Star center fielder back.

“I feel healthy — that’s the biggest thing,” Sizemore said. “I’m still battling back from some stuff. I have some symptoms I’d like to get rid of. But overall, I feel healthy. I feel stronger.

“I couldn’t wait to get back, just to be part of what the guys were doing. It’s good to be part of a team that’s winning and having fun and playing good baseball.”

And the crowds? When will they come back?

“I don’t know,” Sizemore said. “Hopefully, we keep playing like we are.  . . . They’re coming. They’re coming around. We just want to keep going.”

On their best days, the ’11 Indians look like the ’10 San Diego Padres — an unspectacular-yet-functional rotation, supported by an excellent bullpen and veteran players who defend well.

Those Padres didn’t make the playoffs. But they came close. More than anything, they were entertaining and relevant. Right now, that sounds like success in Cleveland and Kansas City.