Down is up in AL Central with Indians and Royals

When the White Sox took two of three games from Cleveland to

start the season, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen heard the snickers

while he spoke so highly of the Indians and what they had

assembled.

”I said that in Cleveland, when we left Cleveland, and people

laughed at me,” Guillen said.

Same old Indians, the critics thought. They’ll be fighting the

Kansas City Royals for the AL Central basement again the way

they’ve always been in recent years.

That still may wind up being the case. But for now, the division

has been flipped on its head. The preseason division favorites in

Minnesota and Chicago are looking up at the two teams they’ve grown

used to kicking around.

The Indians won 12 of their first 17 games to jump out to an

early lead in the division, with the Royals (11-6) right behind

them after a 5-4 win over the Tribe on Tuesday night. The last time

the Indians and Royals, who combined to lose 382 games over the

last two years, were at the top of the division at least 15 games

into the season was May 31, 1999.

The White Sox (7-10) and Twins (6-11) have struggled with

injuries and sluggish offenses, leaving them eating a little dust

three weeks into the season.

”We’re on top and the Twins, White Sox and Tigers are on the

bottom,” Indians closer Chris Perez said. ”I don’t think anyone

could have seen that. I think we’re doing it in different ways.

Kansas City has come back a couple times and scored late. We seem

to get the lead and never let it go.”

After losing those first two games of the season to the White

Sox, the Indians have gone 12-3. Grady Sizemore is giving the team

a boost with his return to the field after playing in just 139

games over the last two seasons because of microfracture surgery on

his left knee.

Travis Hafner has regained his hitting stroke, batting .353 with

four homers, and the Indians’ bullpen has been nothing short of

spectacular with lefties Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez setting up

Chris Perez. The three have combined for a 0.00 ERA in 21 2-3

innings this season.

”I don’t want to say what they’ve done is kind of flash and

mirrors,” Chris Perez said of the Royals, ”but I like what we’re

doing better.”

Not so fast, Chris. The Royals lead the AL with a .270 batting

average and are tied with Cleveland for first in runs scored and

first in stolen bases.

Alex Gordon is finally starting to look comfortable in the big

leagues, hitting .361 with nine doubles and 12 RBIs, and the

Royals’ offense has helped them survive a shaky start by normally

dominant closer Joakim Soria.

”Those two teams, there’s nothing flukey about those two teams

at the top of the division,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland,

whose Tigers are sitting in third place. ”They’re darn good.

Cleveland is for real and Kansas City is playing really well. It

think it’s going to be tooth-and-nail, it really is.”

The Twins are used to getting out of the gates a little slow.

The six-time division champs have earned a reputation as strong

finishers with the ability to close large deficits in short time

frames. But they’re not used to chasing the Indians and Royals.

”It’s early,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. ”People make way

too much of that stuff. We’re playing good. They’re playing

good.”

Star catcher Joe Mauer is on the disabled list with leg

problems, second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka is out with a broken leg

and slugger Justin Morneau is hitting just .208 while working his

way back from a concussion that caused him to miss the last three

months of last season.

Joe Nathan has struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery

and lost his role as closer, and the Twins are hitting a paltry

.230 and have scored fewer runs (50) and hit fewer homers (5) than

any team in the majors.

”We haven’t played great yet, but we believe we have a chance

to be a pretty good team,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. ”For

sure, we’ve got to start hitting and start to score runs. That’ll

take some pressure off our pitching.”

The Twins lost to Baltimore 11-0 on Tuesday night, but nobody in

that veteran clubhouse is pushing the panic button this early in

the season.

”April’s not it, April’s not it at all,” Twins closer Matt

Capps said. ”It’s tough having teams target you. I don’t know if

you look back over the last 15 or 20 years of major league

baseball, but how many teams in first place on April 15 finish in

first place? It’s tough.

”If we can be in the mix the middle of the year, maybe the next

month or month and a half hover around .500, we can start to get to

where we’re playing good baseball and it’ll all even out. When you

look up in August and September, I think we’ll be where we want to

be.”

The White Sox and Twins are downplaying the slow start and

leaning on the ”it’s a long season” crutch, fully confident that

order will be restored as the season drags on. But the Indians and

Royals appear to be brimming with confidence because, for once,

they’re not out of the race.

”When a team comes together with winning as its overall goal,

everybody is going to outperform their normal selves,” Cleveland’s

Shelley Duncan said. ”It happens everywhere I’ve ever been.

Because of that, people push each other. You want to do well for

better reasons than just doing well for yourself. You want to play

the game the right way. When you do that, good things happen.”

AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., Sports

Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Doug Tucker in Kansas City, Mo.,

and David Ginsburg in Baltimore, and freelance writer Patrick Rose

in Chicago contributed to this report.