Down is up in crazy AL Central

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — 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.”