The Cleveland Indians’ two previous seasons of starts fizzled.
But the 2013 version, though it’s barely May, provides reason to believe this house is not built on toothpicks, that wins in seven-of-eight and 10-of-14 is not fool’s gold.
These Indians at this point provide much to like.
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The team found itself after a players meeting toward the end of April. A 9-0 loss in the first game of a day-night doubleheader in Kansas City dropped the record to 8-13. The message stressed at the meeting was to relax, because unlike past years the lineup had enough good hitters that nobody had to do too much.
“We preached just getting it to the next guy,” second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “You don’t have to be the guy to put all the weight on your shoulders. That is allowing guys to take some of the pressure off their shoulders and have better at-bats.”
Averages started to climb. Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Drew Stubbs and Kipnis all rebounded from slow starts. When Michael Bourn went out, Ryan Raburn got hot. When Nick Swisher was out, Mark Reynolds played three positions, all of them well. In the last seven days Raburn is hitting .476, Stubbs .417, Reynolds .333 and Kipnis .296.
“It’s not just one-through-five,” Kipnis said. “It’s one through nine.”
Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Indians rank eighth in baseball in runs scored, fourth in runs per game, tied for first in home runs, fifth in on-base percentage and second in OPS (.817). They also lead the league in home runs per at-bat, with one every 23, and home runs per game, with 1.52.
Yet through the first 29 games the Indians have just one guy playing like a superstar. That would be Reynolds, who has done much to reach his goal of erasing his image of a free-swinging, strikeout-prone guy. He’s cut down on his strikeouts and impressed Francona by rarely taking a bad swing at a pitch.
Reynolds’ 10 home runs and 460-foot blast/statement against/to Oakland’s Jarrod Parker stand out, but he has shown tremendous discipline. In his last at-bat on Monday, he took a tough pitch to the right side as runners on first and second were trying to steal. He came very close to a hit, except the second baseman had broken toward the bag.
“Two strikes and the runners took off,” Reynolds said. “I honestly tried to punch the ball through the hole and the second baseman just happened to be standing there. That was a changeup and normally I’d pull off that and either swing and miss or roll it over to third base. I gave myself a chance to get a hit.”
An unaccomplished hitter does not put that swing on that ball.
Carlos Santana has been hitting everything, Nick Swisher has been steady and the combination of added veterans has helped younger guys. The Indians won’t average nine runs a game as they did in one six-game stretch, but they’ve proven they have ability and depth in the lineup. The home runs get the attention, but the Indians aren’t stressing them. They just want good at-bats, and if home runs follow they follow.
The pieces just seem to mesh. Swisher’s enthusiasm is balanced by the quiet professionalism of Reynolds and Jason Giambi. Yan Gomes’ ability gives Santana a break behind the plate. Nobody could have predicted Raburn’s hot streak, but Francona said he and GM Chris Antonetti talked about keeping an eye on Raburn on Francona’s first day of work in the winter. With Bourn out, Stubbs has moved to center and played well, while Brantley has settled in in left.
A long season remains, but even the starting pitching is showing signs of life.
The Indians have given up six or more runs only three times in the last 14 games.
In the other 11, they’ve given up four runs or fewer.
Sunday’s loss to Minnesota was 4-2, but Francona pointed out because Corey Kluber kept the game close the team had the tying run at the plate in the ninth on a day they struggled to score.
Francona remains the touchstone for everything. Because when he makes moves or gives explanations, it carries a different impact.
Nobody knows how a season plays out. Many games remain and Detroit is very, very good.
But with Francona managing and so many different guys contributing, this version of the Indians seems different.