Tribe facing tough road trip in need of wins

Tribe facing tough road trip in need of wins

Published Jun. 4, 2012 12:26 p.m. ET

Baseball's season is too long for one nine-day stretch to be crucial, so the Cleveland Indians are not at a crossroads.

But there sure is a fork in the road ahead. And the paths offer two widely divergent finishes.

One road sign says the Indians can blaze a trail to a new 2012, the other to a repeat of 2011. That 2011 road started well-paved and smooth and ended bumpy and rutted.

Or something like that.

The Indians are in this situation because they followed a (presumably) energizing three-game sweep of the Tigers by losing three in a row in Chicago and four of six, at home, to Kansas City and Minnesota, who are, respectively, 23-29 and 20-33.

Now the Indians head on the road to play three games against Detroit, St. Louis and Cincinnati. It's not make or break, not do or die, but it's pretty close to urgent that the Indians not falter in these nine games if they hope to stay in contention the rest of the season.

Last season now seems like a ghost come back to haunt the team and fans. Start fast. Compete and play well. Get knocked off course by a few injuries. Fade into oblivion -- or an 80-82 finish.

The Indians have gone from first place and leading by 3 1/2 games to second and 2 1/2 back in nine games. That's concerning because any hint that 2012 will be like 2011 will turn off a fan base frustrated at last season's fade and slow to embrace this season's start.

The Indians will point to injuries as the reason for the letdown since Detroit. But losing Travis Hafner is only a surprise to those who believe the Easter Bunny can fly, or that Grady Sizemore will make it through a season uninjured. Injuries have become the lamest of the lame when explaining Cleveland baseball. They happen to every team -- check Detroit and Boston -- and a measure of a team's talent and depth is how well it plays through the injuries.

The bigger issue since the Detroit series are these numbers: 9, 14, 12, 5, 8, 6, 1, 7, 6. Those are the runs given up by the Indians pitching since the Tigers series -- 7.6 per game. In those same games, the Indians scored 43 runs -- an average of 4.8 per game. How does 4.8 per game rank?

The Texas Rangers lead Major League Baseball with 302 runs in 54 games … that's an average of  5.5. The Indians are 13th in all of baseball in runs scored with 233, an  average of 4.4. The New York Yankees are eighth in runs scored, at 4.7 per game.

So in a nine-game stretch when the Indians scored better than their average, better than the baseball's eighth-ranked team, they lost 7-of-9.

This might indicate that despite the injuries to hitters and despite the lack of a right-handed bat, the main problem lies (or stands) on the mound, where the Indians starters simply have not done the job.

Justin Masterson had the good start against Detroit and Justin Verlander, but for the season he is
2-5 with a 5.09 ERA. Derek Lowe started well, but in his last three starts he has given up 21 hits and 11 earned runs in 15 innings. Jeanmar Gomez has done well -- as a fifth starter -- but Josh Tomlin's ERA is 5.32.

Then there is Ubaldo Jimenez, who has been mercurial to the point of approaching major disappointment (the only step past major is complete). He's been so maddening (5-4, 5.79 ERA) that the Indians skipped his most recent start.

Now he opens the Detroit series, where the numbers do not favor him. Jimenez is 0-4 with a 9.78 ERA in four career starts in Detroit. On the road this season he has a 9.00 ERA in five starts. His last start he gave up seven runs in four innings in Chicago.

This is the guy who felt he had to hit a former Colorado teammate during spring training, the guy who said not to worry when his spring training numbers matched the ones he has now and the guy the Indians acquired at the trade deadline last year to be their No. 1 starter.

Yes, the Indians have real issues with their left-handed heavy lineup. But this season started with the Indians needing good pitching to succeed. They haven't had it. Not consistently. They managed to win without it for a while, but as Manny Acta said after Sunday's loss "June is going to be a challenge for us."

Starting with these next nine games.