Monday, April 19, 2010

Eye on pitching

The Indians began their first homestand of the season with a record of 2-4. They ended it with a record of 6-6. It was a homestand that featured terrific starting pitching and generally horrific hitting by everyone not named Choo. In other words, the Indians thus far have been the exact opposite of what was expected.

What was expected was a team that would score runs but one that would have trouble preventing their opponents from scoring runs. What has been reality, so far, is a team that has been great at preventing runs, and not so good at scoring them. So much for the so-called experts, myself included, who badly mis-read this team coming out of spring training.

So far, anyway. The Indians' excellent pitching thus far must be tempered by the fact that half of the 12 games they have played this season have been against a White Sox team that looks like it is going to be at or near the bottom of the American League in hitting this season. Right now Paul Konerko is the only hitter in the Sox lineup that scares anyone.

Let's see how the Indians' pitchers perform when they face better hitting teams. That will begin immediately on the road trip that starts Tuesday night in Minnesota. The Twins are picked by many to win the Central Division, and one reason they are the popular pick is their killer middle of the order foursome of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel. Let's see how the Indians are able to handle that group in the next three days.

The Indians' offense, meanwhile, continues to basically be Shin-Soo Choo and not much else. Four of the nine hitters in the Indians' starting lineup Sunday were hitting under .200. Sure, it's early. The weather has been cold. But it's early and cold for many of the other teams in the American League, and most of them are hitting better than the Indians.

The Indians embark on their three-city trip to Minnesota, Oakland, and Anaheim with a record of 6-6. If they can return to Cleveland with a .500 record, that would be a good road trip. And it would perhaps be an indication that perhaps the Indians' pitching staff has a chance to be better this year than anyone expected.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pleading the eighth

An interesting moment occurred in the Indians' chaotic 9-8 loss to the Tigers on Sunday. It involved some decision making by Indians manager Manny Acta and his bullpen.

In the eighth inning, with the Indians leading 8-4, and right-hander Joe Smith, who came in to get the last out of the seventh inning, the logical choice to stay in the game and pitch the eighth inning, Acta instead brought in left-hander Rafael Perez. Acta brought in Perez even though none of the next six batters due up for the Tigers were left-handed hitters.

Sure enough, Perez gave up three straight singles to the first three batters in the inning, all right-handers, and that led to a two run rally, and helped give the Tigers the momentum they took into the ninth inning, when they scored three more runs against a crumbling Chris Perez to win the game.

I asked Acta after the game why he didn't stick with Smith in the eighth inning and he basically said that he wanted to give Perez a trial as the eighth inning setup man. Chris Perez is normally the Indians' eighth inning setup man, but he's the closer now because Kerry Wood is hurt.

Acta's decision to take a winnable game and basically turn the eighth inning into an audition for Rafael Perez suggests that the manager, while obviously wanting to win, in this particular instance gave more priority to player evaluation than to winning. That's an interesting decision because it runs contrary to the team's party line in which club officials have stated that they are not ruling out contention in 2010. Acta didn't manage that way in the eighth inning.

Acta said he would have brought Smith in if the game was closer than a four-run margin. I don't agree with that. The Indians had a four-run lead, and needed to get six outs to get a win that would have meant a respectable 3-3 record on their season-opening trip to Chicago and Detroit. If the Indians really do think they can be contenders in 2010 they owe it to themselves to go for the win in situations like that. That is not the time to audition a pitcher for a key role.

If the team had openly said that they are using 2010 for player development and evaluation, then bringing Rafael Perez into the game there makes sense. But the Indians haven't said that, and therefore Acta - and this is just my opinion - shouldn't have done that.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Ok. So maybe "fantastic'' is a bit of a stretch. But Fausto Carmona's 2010 debut Wednesday night was a heaping helping of hum baby for Carmona and the Indians. Sure, he gave up six walks in six innings. That's bad. But this is good: one hit allowed. That's it. One. In six innings. You can live with six walks in six innings if you're only going to give up one hit.

For Indians officials the most encouraging facet of Carmona's debut is that the White Sox couldn't hit him. This is a guy who last year gave up an average of 10.8 hits per nine innings. Opposing batters hit .295 against him. Wednesday night the White Sox had one hit in six innings and batted .059 against him (1-for-17). Ten of the 18 outs recorded by Carmona were on ground balls, which are Carmona's bread and butter outs because it means his sinker, his bread and butter pitch, is working. That's another encouraging sign.

In other words, aside from the six walks, which were negated by the fact that Carmona came within one hit of not giving up any, the 2010 debut of a pitcher who HAS to be good for the Indians as a team to be even mediocre, couldn't have gone better.

It's only one start, of course. But it was a really good one. The few times the walks got him into trouble, he didn't cave in emotionally and start trying to pump 150 mph fastballs by hitters. He stayed calm and he pitched. This was not a five-alarm fire Carmona start, like so many that he's had the last two years. It was a measured, thoughtful, controlled outing. The kind of outing Carmona had all the time as a 19-game winner in 2007.

The one common denominator between Carmona in 2007 and Carmona Wednesday night? When he threw the ball over the plate, the hitters couldn't hit it. And that is the essence of good pitching and a good pitcher.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Opening Day

Being the hopeless romantic I am, I feel like it's always right that the home team should always win its home opener, just on principle. There are 162 games in Major League Baseball's regular season. But there is only one home opener for each team and its fans. Even the bad teams. In fact, home openers are probably even more important for the bad teams. Because, let's face it, the good ones are going to win the majority of their games, home and away during the season.

The same can't be said of the bad teams. The bad teams will lose the majority of their games. But they should never lose their home opener. That's the one day of the season where it's perfectly all right for the home team and its fans to believe that anything is possible.

Even if it isn't.

The reality is that there are probably 10 teams in the major leagues that we can safely say on opening day that they have no chance of making the playoffs. None. Another 10 teams are long shots to make it. Eight of the remaining 10 teams will make the playoffs, and three of them will be the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies. That means seven teams are fighting for five spots.

That's basically what the regular season comes down to. Finding out which five of the seven teams teams with a chance will make the playoffs. Everyone else is playing for their marketing departments.

So when the White Sox, a projected good team, beat the Indians, a projected bad one, in Chicago's home opener on Monday, it might have seemed like a bully picking on a skinny kid. But it wasn't. It was a home team winning its home opener. I have no problem with that. Just as it's only right that the Indians win their home opener on Monday. Hope springs eternal at home openers, whether the home team is a good one or a bad one.

For the bad ones, i.e., those teams whose entire payroll is less than the Yankees' starting infield, the home opener is that one time during the year when their fans can dream. And if a bad team wins its home opener, well then, hey, you never know, right? Stranger things have happened.

Not really, but that's what home openers are about. To give the home team fans a chance watch the home team win, and afterwards to dreamily observe, "Hey, you never know!''

Even if we do know.