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April 27, 2011
On the Beat
Bizarro World in the AL Central
It seems like something from The Onion: The Royals and Indians are meeting in a game pivotal to the American League Central standings for a second straight week.
The Indians? They’ve fallen into Lake Erie since blowing a 3-1 lead against the Red Sox in the 2007 American League Championship Series. The Royals? They haven't been relevant since the Reagan Administration.
Yet the Royals and Indians have been jockeying for the top spot in the AL Central since the beginning of the season, though the Tigers have also entered the picture in recent days. The Indians widened their lead to 2 1/2 games Tuesday night by beating the visiting Royals 9-4 in the opener of a three-game series at Progressive Field in Cleveland.
There was even a touch of a postseason atmosphere, one week after the Royals and Indians split a four-game series at Kansas City. Rarely do USA Today, the Washington Post, FoxSports.com and Baseball Prospectus all cover an Indians-Royals game, but all were represented Tuesday. The only thing missing was a crowd: the announced attendance was 9,650, showing that Indians fans still haven't quite forgiven ownership for forcing the trades of CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and 2009, immediately after each won the AL Cy Young Award.
Neither Royals manager Ned Yost nor Indians manager Manny Acta are making a big deal over seven games in April. However, both admit that the two teams meeting with winning records is a sign of progress for both franchises, as they were expected to finish in some combination of fourth and fifth place in the division this season, behind some combination of the White Sox, Tigers, and Twins.
"One hundred and sixty-two games is a long season," Yost said. "It's much better to get off to a good start than a bad start, but as I've told these kids all along, don't listen to what people say outside of this clubhouse. I'm sure Manny is telling his kids the same thing. People get too wrapped up in the paper side of things. We have guys who can play, have great athleticism and great chemistry. The Indians and us, we're both very similar."
Players on both clubs are also quick to point out that it's early. Nevertheless, some early-season success is better than the alternative that these franchises have been suffering through in recent years.
Since their heartbreaking loss to the Red Sox in '07, the Indians have gone 65-97 and 69-93, finishing fourth both seasons in the five-team AL Central. The Royals have had losing seasons in each of the last seven years and in 15 of the last 16.
"You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself because it's still so early, but it is nice to look at the standings and see you are in first place," Indians first baseman Matt LaPorta said. "You can't get wrapped up in it, but it gives you a good feeling as a team that you're playing good baseball and you're improving. It's good to have a little taste of success."
The Indians have tasted success recently, as evidenced by their postseason appearance four years ago. The Royals, meanwhile, haven't been to the playoffs since winning their lone World Series title in 1985, which capped a run of seven postseason appearances in 10 years.
The Royals believe they are on the brink of something very special, though. They are playing better at the major-league level, and their farm system is universally considered the best in baseball.
"We've got some special talents in our farm system and a good core group at the big-league level," Yost said. "You can start to see light at the end of the tunnel."
"We saw the possibilities in spring training when we had all the talent together, the guys in the minor leagues and the guys in the major leagues," left fielder Alex Gordon said. "Everyone jelled together. The chemistry was there. Everyone got along and had fun together. It will be the same when the young guys get here."
A number of those top prospects are playing at Triple-A Omaha, including left-handers Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and third baseman Mike Moustakas. There is a very good chance that all four will be with the Royals at some point this year, but Yost insists the organization will resist the temptation to call any of them up too early in the season.
"You've got to have a plan, and you've got to stick by your plan," Yost said. "You start going away from that plan, and you're asking for trouble. You've got to make sure they're ready and the time is right; then when the time is right, you just naturally bring them up. The worst thing that can happen is to start to panic, and we don't do that."
Speaking of panic, the Royals are now on a four-game losing streak, having been swept by the Rangers at Arlington over the weekend. However, the Royals insist that even as their record has dropped to 12-11, they are not panicking or losing any of the confidence they gained during their hot start.
"I know every time we lose a game that there will be people outside this clubhouse who won't believe in us," Gordon said. "Inside the clubhouse, we feel we've got a good team that's going to continue to play well, along with guys on the Triple-A club who are going to be able to help us. We realize it's early and we have to stay focused, but we also don’t think we're a fluke."
The Indians, with the best record in the AL at 14-8, certainly think they are more than one-month wonders.
"We're not a fluke," Indians closer Chris Perez said. "I can't predict how this season is going to turn out, but I do know that we've got a young, hungry club with talent. We're not going to just fade away."
Rumors and Rumblings: Jonathan Broxton will remain the Dodgers' primary closer, but left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo will likely get some save chances when he comes off the disabled list this week, and right-hander Vicente Padilla, last year's Opening Day starter, also looms as an eventual option. … Rangers right-hander Brandon Webb had trouble cracking 80 mph with his sinker during his first start in extended spring training, meaning he is still quite a ways off from being activated from the disabled list. … It is starting to look like Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales (ankle) won't be making his season debut until sometime in June, as his rehabilitation continues to hit potholes. … Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison (foot) is likely to be activated from the DL on May 5, the first day he is eligible, now that he has had his cast removed. … Astros shortstop Clint Barmes (hand), who has been on the DL since being injured late in spring training, is expected to be activated Friday.
Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard: "He's not the same pitcher he was before he had three operations on his shoulder, and it's foolish to think he'll ever get back to that level. Still, I think he's going to wind up helping the Mariners. He's getting a little better every time out. He's basically learning how to pitch again with a new shoulder."
White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn: "On the one hand, it's pretty amazing that he was back in the lineup six days after having an appendectomy, but he didn't do himself any favors by rushing to come back. He clearly wasn't himself when he returned, and he's gotten into some bad habits at the plate."
Tigers second baseman/outfielder Ryan Raburn: "I give [Tigers manager] Jim Leyland credit for being willing to try something different. It would be easy to just leave Raburn in left field, but the Tigers have a better offense when he is playing second base. It makes their lineup longer, and the guy is a passable defensive second baseman."
Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore: "He's finally healthy for the first time in two years, and he's back to being the dynamic player he was before he got hurt. He's given that a club a lift, no question about it, not just with his production, but from a morale standpoint. They are playing with confidence, and I really think part of that stems from knowing he's batting leadoff and playing center field."
Angels right-hander Jered Weaver: "He's really stepped up to the next level, and you have to consider him one of the game's premier pitchers now. He had a great year last year, but nobody noticed because he didn't get a lot of run support. He's 6-0, and it's not a fluke. He's been really, really good."