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August 10, 2011

On the Beat

Taking Central Stage

by John Perrotto

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Jim Leyland and Manny Acta spent late Tuesday afternoon downplaying the significance of what was going to be both of their teams' biggest game of the season to this point.

"Every game is a big game," said Leyland, the Tigers' manager. "We opened the season in New York against the Yankees, and everyone was saying those three games were big games, and they were the first three games of the season. To me, every game is a big game. These games in Cleveland are big games, but then we go to Baltimore this weekend, and those are big games, too. Every game is important in the major leagues."

Acta, the Indians' manager, shared similar sentiments while his team began taking batting practice. Though his team entered the three-game series four games behind the Tigers and only one game ahead of the surging White Sox, Acta downplayed the season coming down to these games.

"It's only important because we either need to pick up some ground or make sure they don't get too far ahead of us," Acta said. "I don't think these three games are going to settle anything. There is still a lot of baseball left to be played."

They ended up playing a lot of baseball in the opening act of the series alone, as the game stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday morning at Progressive Field in Cleveland. The Indians eked out a 3-2 win when Kosuke Fukudome, who had struck out in his four previous plate appearances, was hit by a David Pauley pitch with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 14th. The game, which included a two-hour, three-minute rain delay at the end of the second inning, ended at 1:52 a.m.

"It was a big win for us because it set the tone for the series," said Indians pitcher Frank Herrmann, who pitched two scoreless innings and combined with six other relievers for 12 scoreless innings after starter Justin Masterson was lifted following the rain delay. "We shaved a full game off the lead, we stayed ahead of the White Sox, which is important because we haven't been lower than second all season, and, at the very least, we're still very much in the race even if we lose the last two games of the series."

The Tigers and Indians have three more three-game series remaining after this one. They meet in Detroit from August 19-21, in Cleveland from September 5-7, and again in Detroit from September 26-28 to finish the regular season.

"The most important thing for us is to not go into Detroit any more than two games back at the end of the season," Acta said. "As long as we do that, we'll have a chance. We're trailing now, but we know that big leads can disappear."

The Indians learned that lesson firsthand, as they held a seven-game lead in the AL Central following the games of May 23, when they were a season-high 15 games over .500 at 30-15. They have gone just 26-40 since to fall to 56-55.

Despite the lackluster record over the last 2 1/2 months, the Indians made a major splash at the non-waiver trade deadline by acquiring right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez from the Rockies for a package of four prospects that included highly touted pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Matt White. The trade was also made with the future in mind, as Jimenez is under contract through 2013, but the Indians are looking to him to bolster their rotation now.

Jimenez had a 3.58 FIP in 21 starts and 123 innings with the Rockies this season after posting 3.32 and 3.13 marks in 2009 and 2010. While many in baseball felt the Rockies were selling high on Jimenez and that the Indians overpaid, general manager Chris Antonetti and Acta are convinced it was the right move. That Jimenez struggled in his Indians debut last Friday night, when he gave up five runs in five innings against the Rangers at Texas, does not faze Acta. Jimenez will start tonight against Rick Porcello in the middle game of the series.

"I think Ubaldo will be a lot more relaxed this time," Acta said. "He was just getting acclimated to a new team and getting to know his teammates. We feel Ubaldo is a top-of-the-rotation starter and we're excited that we're going to have him for the next couple of seasons."

"This is exactly the situation why we went out and got Ubaldo, and now we're looking forward to seeing him go out and do his thing," Herrmann said.

The Indians also felt their best chance to stay in the race was to bolster their pitching staff, as center fielder Grady Sizemore won't return until at least September and may miss the rest of the season because of sports hernia surgery, and right fielder Shin Soo Choo began a rehab assignment Tuesday night after suffering a broken hand in June.

"We just weren't going to be able to make the moves necessary to substitute for the offense we're missing with Grady and Choo out," Acta said. "Our pitching is what has got us this far, and we felt our best chance to win the division was to make the pitching staff even better."

The Tigers also made a major trade at the deadline to acquire pitching help, as they got starter Doug Fister and reliever Pauley from the Mariners for left-hander Charlie Furbush and outfielder Casper Wells. Fister had a 3.24 FIP in 21 starts and 146 innings for the Mariners despite a 3-12 record.

Fister had a fine Tigers debut last Wednesday, when he held the Rangers to three runs in seven innings. Like Masterson, he pitched only two innings on Tuesday night and allowed two runs.

"We felt the one thing we needed was one more quality starting pitcher," Leyland said. "We're tickled to have Doug Fister."

Regardless of how the AL Central race plays out, neither Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski nor Leyland will have any concerns about job security beyond this season. Dombrowski received a four-year contract extension on Monday that will take him through 2015, while Leyland had one year tacked on to his deal, which will keep him with the Tigers through next season.

The 66-year-old Leyland said he would prefer to work on one-year contracts for the rest of his career, explaining, "My health has been good, and I still have the fire to manage, but if that ever changes then I don't want to feel a responsibility to continue managing when I'm not into it or (the Tigers) to feel responsibility to carry me on their payroll."

Leyland is in his 20th season as a major-league manager; he also had stints with the Pirates (1986-96), Marlins (1997-98), and Rockies (1999) before joining the Tigers in 2006. Leyland admitted to getting burned out on managing during his season with the Rockies, worn out by the high-scoring games in the pre-humidor days at Coors Field. However, he regained the spark during six years as a special spring training instructor with the Cardinals from 2000-05.

"I still like the competitiveness of each day, of working your (behind) off to try to beat the other team," Leyland said. "I still like the excitement of the daily competition, the pennant races, the World Series, All-Star Games, all that stuff. I still get nervous before every game, I still get butterflies. If I'd come in here on Opening Day some year and not have butterflies and not be pumped up, that's going to send a bad message to me."

Leyland doesn't foresee that day coming soon, especially since his team is in the middle of a pennant race.

"It's still fun for me," Leyland said. "I don't have much time to think about the future anyway. There is still a lot of work yet to be done in 2011."

---

Rumors & Rumblings:

The proposed sale of the Astros to Jim Crane from Drayton McLane may not get voted on during the owners' quarterly meetings later this month in Cooperstown, because it is Major League Baseball's third-most-pressing issue behind the Dodgers' ownership mess and some uncertainty that has arisen in the Padres' ownership situation. Jeff Moorad bought the Padres from John Moores on an installment plan prior to the 2009 season and originally had until 2014 to complete the purchase. However, Moores wants the balance of the purchase price now rather than waiting three years… The Tigers have mild interest in acquiring Mariners infielder Jack Wilson for depth purposes… The Twins are interested in extending the contracts of outfielders Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, who are both eligible for free agency in November, after holding on to both at the trading deadline… Despite the fact that his $9 million option for next season has become guaranteed, Angels designated hitter Bobby Abreu will likely be the odd man out if Kendrys Morales recovers from the broken leg he suffered last May. Rookie Mark Trumbo has put a hammerlock on first base, Morales would likely be the DH, and the corner outfield spots will be taken by left fielder Vernon Wells and right fielder Torii Hunter.

The Yankees don't plan to call up left-handed starting pitching prospect Manny Banuelos from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre until the International League season ends, but they feel he could be a weapon as a situational reliever in the postseason… The Red Sox are hoping left-hander Erik Bedard, whom they acquired from the Mariners at the deadline, can be their No. 3 starter in the postseason behind left-hander Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, now that Clay Buchholz is likely done for the season… Stephen Strasburg is in line to come off the disabled list and make his season debut with the Nationals sometime during their homestand from Sept. 5-11 against the Dodgers and Astros… The Cubs plan to take a long look at Tyler Colvin in right field to determine if he can be an everyday player… The Orioles decided to hang on to right-hander Jeremy Guthrie at the deadline and instead will try to trade him during the offseason, when they feel more teams are likely to be interested and willing to give up more… Now that Matt Stairs, who was released by the Nationals last week and opted to retire, leaves the game as the all-time leader in pinch-hit home runs with 23, the Marlins' Greg Dobbs and the Phillies' Ross Gload are left as the active leaders with 10 each.

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Scouts' Takes:

Reds outfielder/first baseman Yonder Alonso: "I'll give the Reds credit for creativity for thinking about trying the kid at third base, but I just don't know if it'll work. He's a first baseman, plain and simple. He's been absolutely awful in left field, and I don't think he has the quickness and reflexes for third base."

Athletics right-hander Trevor Cahill: "His stuff is basically the same as it was last year when he won 18 games, but the biggest difference for me is that he isn't able to put hitters away this year. He gets to two strikes and can't finish guys out. I don't know if it's a lack of concentration or a loss of confidence, but he just isn't finishing the job."

Twins second baseman Trevor Plouffe: "He's really stretched as an everyday player, but he could be a good utility player if he learns how to play the outfield, where he is currently a disaster. He has good range, a good arm, and he's got some pop in his bat. He has his uses."

Braves second baseman Dan Uggla: "I'll give him credit for hanging in there and salvaging something out of what could have been a disastrous season. Still, that shouldn't disguise the fact that his bat has slowed a little bit this season. If he keeps losing bat speed, then his career could flame out pretty quickly, because he has never been able to hit off-speed stuff consistently."

Mets third baseman David Wright: "I wonder what those people in New York who said the Mets should trade this guy are thinking now. He's been terrific since coming off the disabled list. With all due respect to Jose Reyes, Wright is the heart and soul of that ballclub. As he goes, they go."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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