Indians second-year manager Manny Acta knew coming into the season that all the pundit predicted his team, the third-youngest in the major leagues, to finish no better than fourth in the five-team American League Central. The division race was universally expected to be a three-way battle between the two-time defending champion Twins, White Sox, and Tigers.
Following seasons of 97 and 93 losses, it was easy for the Indians to understand why they were so lightly regarded. However, Acta and his players tuned out all the negative predictions and have instead been the major leagues' biggest surprise through the first month of the season.
The Indians have the best record in the majors at 19-8 and hold a 4 1/2 game-lead over the Royals in the AL Central. Meanwhile, the Tigers are 7 1/2 games off the pace, and White Sox and Twins are 10 games out.
"We're just a bunch of young guys who believe in each other and believe we have a pretty good team," closer Chris Perez said with a smile last week. "I understand why people didn't expect much out of us, but in this clubhouse we felt from the first day of spring training that we were a lot better than last year. We expected to have a good year this year."
Acta came into the season optimistic because of some of the positive signs the Indians showed late last season, long after most of the world quit paying attention. Their 3.89 ERA after the All-Star break was fourth-best in the AL, and their 2.11 relief ERA after September 1 was tops in the major leagues. Yet everyone shrugged during spring training when Acta kept saying his team would be appreciably better in 2011.
"I actually don't care what people think about us," Acta said. "We respect everybody's opinion. It's part of everybody's job. We believe in ourselves. We've got five more months of baseball and I just hope our guys stay healthy and play good baseball. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what other people think, but what your record is."
When the Indians were dominating the AL Central with six division titles in a seven-year span from 1995-2001, Jacobs Field was one of the most intimidating places to play in the major leagues, as 455 consecutive games were sold out. The stadium, now called Progressive Field, now averages just 14,275 fans a game, lowest in the major leagues. Still, it has been a house of horrors for visitors this season, as the Indians have won 13 straight at Progressive after losing their first two games of the season there.
"I can't really worry about the attendance," Acta said. "If I spend five minutes worrying about that, then it is five minutes I'm not spending thinking about making our ballclub better. I really believe the fans will start to come out, because we have an exciting club."
There were signs that the fans are getting excited: Saturday night's win over Tigers drew 26,433 and included a walk-up ticket sale of 8,059. However, Sunday's attendance was just 14,164.
The Indians have been not only exciting but resilient, as two starting pitchers, Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot, have been forced to the disabled list, and their two top hitters, catcher Carlos Santana (.191/.324/.382) and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo (.250/.322/.394) have not hit their strides. However, the Indians have gotten a lift from a number of unlikely sources, including journeyman third baseman Jack Hannahan, who was signed as a minor-league free agent in the offseason to improve the defense. Hannahan is hitting .273/.349/.481 with four home runs in 86 plate appearances.
"He came to big-league camp this spring and changed his approach," Acta said. "Basically, people have been telling him to play third base in the major leagues that he'd have to hit home runs. He changed his mind this year. He's staying inside the ball and hitting it where it's pitched. We didn't ask him to hit home runs. All we asked was to play good defense, which he's done. Any hitting from him is a bonus."
Right-hander Justin Masterson has turned into the ace of the pitching staff so far, as he is 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in six starts and 40 innings. Masterson's 3.83 SIERA last season was an indicator he could be due for a turnaround this year, as it was nearly a full run lower than his 4.70 ERA in 180 innings.
"His sinker can eat up right-handed hitters," Acta said. "He's got the right mentality. He takes things in stride. His struggles last year got him down at times, but he kept working until things clicked. He's an easygoing guy. He's got a pretty good idea now of how to fix things when he gets out of sync and he gets back to throwing strikes. He has done a tremendous job of staying consistent in the strike zone so far, which he did in last six weeks of last season."
Right-hander Josh Tomlin has also been a revelation, going 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in his first five starts. That followed a pedestrian rookie season in 2011 when he had a 4.56 ERA and contributed just 0.4 WARP in 12 starts and 73 innings.
"He doesn't overpower you but he mixes things up, changes speeds and puts his pitches where you can't get good swings," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said of Tomlin.
The best news of all for the Indians, though, has been the strong return of center fielder Grady Sizemore, who was limited to 140 mostly ineffective plate appearances last season before succumbing to microfracture knee surgery. Since being activated from the disabled list on April 17, Sizemore has put up a slash line of .340/.389/.740 with four homers in 54 trips to the plate.
"It's huge having him back and producing," Acta said. "Just his presence alone means a lot and we were just hoping to have him back because we feed off him a lot as a franchise player. The way he has stepped into the lineup, it's like it was two years ago when he was injury-free. He brings so much to the table offensively. Even with all the home runs he has hit in the past, I never realized how strong he is. As a leadoff hitter, he's a threat to get an extra-base hit every time up and put himself in scoring position. He's been great."
As Perez said, "What Grady has done, besides being very productive, is give us even more confidence that we can win. We have our franchise player back and that's a big boost."
Despite the Indians' hot start, Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Reports give them just a 34.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Second baseman Orlando Cabrera, though, says numbers cannot measure the Indians' confidence.
"This team has a real good feeling," said Cabrera, a 15-year veteran who has played in the postseason in six of the last seven years. "We believe we're going to win every day and that belief gets stronger with every game we win. I don't know what everyone else thinks of us, but we're a confident team that believes in itself."
Rumors and Rumblings: The only thing keeping the Twins from benching shortstop Alexi Casilla is that they have no ready-made replacement; they don't believe utility infielder Matt Tolbert can handle the position on a regular basis. … Rule 5 draft pick Aneury Rodriguez is replacing Nelson Figueroa in the Astros rotation, but look for Triple-A Oklahoma's Jordan Lyles to get called up once he is past the Super Two service time threshold. … Rangers closer Neftali Feliz (shoulder) is progressing so well that he will likely return Friday, the first day he is eligible to be activated from the disabled list. … Phillies closer Brad Lidge (shoulder) began playing catch over the weekend and may return sometime in June rather the original timetable of just after the All-Star break. … The Tigers will activate designated hitter Victor Martinez (groin) on Wednesday. … The Yankees plan to sit switch-hitting designated hitter Jorge Posada against left-handers and use Andruw Jones as his platoon partner. … Marlins center fielder Chris Coghlan is going to need shoulder surgery at some point, but is going to try to put it off until after the season and play through the pain.
Diamondbacks right-hander Ian Kennedy: "His stuff doesn't wow you. He doesn't throw 90 mph or have a great curveball or changeup. What he does do is throw strike one. When you get that first pitch over for a strike, it opens up so much for a pitcher, and he knows how to take advantage of that."
Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez: "He's really at the top of his game now. The shoulder problems that dogged him for so long finally seem behind him. He's throwing harder than ever, and he's more aggressive in the strike zone than I've ever seen him. I think he's poised for a big year."
Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "He's obviously one of the best pitchers in the league, but I think he'd become the best if he would just pitch off his fastball more. Once he gets ahead in the count, he tries to get too cute with his off-speed stuff and gets in trouble. He throws 95. Why he doesn't use his fastball more to put hitters away baffles me."
Angels left fielder Vernon Wells: "He looks totally lost at the plate, and he's getting caught in between on everything. He's late on the fastball, early on the breaking ball. The one good thing to say about him is that he looks a lot better in left field than he did in center field for Toronto the last couple of years."
Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist: "I'll admit I was wrong about this guy, because I thought he was a one-year wonder in '09. His swing looks a lot freer and easier at the plate this year, and he's really made the adjustment to the breaking pitch. He used to be strictly a fastball hitter but now he is hitting everything they throw up there."