When the Indians were seemingly running away with the American League Central a month ago, Manny Acta warned that no one should get carried away over his team's hot start.
"If we don't play well over the next four months then people won't remember that we played well in the first two months," the manager said on May 23 when his team held a seven-game lead over the Tigers. "Things can change in a hurry in this game."
Acta’s remark proved to be prescient. In the span of 24 days, the Indians lost eight games in the standings and fell one game behind the Tigers after a skid in which they dropped 16 of 22 contests. The Indians have since regained a slight lead over the Tigers in the division race, and Acta is thankful for that.
"We're lucky we're in first place with the way we've played," Acta said. "We feel fortunate."
After spending nearly a month in survival mode, the Indians want to get back to being the dominant team in the division that they were at the start of the season. They made a somewhat unorthodox move with that goal in mind last Sunday when they fired hitting coach Jon Nunnally, even though they were in first place.
Offense was clearly the Indians' problem during their 22-game swoon. They were shut out six times in that span and held to two runs or fewer in 15 games.
Part of the problem was that designated hitter Travis Hafner was injured for a majority of that stretch. After battling shoulder problems that hampered his ability to finish his swing and hit for power over the course of three seasons, Hafner has rebounded this season with a .354 True Average. That ranks sixth in the majors among players with at least 140 plate appearances. Center fielder Grady Sizemore, recovering from last year's microfracture knee surgery, also missed some time during the skid and has compiled a .280 TAv in an up-and-down season.
"We really missed Hafner and Sizemore," Acta said. "They are such an important part of our offense. We just don't have the depth to survive losing two hitters of that caliber. There is definitely a drop-off when they are out of the lineup."
The Indians are resigned to the fact that Sizemore likely won't be fully recovered until the beginning of next season. However, they were expecting right fielder Shin-Soo Choo to do better than a .261 TAv after he posted marks of .334, .319, and .325 in his first three major-league seasons. A recent surge has lifted catcher Carlos Santana's TAv to .290, while shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is enjoying a breakout season with a .304 TAv and a career-high 12 home runs.
While Cabrera credited Nunnally for his newfound power, Choo's disappointing start and Santana's early struggles caused the Indians to change hitting coaches. Bruce Field, the Indians' minor-league hitting coordinator, took over on Monday.
"We've been scuffling for a while, and we feel we needed a new voice,” Acta said. “We underachieved a little last year, and it's been going on for a month or so this year. We thought it was an appropriate time to do it. It wasn't easy. It was the toughest day I've had in my two years as the manager here. But it was something we felt needed to be done."
The Indians, despite the nearly month-long slump, still rank a respectable seventh in the AL and 11th in the major leagues in runs scored, with an average of 4.42 a game. Despite good work by the bullpen, they are eighth in the league and 16th in the majors in runs allowed, at 4.27.
Rookie set-up man Vinnie Pestano tops the bullpen with a 2.57 Fair Run Average. Left-hander Rafael Perez (2.58), Chad Durbin (3.44), Joe Smith (3.47) and closer Chris Perez (3.92) also have marks under 4.00. The relievers went into Tuesday night's game with the Rockies having gone 26 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.
"Our bullpen has a lot of talent," Chris Perez said. "I get the accolades because I'm the closer but the rest of the guys have been pitching better. They've been unbelievable in getting the game from the starters to me in the ninth inning. We all know our roles and accept them. That's not always the case with a bullpen, but we're all on the same page pulling for each other."
Justin Masterson (3.16), Carlos Carrasco (3.71), and Josh Tomlin (4.00) have anchored the rotation, but the staff’s most glaring need is an ace to carry into what figures to be their first pennant race since 2007. The Indians might be forced to trade for a frontline starter, but management, which originally expected this to be another rebuilding year, is hesitant to trade any top prospects.
"I still believe Fausto can help us win a lot of games, because you're talking about a guy who pitched 210 innings and an ERA under 4.00 in the American League not long ago," said Acta, referring to 2010, when Carmona had a 3.77 ERA (albeit with a 4.60 FRA). "Everybody always wants to know what you've done for me lately."
The Indians certainly know the feeling. They were the darlings of baseball when they got off to a 30-15 start. Now, many question whether they have staying power as a contender, though Tigers manager Jim Leyland is not among them.
"I have a lot of respect for the Indians," Leyland said. "I'll be honest, I didn't think their pitching would be quite this good, but it has been, and they have a good club. They're no fluke. I expect them to be in this thing until the end."
Rumors and Rumblings:
If the Mets decide to trade shortstop Jose Reyes, the Red Sox and Yankees will be at the front of the line trying to make a deal. The Red Sox would be a much more likely destination, though: as one Mets' official said, "Do you really think we'd trade a marquee player to the Yankees?"… Part of the allure of hiring Jack McKeon as manager for the Marlins is that they believe he can finally get shortstop Hanley Ramirez to channel his talent in a positive way. McKeon made a quick impression on Ramirez by benching him Monday for being late to a team meeting in his first game as interim manager… The speculation that the Marlins will hire Ozzie Guillen as manager as they move into their new stadium next year never goes away, but those with the White Sox insist that Guillen will never be fired as long as Jerry Reinsdorf owns the team.
Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley: "His problem is he is always trying to be too cute, throwing five different pitches and not pitching off his fastball. If he would quit trying to trick everyone and just rely more on his fastball, he would be one of the best pitchers in the league."
Royals designated hitter Billy Butler: "He's always been a good gap-to-gap hitter, but he's finally starting to trust himself enough to pull inside pitches. I've always felt he has the raw power to hit 30 homers a year. If he starts doing that, then you're looking at a star-caliber player."
Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin: "He's got some of the best breaking stuff in the league, especially for a young pitcher. His slider has good two-plane break and depth, and his curveball can really buckle hitters. He throws 90, so that's hard enough to really make his breaking stuff effective because of the variance in speeds of the pitches."
Cardinals right fielder Jon Jay: "He obviously isn't going to replace Albert Pujols' production, but he's a good hitter in his own right. He can hit the fastball, and he's really learned how to stay back on breaking balls and take them the other way. I'm curious to see what he'll do if they give him the chance to play regularly. I think he's going to do well."
Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco: "He might have the best bat control of any hitter in the game with the exception of Ichiro. He can really handle the bat, which is a lost art in this era."