“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” in Cleveland. Charles Dickens famous words are a cliché perhaps, but the Indians have made that cliché all too true throughout the first half of 2011. After starting an improbable 30-15, the best start in the majors, the Tribe went just 17-27, leaving them with a 47-42 record, good for 2nd in the AL Central.
What went wrong for the Tribe during that rough patch? And can they turn it around and stick with the Tigers in the apparent two-team battle for the Central?
The struggles have been in the offense, and though it may seem like an excuse, the offense has struggled because of injury. Injuries to Shin Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, and Matt LaPorta took everyday players out of the lineup. Though none of the three had standout offensive numbers, all three are above average defensive players, and Choo and Sizemore provide pivotal veteran leadership to a young team.
The more significant injury came to Travis Hafner. In an unexpected comeback year, Pronk is leading the Indians with a .325 average and has hit 8 home runs and 35 RBI’s in just 51 games. Hafner has seen limited time because of injury and interleague play however, and has not been able to fully contribute. The Tribe needs him in the lineup to succeed.
The rest of the offense’s problem has not been injury, but inconsistency. Michael Brantley’s average was above .290 for the majority of April and May, but has recently dipped to below .270. Orlando Cabrera hit .283 in April, .230 in May, .254 in June, and .176 in July. Carlos Santana has been similarly up and down, hitting .198 in April, .262 in May, .221 in June, and .267 in July.
Only Asdrubal Cabrera has been consistent. Cabrera leads the Indians in hits, home runs, RBI’s, runs, and OPS, has started every game but one, and is the only position player for the Tribe on the All-Star team. Cabrera has had an incredible season, but he simply can’t do it alone.
On the mound, the Indians have been similarly up and down. The only true veteran in the rotation, Fausto Carmona, the opening day starter for the Tribe, has been disappointing. Carmona is just 4-10 with only 7 quality starts.
It has been the youngsters keeping the Tribe’s pitching from disaster. Josh Tomlin has been a breath of fresh air and a model of consistency, with a 10-4 record, 14 quality starts, and a 3.81 ERA. Carlos Carrasco has shown flashes of brilliance, including a 5 game stretch where he was 4-1 and gave up just 7 runs, but Carrasco has not modeled that pitching all year. And Justin Masterson has seen the downside of bad run support. Masterson started 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA, lost his next 6 decisions while his ERA jumped to 2.98 (it was 3.28 at its highest) and then won his final two decisions of the first half while bringing his ERA back down to a club best 2.64. Masterson has been consistent, but his struggles have been linked strictly to the offense’s struggles.
The only true model of consistency for the Tribe has been the bullpen. Cleveland is 3rd in the AL in reliever ERA with a 3.18, and the bullpen has a 15-9 record. All-Star Chris Perez has 21 saves, and has been solid when needed.
So can the Tribe make a run at the playoffs? It will depend on the offense. The pitching will likely be there, and there are great AAA options on the mound. If Hafner can keep up his return, Sizemore, Santana, or LaPorta can pick up the slack, and Asdrubal Cabrera can keep up his career best season, the team has the potential to score runs. Though Cleveland is certainly not as good as its 30-15 start, it is also certainly not as bad as the recent slide.
At the beginning of 2011, no one had the Indians winning the AL Central. Many have seen the recent struggles as a sign of a team returning to its rightful place. But anyone who watched the Tribe enter the bottom of the 9th down 5-0 to the Blue Jays, and anyone who saw Hafner launch that walk-off grand slam will agree, there is something special going on in the Indians clubhouse this year. The young team believes in themselves, and with players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, and Chris Perez, this team will be a force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the season.
-By Jamie ArkinFollow paulmbanks