Monday, May 28, 2007

Coming Out on Top

After completing the sweep in Detroit and vaulting themselves from ½ game back in the Central to 2 ½ in front of the Tigers, the Tribe heads to New England to take on the equally hot Sawx, fresh off a sweep of of the woeful Rangers.

In Detroit, the Indians did what they needed to do, riding the strong performances of their best 3 pitchers this year to put themselves in position to win each game. Speaking of the Tribe arms in Detroit, would anyone have thought that C.C., Byrd, and El Diablo would be the 3 best starters as we enter June? If a playoff series were to start this week, those 3 would be your horses for the race.

Who would have predicted THAT coming out of Winter Haven?

The downside, of course, to seeing those 3 go against the Tigers is that the Indians will have to go into Boston and try to steal a series win with Lee, Sowers, and Byrd taking the pill. Did I mention that the Red Sox will counter with their formidable troika of Schilling, Beckett, and Dice-K? That’s right, no Julian Tavarez sighting for the Tribe this week; we get the big boys from Beantown.

The Boston series will present an interesting test for the Indians as the teams are built very similarly (albeit with a slight payroll disparity) as they rely on their strong starting pitching, a balanced lineup flush with patient hitters, then cross their fingers that their evolving bullpen is able to gel and hang onto the lead that the starters usually hand them. It pits 2 of the best 3 offenses in the AL against each other (1.CLE, 2.DET, 3.BOS), so the quality of the pitching may be the deciding factor. Let’s all hope that Lee and Sowers show up with their Dr. Jekyll faces on while their Mr. Hydes are too busy throwing down some Sammies (or Sammy Lights) at the Cask’n’Flagon for the first two games.

The best 2 teams in the AL face off for the next 3 days, and it could be a statement series for the Indians if they’re able to take a couple of games with their best starters sitting in the dugout for the series.

But, sweeping the series in Detroit provides an awfully nice start to the 10-game stretch against the AL’s best, a stretch during which the Indians could conceivably go 7-3 or 8-2.

Great morning to be a Cleveland sports fan!
Let’s keep these good vibes rolling!
Happy Memorial Day!


t-bone said...

was at the Q last night, amazing, amazing, amazing. to quote the PD, "now it's a series."

had my phone checking the tribe game all night, seemed every time i checked Detroit had men on the corners, but Fausto escaped every time. i taped the 2-hour condensed replay on the WWL, and am about to sit down and FF through it. wish tribe/bosox was a day game, but there's plenty of other baseball on this afternoon.

Mevs said...

One of the best cleveland sports days in my recent memories

t-bone said...

Gammons blog... Gammons

Monday, May 28, 2007
Indians, Tigers building a rivalry


DETROIT -- They have played in the same league or division for 107 consecutive seasons, just a 2½ hour drive from one another. Their histories are decked with Kalines and Cobbs, Lemons and Wynns, Averills and Trammells and Belles, and yet their rivalry has all the juice of the Stanley Cup Finals between Ottawa and Anaheim.
In those previous 106 seasons, the Tigers and Indians have finished 1-2 in the American League, AL East or AL Central twice, in 1908 and 1940, in case you'd forgotten. As for those of you who haven't yet graduated college, the last time they both had winning records in the same year was 1986, when Detroit finished third, 8½ games behind Boston, and the Indians finished fifth, a riveting 11½ games out.

Yet, on Memorial Day, the two historic franchises sat first and second in the best division in the game, the only American League division over .500 in its entirety. The Indians have the second best record in the American League, the Tigers the fourth-best. "We all know there is a very long way to go," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "We all know the White Sox are really good, and so are the Twins, and depening on injuries and other factors, any one of us could be in the World Series or finish fourth. But Cleveland and Detroit have the makings of a really good rivalry that's going to see some tough series' between us both."

This past weekend's series turned out to be a Cleveland sweep in which the Tigers' half-game lead in the division was turned into a 2½ game lead for the Indians, which they took to Boston for what appeared to be another rough week. "Every game could have gone either way," said Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez. "They made big plays and got big hits. This is the way it's going to be all season."

Cleveland got a win from Paul Byrd and two tough starts worth 15 innings from their best two starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona. Twice they beat up the Tigers' bullpen, and got huge hits from Casey Blake, Dave Dellucci and Ryan Garko that exhibited the depth of a roster whose $63.5 million payroll is $33 million less than the Tigers and nearly $8 million less than the Royals -- and, in the American League, is larger only than the Twins and Devil Rays.

Did the showdown unearth flaws? Of course, but every one of the 30 teams in the majors is flawed. The bullpens both have problems. Oh, Joe Borowski leads the majors in saves, but his 6.75 ERA is an indication of his fault line, and the seventh and eighth innings are long-range concerns. The Tigers may or may not get Joel Zumaya back this season from a finger injury and Fernando Rodney is now disabled, so they have their own concerns in front of closer Todd Jones.

Both Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and Indians GM Mark Shapiro have shopped the market for bullpen help, with no luck. "I don't think much will get done by the deadline because the teams that might have pitching to trade will be looking to make the perfect trade," says Dombrowski. "And I don't think teams will give up two or three top prospects for middle relievers." So even if and when Eric Gagne, Carlos Reyes and the like (Colorado is likely to hold onto Brian Fuentes) become available, they're not going to extract the Cameron Maybins or Trevor Crowes of the world. You can ask for Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen, but Adam and Andrew Miller may be up in the seventh inning come Labor Day for the Indians and Tigers, respectively.

"At this point I'm tired of hearing about our problems in the bullpen," says Leyland. "We need to get more innings out of our starters. Period. We need be getting into the seventh or eighth inning. Period." Losing Kenny Rogers, likely to return around the All-Star break, didn't help. On Saturday, the Indians had great at-bats that got Justin Verlander out of the game after the sixth inning after throwing 103 pitches (opposing starting pitchers have gotten into the seventh inning in only 11 of Cleveland's first 48 games) and beat the Tigers' bullpen. But after Garko hit a three run homer that produced a 4-0 lead in the first inning, Mike Maroth gutted out eight innings to give the pen a reprieve.

The Indians do have the potential to have premium starting pitching. Sabathia is one of the league's best. Cliff Lee is coming back from injury, Jake Westbrook will be back within a month, and after the first slump of his pitching life, Jeremy Sowers pitched well in his last start. Sabathia, Carmona, Lee and Byrd are a combined 20-4.

Then there's Carmona, the Brandon Webb of the American League. He now has won six straight games, helped immensely with his dominant sinker. This is, of course, is the same 23-year old who when Bob Wickman was exiled to Atlanta last July tried to close and imploded in three walkoff losses in Boston and Detroit. Eventually, Carmona was sent back to Triple-A Buffalo. Then Indians farm director John Farrell had him watch videos of himself and Jon Garland, and, after awhile, Carmona relaxed, regained the angle on his sinker, learned to throw it to both sides of the plate and in his last three starts in September for Cleveland had a 2.65 ERA, something that was lost in his 1-10 final record.

This year, Carmona beat Johan Santana twice in a month. "As long as he keeps his confidence and doesn't get excited," says Indians catcher Victor Martinez, "he can be one of the best anywhere." He's had nine starts, and eight of them have been quality starts.

Pitching will decide who ends up where, because the Indians and Tigers are two of the best offensive teams in baseball. Martinez is having an extraordinary season, hitting .311 (and throwing out better than 27 percent of baserunners, third best in the majors eliminating pitchers' pickoffs). Garko, he of the strong hands and short swing, is in the top 10 in the league in hitting and went into Boston with a .938 OPS.

"What's encouraging is that there are a lot of us who really haven't hit the way we can, and we haven't hit together," says Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner. Hafner is leading the majors in walks with 44 and has an OPS of .890, and it's creeping upward. "I don't want to blame getting used to being pitched around," says Hafner. "I just didn't swing as well as I can. But it's coming."

Jhonny Peralta, who fell from 24 to 13 homers from 2005 to 2006 when he grew two inches and put on nearly 20 pounds, is second to J.J. Hardy (15) among major league shortstops with 10 homers, and has played far more consistent defense.

And, while Grady Sizemore hasn't taken off close to the manner in which he led the majors in extra base hits last season, he has been patient at the plate. His on-base percentage is .400. He leads all leadoff hitters with 40 runs, and he has 30 walks. "With the improvement he's made in plate discipline, when he puts it all back together he will be one of the greats," says Indians hitting coach Derek Shelton. "He's already a three hitter in the leadoff hole. His best is yet to come, but it will come soon."

Because of Shapiro's shrewd budget management, the Indians have unusual depth for a bottom payroll team, with the likes of Trot Nixon and Dellucci in roles. "What Trot has brought to us cannot be overstated," says Indians manager Eric Wedge. "He's got the resume and the heart to be able to get in players' faces about playing the game the right way. We'd all heard great things about him as a player and a leader, but he's better than anything anyone could describe."

This past weekend was the first of six series the Tigers and Indians will play this season, and the defending AL champions will not go away. Look at the stats on Memorial Day: the two teams are 1-2 in runs, narrowly ahead of Boston. Detroit leads in team OPS with .806, with Boston (.803) and Cleveland (.800) right behind them. Boston is far and away the best team in terms of run differential (+79), but the Indians (+46) and Tigers(+34) are interrupted only by the underappreciated Angels (+36).

"Our lineup," says Ordonez, "is really good." No kidding. Start with Mags, the winner of the Indy 500 MVP as he led the majors in OPS, runs, RBI and doubles at the end of Sunday. But start with Curtis Granderson, who has 31 extra base hits to Sizemore's 17 and leads all leadoff hitters with a .983 OPS out of the first hole. He is the best offensive player on the staff! The Tigers also have eight homers out of Brandon Inge batting ninth, and Granderson at the top.

"The biggest change in this team is getting [Gary] Sheffield into the middle of it," says Leyland. "The other night, first inning, two out and none on, the pitcher is so afraid of him he throws a 3-2 breaking ball in the dirt. Mags gets a fastball. Home run. We're off. That's the way it is, and Sheff hasn't gotten going yet."

Garko said before Sunday's game that the best matchup in the game right now might be Carmona vs. Sheffield, power versus the amazing batspeed. "People don't realize how great a hitter Sheff is in baseball history," says Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon. How about how hard he swings, and for his career had 322 more walks than strikeouts for his career, en route to being the seventh player to hit 500 home runs and have more walks than strikeouts.

Consider how tough this Tigers lineup is to pitch to. Placido Polanco, Sheffield, Ordonez and Carlos Guillen bat 2-3-4-5. They have 89 extra base hits, 86 walks and 78 strikeouts, combined.

That is worth repeating: 89 extra base hits, 86 walks and 78 strikeouts from second through fifth in the order, following a guy who has a .983 OPS out of the leadoff position.

As for Ordonez, Sheffield helps, but health is far more important. "I feel the way I did before I went down with the knee injury in 2004," says Ordonez. "I had the knee, the sports hernia. Last year, I still wasn't quite there. But now I have my legs underneath me, I can drive the ball the other way, I feel great." This is what we thought he was going to be before he got hurt. "It took a long time, three years," says Mags, "but I am back."

One of the most encouraging aspects to the past weekend was that all three games were sellouts at Comerica Park. The revival of the Tigers has them fourth in the AL in average attendance at more than 33,000 per game. And could lead to them breaking their 2.7 million franchise record, set in their landmark season of 1984.

The Indians still rank third lowest in average attendance, the same Indians who between 1995 and 2001 drew 3.175 million to 3.5 million fans. Part of their problem starting off was weather, including four straight rainouts and a three day vacation in Milwaukee. But LeBron James and the Cavaliers are in the playoffs against the Pistons, and understand, when those colorful teams ruled Cleveland in the '90s, the football team was in Baltimore, the Cavs were in the suburbs and the economy was flourishing. Now, the Browns are back, the Cavs have LeBron and are downtown and the Ohio economy has lost more than 300,000 jobs in this century.

But these are two very good, fun teams. Sizemore is the Derek Jeter of The Rustbelt, and Ordonez, Sheffield, Hafner, Pudge Rodriguez, Guillen, Martinez, Sabathia and Justin Verlander, et al are star quality players in a division that has the standing Cy Young Award and MVP winners, a division where the Indians won 92 games in 2005 and the White Sox 90 last year and neither made the playoffs.

The Tigers will play the Indians in Cleveland this coming weekend, and maybe Detroiters and UPers will make the drive. Maybe Clevelanders will stop thinking about the mid-'90s Tribe and begin to appreciate what they have.

Maybe, finally, there will be a real Indians-Tigers rivalry that in the division where rust never sleeps will mean something in the September scrum with the White Sox and Twins. Root for it. A lot of us remember what it was like when the Tribe got to two World Series in three years, and the magic that was Tiger Stadium with that great '84 team that rolled right through the night and lost one postseason game.

There is a world outside the land of the Delta Shuttle, great and good and fun players who don't play in New York and Boston. If you are a baseball fan, you want the Tigers, Indians, White Sox and Twins going down to the last days with a chance to win the division.

Then, finally, the two teams two and a half hours from one another may build a meaningful rivalry, in their 107th year of competition.

Cy Slapnicka said...

what a solid weekend. i think this is a good thing.

Halifax said...

It's nice to see East-Coaster Gammons give the Tribe and Central some love.

Halifax said...

Don't underestimate Hughes' performance as a defender in this series.

The Piston guards have been pretty much stymied offensively.

For the Cavs on offense having Boobie in for more minutes is a good thing.

Cy Slapnicka said...

"The Piston guards have been pretty much stymied offensively." Unfortunately, so has Larry Hughes, except both are due to Larry Hughes :)

I honestly think our offense is better without him, so my logic is the increase in Detroit scoring due not having him on defense will be evened out by the increase in good shots on the offensive end for us.

Unless he shows up wearing a bloody sock, I think him sitting is a good thing.

Halifax said...

Cy -- Hughes showed up wearing a bloody plantar facia and, guess what, you were correct!

Hughes' stint was short-lived drama and his replacement, Boobie Gibson, rained points on the Pistons.

I love it when Sheed goes ballistic.

The reality is, IF the Cavs can squeeze this thing out, the Spurs are ripe to be picked off. The Cavs have matched up very well with them and it's the best scenario, as opposed to the Mavs or Suns, which we would have never beaten.

But there's much basketball to be played.

Cy Slapnicka said...

was anyone else wishing for mike brown's head when snow was in on O in the last minute? i was happy to hear alberts and kerr called him out on it. luckily, snow hit one of his free throws and the boys played well.

now we just need to get the tribe going again t avoid the sweep.