Late Thursday afternoon, as the Cleveland Indians prepared for a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, several members of the team were watching a couple of ESPN analysts discuss whether the Indians could sustain the streak that had landed them atop the American League’s Central Division. I asked pitcher Scott Kazmir, who is trying to revive his career after spending last season in the minors, whether he or any of the rest of the Indians took any of the analysis seriously.
“Something for them to talk about is all it is. Just entertainment is all it is,” Kazmir said. “Just one guy taking one side, one taking the other, and they debate. That’s all it is. It’s just entertainment.”
As a pitcher, Kazmir explains the early success of the Indians in simple terms.“You get a lot more confidence when you’re, after the first or second inning, and you’re up by three or four runs, that’s for sure. It sets the tone, you go out there and attack the hitters a little bit more, just to be able to get them off balance,” he said.
First baseman Mark Reynolds has been among those responsible for lots of the support Cleveland pitchers have enjoyed. He leads the team in home runs and RBIs. Meanwhile outfielder Michael Brantley, around .300 this spring, has been hitting about 30 points above his career average.
Three Indians pitchers had the opportunity to work comfortably on Thursday, when the Indians clobbered the Red Sox, 12-3. After that game, the Indians stood second in the American League in runs scored. But that heady statistic notwithstanding, Cleveland bench coach Sandy Alomar, who spent 11 of his 20 seasons as a Major League player with the Indians, says anybody looking to explain the team’s success must consider the pitching.
“I think the starting rotation is doing a much better job than anticipated,” Alomar said. “Everybody thought that at this point we’re not going to have a very deep rotation, by numbers, by track record numbers, don’t dictate that, but so far they have given us the opportunity to stay in games. And I think that has been our biggest surprise, pitchers keeping us in games.”
Given that Cleveland finished 68-94 last season, the success it has enjoyed this spring also has to be considered at least a little surprising. Slugger Jason Giambi, who recently joined the Indians after he’d hit 429 home runs for various other teams during 18 years in the big leagues, feels a lot of the credit should go to manager Terry “Tito” Francona.
“Everybody who knows Tito, I mean, he’s one of the few guys on this planet who can manage and be friends with his players,” Giambi said. “He lets you know exactly where you stand, and he’s fair, and I think you can’t ask for anything more from a manager.”
Francona, who was managing the Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, found a warm welcome when he returned to Fenway Park on Thursday evening as the opposing manager. Before the game, he acknowledged that taking a seat in the visitor’s dugout was a little disorienting:
“I mean, every game I’ve ever been here, I’ve never rooted against the Red Sox, now I will be like crazy,” Francona said.
Francona, who spent a year as a TV analyst after the Red Sox fired him in 2011, acknowledged that managing in Boston had sometimes been extremely stressful. But when one of the Boston writers observed that he seemed to be pretty relaxed, the Cleveland manager made it clear that his goals hadn’t changed:
“If I am relaxed, I kept reminding people that I wasn’t going to Cleveland to go to pasture,” he said. “Every game means as much to me as it ever did here [in Boston]. Our goal is exactly the same, to win the games we’re playing, but I like it where I’m at I’m really comfortable with where I’m working and who I’m working with, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have challenges, because we are, but I am enjoying the idea of tackling them with the people I’m with.”
So a new – albeit experienced – manager who’s happy with his job, a sprinkling of veterans to remind the younger players that staying at the top of the division won’t be easy, better pitching than most people expected, and lots of offense. Maybe Cleveland fans, who are accustomed to being tantalized by teams that fade as spring gives way to summer, can begin anticipating a better run.