Byrd's eye view
High-flying Indians making up for '06 disappointment
Posted: Friday May 25, 2007 12:57PM; Updated: Friday May 25, 2007 12:57PM
The Indians were positively pumped coming out of spring training. It was clear to anyone who bothered to look their way that this was a team that could win -- it has been, truth be told, for a couple of years now -- and that, finally, they were ready to win.
They started off well, taking two out of three in their first series in Chicago. Then they flew to Cleveland for their home opener against the Mariners that first weekend in April ... and the snow came. And came some more. And kept coming. Almost before it started, the Indians' promising season fish-tailed to a stop.
That could have been a bad omen for the Tribe, maybe the most disappointing team in baseball last year. Sitting around for four full days during a whiteout with nothing to do but think. Watching future off days disappear into the snow. Getting stiff, getting lazy, losing that early-season fire. The season interruptus came at the worst of times.
"We could've used it as an excuse," right-hander Paul Byrd, one of the team's most effective starters so far this season, says of the snowstorm. "We were really excited about the year, and we get out there and there's snow all over the place. [Sitting around] will hurt a pitcher. And it can certainly hurt a team.
"But it really kind of helped us. It was like 'Hey, it's Cleveland. Let's just not complain.' I think the veterans kind of set the tone for that."
As it turns out, the blizzard in Cleveland has been barely a blip on the Indians' season so far. Cleveland is one of the American League's early success stories, a team with a powerhouse lineup and a surprisingly effective pitching staff. The Indians were 14-8 in April and they're 14-9 in May, giving them the third-best record in the league, behind the Red Sox and Tigers.
This weekend we'll get a good feel for just how good the Indians might be when they travel to Detroit to play a three-game series against the Tigers, the hottest team in the league and the Indians' main competition in the AL Central. It's the first meeting between the teams this year.
The Indians have been on the verge of winning big for a few years. A last-week collapse in 2005 scuttled their postseason hopes, but they still won 93 games, stoking fans' hopes for a postseason appearance in '06. They started 6-1 last season but by early June they had sunk under .500 for good. They finished with 78 wins, 18 games behind the champion Twins.
"Last year, we lost a lot of -- how do I say this? -- we just weren't clicking on all cylinders. It was just an inconsistency," Byrd says. "Our bullpen blew too many games, and that just takes the wind out of your sails. You're all eating in the clubhouse afterward, and it's like a morgue.
"This year," Byrd adds, almost incredulously, "our fifth starter, Fausto Carmona, is the team ace."
The Indians did a lot this winter to address those bullpen problems, but their biggest improvement may be Carmona, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-4 right-hander from the Dominican Republic who pitched out of that woeful 'pen last year and was just 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA. Moved into the rotation this year, he saw his first start of the season delayed because of the snowstorm and then, when he finally pitched against the White Sox, he lasted only 4 1/3 innings. Since then, he's been almost unstoppable, going 5-0 in his past seven starts with a 1.94 ERA. (He's 5-1 with a 2.77 ERA overall.)
If Carmona is the biggest surprise of the young season, the veteran Byrd, a slight 36-year-old right-hander, isn't far behind. Byrd doesn't possess the hard stuff that Carmona, lefty C.C. Sabathia or some of the other starters on the team have. But he's worked a refined curve and a newfound split-fingered fastball into his pitching bag this year and come out with a 4-1 record in seven starts, with a 3.55 ERA. His control has been among the best in the league; he's walked only three hitters in 45 2/3 innings.
Byrd worked with the Braves' John Smoltz this winter -- both make their homes in Alpharetta, Ga. -- to improve his split-finger. Smoltz suggested that Byrd move his index and middle fingers closer together to make the grip less like a forkball and more like a split-finger, and Byrd says he feels so comfortable with the pitch now that he throws it maybe 15 percent of the time.
The improved curve is another story. Byrd and Indians reliever Tom Mastny have taken to tossing a hockey puck back and forth in the outfield before games, a trick Mastny says helps the thrower get a feel for the downward break of a big curve. Byrd considers Mastny's curve the best in the league, even if his training methods come off as a little bizarre.
"Fans laugh at us, looking like idiots in the outfield," Byrd says. "But I'll be an idiot if it helps me win games."
Byrd could have had one more win on his resume if not for that freakish snowstorm at the start of the season. In the home opener against the Mariners, the Indians had endured nearly three hours of snow delays but led 4-0 with two outs in the fifth. Byrd had two strikes on hitter Jose Lopez. The game was, in effect, one pitch away from being considered an official game.
Then umpires, with snow falling heavily and Seattle manager Mike Hargrove protesting that his hitters couldn't see, called another delay. An hour and 17 minutes later, umps waved off the game completely, rescheduling it for the next day. Byrd is still upset over the decision.
"I wasn't until the Mariners came to town [last Monday] and you're standing there and I saw Hargrove, and I'm thinking 'That dirty rat,'" Byrd says, laughing. "I was upset. But I guess he was just doing what was best for his team."
The Indians have some tweaking to do if they're to make a run at making the postseason for the first time since 2001. Their revamped bullpen has a 4.31 ERA, still good for only ninth in the league. Their closer, Joe Borowski, has 14 saves, but he's blown two and has a 7.94 ERA. The defense is still shaky. Outside of Carmona, Sabathia and Byrd, there are questions about the rotation with Cliff Lee and the injured Jake Westbrook. Some still wonder whether Carmona can last out a season, and whether Byrd can continue to pitch this well.
But a lot of people, both inside and outside of the team, still have a good feeling about the Indians. They have from the start. An April blizzard couldn't stop the Tribe. We'll see if the Tigers, or anyone else, can.
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