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When it comes to aces, the Cleveland Indians don't even pretend to be playing with a full deck anymore. The franchise that hasn't had a perennial elite starter since Gaylord Perry was lubricating baseballs in the 1970s has lowered its expectations for members of its rotation. Such is the Indians' offensive prowess that mediocrity will suffice. "We need two or three guys to give us six innings every time out and the other two to give us five innings," Cleveland assistant general manager Mark Shapiro said last Friday, in the midst of his team's taking two of three games from the Cincinnati Reds at Cinergy Field. "That's all. If that happens, this club will be fine."
The Indians play a brand of ball usually associated with beer kegs on the bases. At week's end they led the American League in batting (.290), ranked second in runs (512, or nearly 5.8 per game) and boasted the league's two leading hitters, rightfielder Juan Gonzalez and second baseman Roberto Alomar (each .353); its leading home run hitter, first baseman Jim Thome (27); and, in Gonzalez, its leading Triple Crown threat. (Between his average, his 25 homers and his league-high 87 RBIs, he was two homers away from leading in all three categories.) Despite all that pop Cleveland, with its $93 million payroll, was five games behind the Central Division-leading Minnesota Twins, whose payroll was about one fourth of the Tribe's. The most obvious explanation is that the Indians' rotation hasn't even achieved mediocrity.
After a 5-3 loss to the Houston Astros at Enron Field on Sunday, Cleveland's starters ranked last in the league in innings pitched (5-39 per game) and 11th in ERA (5-41). The Indians would be even worse off if not for C.C. Sabathia, a 21-year-old rookie lefthander (8-3, 4.48 ERA) with the perpetually sunny disposition of a lottery winner. Sabathia is so young that he idolized Ken Griffey Jr. growing up, calls his mom every day and spent the All-Star break riding roller coasters at an amusement park. "It was cool," he says.
Pitching coach Dick Pole, still smarting from last season when Cleveland used a major-league-record 32 pitchers, says, "The bullpen [3.12 ERA, second best in the league] has been great, but with the workload it's gotten, you don't want to wind up with corpses out there in September."
Shapiro says he and general manager John Hart, who will yield his duties to Shapiro after this season, decided that "the first 10 games out of the All-Star break are very important. That's two times around the rotation and lets us know where we stand at the July 31 trading deadline." On cue, and with assistance from a tame Cincinnati club, the Indians began the nominal second half with starters Bartolo Colon, Sabathia and Dave Burba each pitching into the seventh inning, a three-game streak not seen from the rotation since May 1.
Alas, just when Cleveland seemed to find cruise control—last Saturday the Tribe was up 5-0 and eight outs from a sweep of the Reds—another warning light flashed, this one set off by closer John Rocker. After righty Burba and the bullpen blew the lead in the seventh inning, an erratic Rocker lost the game 6-5 in the 13th. It was the third defeat in only eight Cleveland appearances for Rocker, who was acquired in a June 22 trade with the Atlanta Braves. One Indians source described Rocker as "a classic top-stepper," a baseball term for a pitcher who causes his manager and staff to watch anxiously from the top step of the dugout. Indeed, through Sunday, Rocker had allowed 14 runners and four runs, all earned, in 8? innings with Cleveland.
"Taking two out of three is a good start toward turning this around," Burba said after the defeat. "The way Minnesota [victorious in 15 of 19 at week's end] is playing, we've got to win each series to have a chance." The 35-year-old righthander, who allowed two earned runs over 6? innings, called his effort "an ego booster," following a horrendous seven-start stretch in which he threw only 33 innings, gave up 32 earned runs and won once. "It's like moving to the back nine after a bad front nine," said Burba, who lowered his ERA to a still-robust 6.22. "It feels like you're starting over."
Likewise, after a 6-7 first half, Colon opened with seven shutout innings in a 7-0 win last Thursday. In 1997 Colon, then 22, and fellow righthander Jaret Wright, 21, were the Indians' aces in the making, with fastballs that nearly hit 100 mph. Cleveland figured one of them, or perhaps both, could become the team's first 20-game winner since Perry went 21-13 in 1974. (Only the Anaheim Angels, who have not had a pitcher win 20 since Nolan Ryan in '74, have waited as long for a 20-game winner.)
The vigil goes on. Wright's development has been stunted by injuries, the latest being weakness in his surgically repaired right shoulder that put him on the shelf at Triple A Buffalo. While Colon did win 18 games in 1999, he hasn't become a staff leader because of his stubborn insistence on throwing fastballs as hard as he can. He is a voracious reader of scoreboard pitch-speed displays. "In some ways he was more of a pitcher in [1995 at Class A] Kinston [ N.C.], where he sat at 92, 93 mph and could go get 98 when he wanted to," says Shapiro. "He still has the ability to be a Number 1 starter. But even if he's not one, he gives you a chance to win every time he's out there. Now, though, he still needs Chuck Finley [to take some of the pressure off him]."
The lefty Finley is 38. At week's end he was 4-4 with a 6.45 ERA and hadn't pitched since June 25 because of an inflamed disk in his neck and a knot in his left shoulder. The Indians expect him back this week, when he is likely to replace either of o. two righthanders, 34-year-old Charles Nagy (3-3, 6.25 ERA) or 23-year-old Jake West-brook (2-1, 3.60) in the rotation.