Indians' Roaring Start
New Cast, Same Great Show
This is how well things are going for the Indians: After rallying from a five-run deficit to beat the Royals 8-7 last Saturday, they seemed to take more pleasure in the comeback than in the victory, as if the nine-game winning streak they had carried into the game was cheapened because none of those wins had featured late-inning drama. "The guys here know what a great tradition we have of coming from behind," shortstop Omar Vizquel said. "We were ahead in almost every other game, so this was a good test." Added reliever Paul Shuey, "We had to prove we could come from behind."
It's taken only two weeks of the season for Cleveland to prove that all the preseason speculation about its demise was off base. The Tribe's 11-1 record through Sunday was three wins shy of the best start in franchise history. The Indians were working on a 10-game winning streak and had already built a 31-game lead in the American League Central. This is a team that was widely written off after a winter during which it unloaded Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez in the name of payroll paring. "I'm surprised so many people jumped ship on us this winter," third baseman Travis Fryman said last week. "I kept looking around the locker room saying, 'Do they see all the people I still see around here?' We're much better than people ever gave us credit for."
Cleveland's surge has been led by the top three hitters in the order. Number 2 hitter Vizquel, who had his worst offensive season as an Indian last year (.255 average, .323 on-base percentage, 13 steals), is swinging well again; he hit .311 and scored 13 runs in the first 12 games. The third man in the order, Ellis Burks, had hit in 11 of 12 games (a .419 average, best in the league) and driven in 10 runs.
The big lift, however, has come from new leadoff hitter Matt Lawton, who was acquired from the Mets in the Alomar trade. Lawton didn't win the leadoff job until the end of spring training, but he has since sparked the offense better than Kenny Lofton did last year. Lawton had a .404 on-base percentage and tied for the lead in the majors with 15 runs. It was his fourth home run (which tied him for the team lead with Jim Thome) that breathed life into the Tribe on Saturday; the three-run shot was the centerpiece of a five-run eighth inning that tied the game at 7-7. "I knew Lawton was a solid player," manager Charlie Manuel said, "but I didn't know he was this good."
The once-rabid Cleveland fan base, discouraged by the Indians' hacking $13 million from last year's $91 million payroll, has been slower to catch on. The smallest crowd in Jacobs Field history (23,760) watched the Indians beat the Twins on April 9, and a mere 28,455 bought tickets for Saturday afternoon's dramatic win.