With a week
remaining last season, the Indians appeared poised to win the AL wild card.
They were a half game up on the Red Sox with an enticing schedule in front of
them: one game at Kansas City and six at home, three each against the Devil
Rays and the White Sox, who had already clinched the Central title. With a
37--12 record since the start of August, the Tribe seemed destined to be a
major force in October. "They were the team nobody wanted to play,"
says Paul Byrd, who pitched for the Angels last year before signing a two-year,
$14.25 million free-agent deal with Cleveland in December.
Then it all came
apart in a 1--6 finish. In the game against the Royals, centerfielder Grady
Sizemore lost a ball in the sun, allowing K.C.'s winning run to score. The
immortal Seth McClung (6.59 ERA in 2005) threw a shutout for the Devil Rays,
who took two of three from the Indians. And, despite resting several regulars,
Chicago swept Cleveland. Over those final seven games the Indians scored 20
runs and hit .227. The word choke filled the airwaves in Cleveland, but
Sizemore has a different explanation for the sudden collapse. "I'd chalk it
up to inexperience," says Sizemore, who, at 23, is one of the Indians' 19
players who are under the age of 25. "Maybe our downfall that last week was
trying too hard. But from being around the guys in this room all last year, I
can tell you we try hard every single game. I mean, if I don't get a hit in a
game, I want to jump off the top of a building."
In 2005 Sizemore,
shortstop Jhonny Peralta, 23, and DH Travis Hafner, 28, emerged as three of the
game's best hitters at their positions. And the Indians tied the world champion
White Sox for the league's best ERA (3.61) while scoring 49 more runs than
Chicago. But at the same time, the Indians averaged less than one sacrifice
every four games and succeeded on only 63% of their steal attempts. The White
Sox, by contrast, excelled in those areas, which helps explain why Chicago took
14 of its 19 meetings against Cleveland, including nine of 10 at Jacobs Field.
The two teams played nine one-run games, all of which the White Sox won; for
the season the Indians set a franchise record with 36 one-run losses.
the spring Cleveland focused on such things as bunting, stealing bases and
advancing runners. "Eric addressed it with us right away," says Hafner
of manager Eric Wedge's extra attention to smallball. "When we're not
scoring seven, eight runs a game, we've got to be able to manufacture
And that has to
start with Sizemore, a handsome, graceful, 6'2", 200-pound native of
Seattle, who became a matinee idol in Cleveland in his first full major league
season. (Swooning women wore T-shirts with mrs. sizemore on the front.) He is
just one example of the exceptional job fourth-year general manager Mark
Shapiro has done in mining young talent. Since his 2002 acquisition of
Sizemore, lefthander Cliff Lee and Triple A second baseman Brandon Phillips for
pitcher Bartolo Colon--a deal that laid the foundation for the Indians'
renaissance-- Shapiro has continued to stockpile first-rate prospects. Among
those who could soon make a Sizemore-like impact are third baseman Andy Marte
(On Deck), lefthanded starter Jeremy Sowers (14-4, 2.37 ERA in the minors in
'05) and righty closer-of-the-future Fernando Cabrera (2-1, 1.47 ERA in 15
appearances with the Indians).
youthfulness may have cost the Indians down the stretch last year, it also has
its benefits. Sitting with Sizemore, one can see why the club has so much
confidence in him and is so excited about the seasons to come. He has a humble
aura and exudes a passion for the game that is unusual for someone of his
generation. Asked if he had been shocked by his success in his first season,
Sizemore smiled and looked away, in an aw-shucks manner. "What's
shocking," he said, "is that I get to play baseball for a living. I get
to come to the ballpark every day and do what I love most. I mean, look at
this. Look at my arm right now."
outstretched left forearm was covered in goose bumps. "See," he said,
"and we're just talking."
Last year Cliff
Lee (18) and C.C. Sabathia (15) became the first pair of Indians lefties to
each win 15 games in the same season since Al Milnar (18) and Al Smith (15) did
it in 1940.
a modest proposal
The Indians' eight
every-day position players averaged 146 games each last season, more than any
other team's except the Yankees' (148). Considering that Cleveland lost six of
its last seven games--and the Marlins, who ranked third in average games played
(142), dropped 12 of 17 at the end of the year--Tribe manager Eric Wedge should
consider giving his regulars more days off during the season. Reserves such as
Eduardo Perez, 36, who hit 11 homers in 161 at bats for the Devil Rays last
year, and Todd Hollandsworth, 32, (right) who has a career .275 average and
.772 OPS, could help the Indians avoid another swoon.