Fourteen final thoughts for the number of hours I might sleep my first night back in my own bed. (I'm still on East Coast time.)
1. Jason Giambi’s prediction that Michael Brantley is about to take his game to the next level appears to be on track. Brantley was given the day off Thursday. He finished the Arizona portion of the spring schedule batting .522 with 12 RBI in 16 games. He struck out only once in 46 at-bats. Before Thursday night’s games, Brantley’s average was leading the major leagues, with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andew McCutchen second at .444.
2. “He’s a good hitter and I think he’s gotten stronger,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of Brantley Wednesday. “As he learns the league and he learns himself, you’ll see him getting better. That bodes well for us.”
3. If there was one statistic that struck me about the spring games I saw from March 6-27, it was the amount of doubles the Indians hit. They left Arizona with 66, including eight by Brantley and six by Asdrubal Cabrera. Going into Thursday night’s games, their total was tied for fifth in the majors. The team is built to play at Progressive Field, where there are going to be few homers hit to center field, 410 feet at its deepest point. But it seemed like every time I looked up someone was lining a ball into the left or right field corner.
4. Francona said the toughest player to evaluate this spring has been new closer John Axford. Signed to a one-year, $4.5 million free agent contract, Axford is trying to revive his career after being demoted and eventually traded by the Milwaukee Brewers last season.
5. “He’s probably the hardest guy in spring training of anybody. You can’t simulate that,” Francona said. “You can wait around until 4 o’clock and face the team from Chattanooga, which doesn’t really help. If you bring him in in the fourth inning, it’s better hitters, but it’s the fourth inning. A lot of those guys pitch on adrenalin. I think we’re looking forward to getting him on a roll.”
6. Their manager doesn’t like labels, but the Indians love nicknames. Last season Mike Aviles dubbed the bench players the “Goon Squad.” Now Nick Swisher has come up with the “Thundercats,” which he says includes Danny Salazar, Cody Allen and Jason Kipnis.
7. Asked where he got that, Swisher said, “I don’t know, man, it just hits me sometimes.” There did seem to be a theme. Salazar is 24, Allen 25, Kipnis 27. “I think it’s got to be certain years in the league,” Swisher said. Another T-shirt seems in order.
8. The season starts Monday and Francona wishes he could fast-forward a month or two. He said he hates the questions about players in early slumps or deceptive streaks. He also said he can’t tell what kind of team he has in April.
9. “As silly as it may sound, I look forward to getting into the grind of the season,” Francona said. “Getting a lot of the firsts out of the way. Hopefully there are a lot of good firsts. Get into the season where you’re not answering questions about the guy who got off (to a) 1 for 20 (start) or a guy who’s 10 for 20, ‘Do you think he’s going to hit .500 this year?’ If you win five in a row, ‘Are you going to win the World Series?’ If you lose five in a row, ‘Are you guys going to be able to come back?’ When you get into the season, that’s when you find out what kind of team you are.”
10. In 2013 the Indians survived a rollercoaster season, including a 10-game winning streak at the end that put them Indians in the American League Wild Card Game. But he doesn’t believe that means anything now.
11. “We did weather it,” Francona said. “It’s a different season. If we had lost the last game of the year on a fluky bounce and somebody else would have won, I wouldn’t have felt any different about the team.”
12. The attendant in the center field parking lot Salt River Fields at Talking Stick was complaining that there was nobody at Thursday’s game and how attendance had tailed off this week. The crowd was announced as 11,929, the seventh home sellout by the Diamondbacks. Apparently he’s never been to Goodyear Ballpark, where they drew 5,205 for a St. Patrick's Day game against the Cincinnati Reds.
13. The Indians slap hands after the game just like in the regular season. On Thursday, Elliot Johnson made a point to include the bat boy before he left the field.
14. One of director of baseball information Bart Swain’s duties Thursday was making sure every player turned in his entrance song. Johnson told Swain he wanted “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. When Swain asked which part, Johnson sung it to Swain.