Going into the All-Star break with 51 victories, the Indians’ most since 2007, a “Woo Woo” seems in order, although I’m still wondering about the origin of the new rallying cry.
Standing just 1½ games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and seven games above .500 (51-44) was unimaginable a month ago. The Indians stumbled through a 3-16 stretch from May 21 through June 10, which left them 5½ games out, a deficit they faced as late as June 17.
But the Tribe finished by winning five of its last six, including Sunday’s 6-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals to complete a three-game sweep.
While nothing has been decided, there was an unmistakable swagger in the clubhouse.
“We’re starting to get a little cocky,” first baseman Nick Swisher said. “There’s been a couple bumps along the road, but what year don’t you have bumps?
“We could have rolled over. It’s that attitude we have this year. We brought in 15 new faces. When you bring in 15 different characters, you’re going to have some attitude.”
Second baseman Jason Kipnis, rushing to catch a plane along with pitcher Justin Masterson for their first All-Star Game, was just as enthused.
“From spring training on, we know the potential we have. We never strayed off the path too far,” Kipnis said. “We kept a lot of confidence in ourselves. It was so early, we knew it was something we could easily bounce back from. That all stems from the top on down, from guys like Tito [Francona] and [designated hitter Jason] Giambi, those guys keep you in line, they take the weight of the world off your chest because they simplify things and they pick you up.”
Manager Terry Francona seemed thrilled at the fact that “starting on Friday, every game counts.”
With that in mind, I’ll explore why I believe the Indians will make the playoffs, and why I think they won’t:
Why they will: Francona. After a decade of Eric Wedge and Manny Acta, the Indians hired their best manager since Mike Hargrove. Francona has proved masterful at fostering a family atmosphere, knowing when players need a day off (perhaps even before they do), along with combining his instincts and strategic acumen. Part of me still can’t believe he came to Cleveland.
Why they won’t: If everyone starts feeling the pressure at the same time, all of Francona’s tricks won’t save them.
Why they will: The schedule. The brutal part is over. In the remaining 67 games, the Indians have only 19 games against teams above .500. The Tigers, in their remaining 68, have 22. While it may not be an edge for either, it should mean more Indians victories after the break.
Why they will: No. 2 starter Ubaldo Jimenez has been much more consistent than last season. I’m stunned that Jimenez has allowed two runs or less in 10 of his last 15 starts. I still believe he’s the key if they’re to play in the postseason.
Why they won’t: Jimenez could lose it at any moment. He has a tendency to nibble, resulting in too many walks and high pitch counts. I find it hard to believe the Indians will make the playoffs if he continues to pitch five innings per start and wear out the bullpen.
Why they will: Depth. In recent years, the Indians haven’t had a bench with the likes of Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn and Giambi. Gomes and Aviles are starting-caliber. Their presence, and the Tribe’s versatile players, has enabled Francona to use 75 different lineups. Michael Brantley has batted in every spot except ninth.
Why they won’t: Some of that depth may be sacrificed if the Indians make a trade before the July 31 deadline. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported the Indians are talking to the St. Louis Cardinals about shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. While I question parting with an All-Star during a playoff push, I would be in favor if the Indians could get a pitcher (starter or reliever) who would be sticking around for longer than this season. Cabrera’s value is at its peak. Francisco Lindor, the shortstop of the future, moves up to Class-AA Akron today. But the Tigers could make some moves before the deadline to help stave off the Tribe.
Why they will: New pitching coach Mickey Callaway and the Tribe starters. In his first year, Callaway seems to have gotten through to all. The starting pitching drastically improved in the eight games before the break, posting a 2.40 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .200 average. They went 60 consecutive innings without giving up a home run, the Tribe’s longest stretch since August 1972. Corey Kluber (7-5) has been a surprise. Jimenez may need the most psychological coaching, but Callaway seems to be able to handle him mentally and technically.
Why they won’t: Those aforementioned numbers don’t seem sustainable over the long haul.
Why they will: Speed. Michael Bourn, Kipnis, Drew Stubbs and Brantley have all reached double digits in stolen bases. Under Francona, the Indians go from first to third on a single when they have the chance. This is especially valuable when it’s time to scratch out a run.
Why they won’t: All the speed in the world won’t matter if injuries/slumps prevent those fleet feet from getting on base.
Why they will: Swisher should be better. Swisher’s production hasn’t lived up to his four-year, $56 million contract. But the king of “Brohio” has been battling a shoulder injury. The energy he’s brought to the clubhouse has been palpable.
Why they won’t: Swisher isn’t getting paid for energy. The Indians are in trouble if the injury continues to limit Swisher’s power. Swisher has nine home runs and 31 RBI, which projects to 15 home runs and 53 RBI over 162 games. Since he became a major-league regular with the Oakland A’s in 2005, Swisher has never hit fewer than 21 home runs or totaled less than 69 RBI.
My gut feeling is the Indians will battle the Tigers down to the final week, finish second in the AL Central and won’t make the playoffs. They are three games behind the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays in the wild-card standings.
For them to secure one of those, they need drastic improvement from Jimenez, Swisher, Mark Reynolds and the bullpen and steady production from the rest.
While my heart tells me otherwise, that seems too much to ask, even from a team as resilient as the 2013 Indians.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.