CLEVELAND: The Indians have been in this position before.
Five times in the previous 10 years, they carried a record of .500 or better after 44 games. Three times in that span, including in 2011 and 2012, their winning percentage was at least .591 at that point in the season.
Yet they made the playoffs only once, in 2007, when they followed through on a 27-17 start with a 96-66 finish.
But somehow this seems different. And I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Indians ace Justin Masterson has been with the Tribe since July 31, 2009. He’s seen fast starts in three of his four seasons. But in previous years, Masterson said there was a sense the Indians were overachieving, that their success was tenuous. They were waiting for the bottom to drop out, and it usually did.
He doesn’t get the same vibe about the 2013 Tribe, 26-18 going into Wednesday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers.
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but as far as the feeling goes, it does feel different,” Masterson said. “It feels like we’re just playing the game. It’s not like, ‘Wow, we’re playing really, really, really good.’ We are. But it’s, ‘We’re doing pretty good.’ It’s a different guy each night. It feels as though we’re just working at it together and it’s happening.”
There is an air of legitimacy about these Indians, and I’m not being swayed by the fact that I returned from vacation Sunday night to find them in first place in the American League Central and the lead story on Baseball Tonight. That’s not to say they’ve reached the level of the Tigers, who have been to two World Series since 2006 and have won back-to-back division titles.
But the Indians seem to be closing the gap. Claiming a wild-card spot, with a second added in 2012, does not seem farfetched.
“I think we’re at a place where this is something we can carry throughout the year,” Masterson said. “I don’t think it’s ‘Wow, these guys are playing way out of their shoes.’ You want to be excited for it and you want to think that you can do it, but the realism — and there are some realistic voices in here who would speak about it — is like ‘I hope we continue, but more than likely this is a pace we can’t hold on to.’ It was maybe a month or maybe a couple weeks, that’s all it took to go downward. I think we have a team that can go down and be able to pick it back up.”
In the past, Masterson said the Indians weren’t good enough to survive without a player like right fielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, who missed his second consecutive game Wednesday after his wife, JoAnna Garcia, gave birth to their first child. Swisher also sat out three games earlier this season to rest his shoulder.
“He’s the team leader, he’d supposedly be our savior,” Masterson said. “He’s a big part of the team, but we’ve got other guys who can fill in and keep the fight going until he returns.”
Not only did the front office spend for front-line free agents Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, but it also brought in high-priced bench players like Jason Giambi and Mike Aviles. Aviles signed a two-year, $6 million contract, a far cry from major league minimum players like Shelley Duncan who used to inhabit the dugout. Giambi’s deal was for a reported $750,000, plus incentives.
This year’s Indians also have a backup right fielder (Ryan Raburn) who is better defensively than last year’s starter (Shin-Soo Choo).
They have a backup catcher (Yan Gomes) who can actually hit.
“We have such a deep lineup that the top can do it one day, the bottom can do it the other day, there’s times we have guys on the bench who can come in. Almost everyone is a threat,” Masterson said. “Those [backup] guys can kill it just like the guys who start. I don’t think we’ve ever really had that since I’ve been here, in that way, shape or form with the experience those guys bring. That’s what kind of sets us apart.”
Masterson said the old Indians might let Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Tigers send them into a tailspin.
“We still thought we had a chance, even in the ninth inning,” Masterson said. “It didn’t come for us, but when you lose a game like that, sometimes it would be like, ‘Oh, man, we’re done. Can we do it? Can we do it?’ Where now it’s like, ‘All right, let’s go get ’em tomorrow.’ ”
Reynolds said the Indians are a “mirror image” of his team last year, the Baltimore Orioles. Their starting pitching was questioned and few believed. After 44 games, they were 28-16. The Orioles went 93-69, earned a wild-card spot and reached the AL Division Series before falling to the New York Yankees three games to two.
“I get the same sense, the same coming to the field every day and expecting to win kind of feeling,” Reynolds said of these Indians.
The Tribe’s deep lineup gives such thoughts credibility. The starting pitching must still come through, just as it did for Reynolds’ Orioles. But unlike in past years, these Indians might be different. They might have staying power.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the 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.