Tribe beginning to flash '07 form
Slow start fades into past as integral parts play to potential
CLEVELAND -- The Indians may be turning a corner, with plenty of time to spare.
After a 6-4 victory over the Yankees on Friday night at Progressive Field, the Indians have a four-game winning streak -- a modest run, but still a move in the right direction.
There is no doubt that the season has started fitfully for the Indians, who tied for baseball's best record during the 2007 regular season and finished just one victory short of the World Series in the postseason.
An offense that looks imposing on paper has not clicked consistently. The starting pitching has been generally capable, although reigning American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia struggled mightily early, and now Jake Westbrook, who had started the season very well, is on the disabled list.
The bullpen, a long-term source of relentless stability last year, has been more of a question than an answer so far this season. Closer Joe Borowski, the AL's saves leader last year, is out with a right triceps strain, but even beyond that, the general level of relief effectiveness has been diminished in 2008.
On the plus side for the Indians, external forces are not exactly conspiring against them. The AL Central was expected to be even more difficult than usual this year, in part because the Tigers had bulked up an already impressive offense with the addition of Miguel Cabrera and bulked up their payroll to $139 million.
But the Tigers started the year 0-7 and are in a bit of a recovery mode themselves right now. The Twins have lost the game's best left-hander, Johan Santana, and the game's best center fielder, Torii Hunter. A young Royals club is undoubtedly improved, but its solid start gave way to a seven-game losing streak, three of those to the Indians.
The White Sox are the only team currently above .500 in the division, and they're not far enough above .500 to scare anybody. So the Indians' early struggles have resulted, to this point, in nothing worse than a second-place standing.
And the four straight victories, combined with more than a week of better play, produce at least a mild case of encouragement.
"We've got a long way to go -- I think that goes without saying," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "But we've been a little more consistent offensively. The starting pitching continues to be pretty good for us. We still have a lot to work out in the bullpen. We still have a lot of questions to answer, roles to be filled. Defensively, knock on wood, we've been pretty consistent this year."
The bullpen has been a particular area of concern.
"I'm not satisfied," Wedge said of his relief corps. "I think we need to be better. I think some guys are doing a decent job, and others aren't."
But the two relievers who were utilized on Friday night were up to standards, and then some. In relief of starter Paul Byrd, lefty Rafael Perez produced 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief, and then the closer of the moment, Rafael Betancourt, pitched a perfect ninth for the save.
This was a particularly satisfying victory for the Indians, achieved in a comeback against a difficult opponent and a difficult pitcher, Andy Pettitte. Down, 3-1, the Indians put up a remarkable two-out, four-run rally in the fifth, the centerpiece of which was shortstop Jhonny Peralta's three-run home run.
"It's still early in the season, but we're starting to see the consistency with our guys," Wedge said. "It doesn't always translate, but the most important part of it is that we see the consistency with the at-bats.
"I think we're seeing more of that. We've been much more consistent the last week to 10 days."
The way the Indians have reacted to some early adversity, just as they demonstrated in Friday's game, has also offered encouragement.
"We're tough," Byrd said. "Our team has a lot of character. We don't fold."
"There's a lot of things here that have happened quickly that we've had to work through," Wedge said, "and I think one thing our guys are doing is they're fighting through it. That's all I can ask -- fight through it, don't give in to it, get after it. That's probably been the difference in the past week."
It turns out that this season in the AL Central, a slow start was a luxury that the Indians could afford. But sooner or later, someone in this talented group of teams will put something together. So the best next step for the Indians would be making certain that the recent revival is the real thing.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.