OAKLAND -- The Indians knew they were getting a good glove man when they signed first baseman Casey Kotchman over the offseason. A little more than two weeks into the regular season, Kotchman has come precisely as advertised.
"He's a magician when it comes to picking balls out of the dirt," Indians infielder Jason Donald said.
Kotchman's skills around the bag were certainly apparent in Thursday's 2-1 victory over the Mariners in Seattle. In the fourth inning, the first baseman made a pair of highlight-reel plays -- a catch of a line drive and an impressive scoop of a throw from Donald -- with a runner on third base to bring an emphatic halt to a potential Seattle rally.
Donald, who was manning shortstop Thursday, glided up the middle and gloved a sharp grounder off the bat of Kyle Seager for the inning's final out. On the play, Donald spun and threw to first base, where Kotchman stretched and fell to the ground, keeping the front of his foot on the base to retire Seager just in time.
"Very few guys in the league are probably able to make that play," manager Manny Acta said. "To stretch and keep the foot on the bag, he has saved a few runs for us already in two weeks. Even when we struggled at home, he did save some runs for us. It doesn't go unnoticed. He's very good at what he does over there."
Donald said Kotchman does wonders for the rest of the infielders.
"He's been huge. Huge," Donald said. "Good first basemen save so many innings. They save so many plays. He really gives you the freedom to feel like you can throw a ball anywhere. If you miss a little bit, you have a good feeling that he's going to make the play for you. There's a little bit more margin for error."
Patient approach at plate leading to more walks
OAKLAND -- The Indians went into Spring Training with the goal of reducing the offense's strikeout rate over the past few seasons. Cleveland's coaching staff emphasized different approaches when in a two-strike count in an effort to improve.
One of the early results has been an increased walk total.
"We've done a very good job of keeping traffic on the bases," Indians manager Manny Acta said on Friday at the Coliseum. "You put pressure on the other pitcher by doing that kind of stuff. We try to educate these guys on, when you go to the plate, you go to hit to walk, not walk to hit.
"So far, they've been successful. We haven't had a complaint that they've been too passive or anything like that. It's huge for our game."
Heading into Friday's game against the A's, the Indians ranked first in the American League with 57 walks despite having played the fewest games of any team. The team's on-base percentage of .333 ranked fourth in the AL. Last season, Cleveland was in the middle of the pack, ranking seventh and eighth in the league, respectively, for walks (494) and OBP (.317).
The poster boy for the early-season patience has been Tribe left fielder Shelley Duncan, who entered Friday tied with Toronto's Jose Bautista and Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist with an AL-high 11 free passes. Duncan ranked second in the American League with an average of 4.81 pitches seen per plate appearance.
"It's been huge," Acta said. "That's part of having quality at-bats."
As for the strikeouts, Cleveland headed into Friday's game with 89 strikeouts, which ranked 10th among the 14 American League clubs. Last year, the Indians struck out 1,269 times, which marked the most in a single season in franchise history.
"We concentrated more on cutting down the strikeouts," Acta said of their plan of attack during the spring. "It's a small sample, but we're doing a lot better."
Damon on target to join Tribe in coming weeks
OAKLAND -- Veteran outfielder Johnny Damon has continued to increase his baseball activities and remains on target to join the Indians at some point within the next couple of weeks, according to manager Manny Acta.
"His schedule hasn't changed," Acta said on Friday.
The 38-year-old Damon -- officially signed to a Minor League contract by Cleveland on Tuesday -- is currently at the Indians' training complex in Goodyear, Ariz., going through daily workouts in preparation for games. The outfielder will take part in extended Spring Training games before being moved to a Minor League affiliate.
Acta noted that Damon likely would work as a designated hitter in his first game action.
"We just have to make sure that he's physically fit before we throw him out there," Acta said. "I'm probably anticipating that he's probably going to DH to have some at-bats before he jumps out there in the outfield. It's coming -- soon."
When Damon does join the Indians, he likely will get most of his at-bats as a left fielder. The Tribe already has a full-time DH in veteran Travis Hafner. As things currently stand, Cleveland's outfield alignment consists of left fielder Shelley Duncan, center fielder Michael Brantley and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, with Aaron Cunningham on the bench.
Center fielder Grady Sizemore, who is currently on the 60-day disabled list due to a lower back injury, is slated to resume baseball activities next week. The Indians are not expecting to have Sizemore back in the fold until the first week of June at the earliest.
Quote to note
"Everybody remembers [Jack] Hannahan's game-winning hit, but actually the walk by [Carlos] Santana is what set up everything. We all know how important it is to get the first guy on and how bad it is for pitchers when they walk the first batter."
--Manager Manny Acta, on Cleveland's two-run rally in the ninth inning Thursday night
Entering Friday's game against the A's, the Indians ranked first in the Majors with an average of one walk per 8.33 plate appearances. The Padres ranked second with a walk rate of 8.90. Tampa Bay ranked second to the Tribe in the American League with a 9.19 average.
Members of Oakland's 1972 World Series team were on hand at the Coliseum for a 40th anniversary celebration on Friday. That included Indians left fielder Shelley Duncan's dad, Dave Duncan. The elder Duncan was a catcher for Oakland during that season.
Indians third baseman Jack Hannahan carried a .313 season average into Friday's game in Oakland. Against right-handed pitching, the left-handed hitting Hannahan had hit .381 (8-for-21), which ranked fourth overall among American League hitters.