09/18/07 11:47 PM ET
Future is now for surging Indians
With defeat of Tigers, everything's bright in Cleveland
The Indians are rapidly closing in on the American League Central title. With a resounding display of power and effective relief pitching the Indians defeated their closest pursuers, the Detroit Tigers, 7-4, on Tuesday night.
With 11 games left in the regular season, the Indians are 6 1/2 games ahead in the AL Central. Although the path to this coveted position was not exactly a straight line, this is where they persistently believed that they should be. They were not wrong.
The new-era Indians, behind an impressive second-half surge, finished 93-69 in 2005 and were widely hailed as the team of the future in the AL. But the future was not 2006, when they finished a disappointing 78-84.
At that point, the organization did not panic, did not engage in wholesale changes, did not display a lot of public hand-wringing. Credit general manager Mark Shapiro and company for maintaining what turned out to be a completely accurate belief in the talent and potential of the players on this roster.
This season, which looks more and more like Cleveland's first division championship in six years, offers a parallel. The Indians scuffled some earlier in the campaign. It wasn't a matter of the club being in a prolonged, damaging slump. It was just a matter of not playing at a level that would win the division.
Through these times, manager Eric Wedge would give voice to variations on this theme:
"Our best days need to be, and will be, ahead of us."
He was right. The best days for the Indians have included a 24-8 stretch, playing .750 baseball over the last five weeks.
"It's an up and down game, but if you look at it from an overall perspective, we've had a pretty consistent year," Wedge said on Tuesday. "But I felt like our best days were ahead of us, because at that time we weren't to the point where we as good as we felt we could be."
The important element there is not losing sight of what you truly believe your club can achieve.
"You can't," Wedge says. "But you know what? I'm privy to every second of every day being involved with these guys and you can see little things that are happening, that mean we're moving in the right direction. In this situation here, you could see certain things happening with different areas of the club and with different individuals. You just needed to allow it to happen and direct it."
It may be that part of the foundation for the Indians' current success was put in place in the depths of last season. Hopelessly out of the running entirely too early due to their own shortcoming and an incredible run by the Tigers, the Indians did manage to gather themselves and were a respectable 33-25 over the last two months of the season. That was the essence of what Wedge preaches, "competing against ourselves," always attempting to get to your own best level, regardless of what anybody else is doing.
"You always have to do that," Wedge says. "Last year we worked hard to finish strong and get to the point where we were playing like we needed to play. And we did the last couple of months. We weren't in a race, but you still play the game like you're supposed to play the game. You play the game with pride, you still go out there and compete. ... That's what you have to do.
"You have to look at the way our kids played then. And they did it for the right reasons; respect for the game and because that's just how you have to play."
Tuesday night's game was another showcase for what's right with the Indians. They were down early, 4-1, but so what? They rallied -- and against Detroit ace Justin Verlander, no less -- hitting four home runs, including a tying three-run shot by Travis Hafner that reached the stands beyond right-center in roughly the same time that would've taken a laser beam.
And then there was another night of impeccable work by the bullpen, including three sparkling innings from rookie reliever Jensen Lewis, who picked up his first Major league victory. Lewis struck out four, and the only runner he allowed was a hit batter.
It was a remarkably effective performance, entering in a tie game and keeping the imposing Detroit lineup off the board. Wedge termed it "above and beyond the call of duty." Lewis, asked if he was actually as composed as he appeared on the mound, smiled and said: "I hope so."
"The atmosphere was just electric," Lewis said. "You couldn't ask for anything better."
That atmosphere is being reinforced throughout Jacobs Field. Indians employees are wearing red shirts with white lettering that transmits this happy message:
"It's Tribe Time Now."
That's exactly what time it is. And it's Tribe time now, because during the times that weren't so good, this organization didn't change course, didn't panic, didn't lose sight of the worth of its personnel. The patience that was displayed while waiting and working for the good times to come was truly a baseball virtue.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.