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10/13/07 12:20 AM ET
Tribe likes chances behind Carmona
Quiet confidence helped Game 2 starter rise to top of game
By T.R. Sullivan / MLB.com
BOSTON -- Fausto Carmona has already proven his worth to his Cleveland Indians teammates. He has already shown he can overcome difficult circumstances, steep adversity and the spotlight of the big postseason game. He has already written a remarkable story as a 23-year-old right-hander who has gone from unsuccessful closer to one of the best starters in the American League. Now the Indians need him to step up once again. After dropping Game 1 on Friday night, the Tribe will send Carmona to the mound Saturday night to face Curt Schilling and the Boston Red Sox in the second game of the American League Championship Series. The Indians don't like being down, 1-0, but they certainly feel good about being able to come back with a 19-game winner to try to pull them even before the series goes back to Cleveland. But they also know they could be in deep trouble if their co-ace goes down like C.C. Sabathia did Friday night. "We have as much faith in Fausto as anybody," third baseman Casey Blake said. "He's got one of the best sinkers in the game. He's going to be tough." "I expect him to go and do what he has been doing all year," outfielder Kenny Lofton said. If the Indians lose Saturday, they will be the 11th team in the Wild Card era to drop the first two games of an LCS. Only once -- the 2004 Red Sox -- in the previous 10 matchups has a team been able to overcome that deficit and win the series. "It's just one game, it won't put any more pressure on Fausto," reliever Rafael Betancourt said. "He'll do great, just like he did in the regular season and against the Yankees." Carmona was certainly at his best in a Game 2 start against the Bronx Bombers in the American League Division Series, holding them to one run on three hits over nine innings in a taut pitching duel against playoff veteran Andy Pettitte. The Indians ended up winning in 11 innings. "I think the way he stepped up in the first series against New York, we have all the confidence in the world in him," Tribe pitching coach Carl Willis said. "That's not to put any pressure on him, because he's going to give us his best effort. He's still young and learning, but if the game in New York is any indication of how he'll pitch in a big game, we have all the confidence in the world in him." The only thing is that Fenway Park and Schilling aren't likely to be less of a challenge for a young pitcher in his first postseason. "It's tough in both places, but I don't worry about that," Carmona said. "I'm going to pitch, I'm going to concentrate on facing those hitters. The fans, I'm not going to allow them to get in my head, and I'm just going to pitch and keep the ball down no matter how I pitch. I'm going to be aggressive and keep the ball down. He has overcome far too much to this point to be overwhelmed by the postseason spotlight or an almost must-win situation. This a guy who was 1-10 with a 5.42 with a disastrously short audition as the Indians closer last year, yet was able to put together one of the greatest turnaround seasons in Major League history. Carmona emerged from the morass of his 2006 season to go 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 32 starts for the Indians. Using his power sinker to his ultimate advantage, he had the second lowest ERA in the American League and had the highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the league. "He's been fantastic all year," designated hitter Travis Hafner said. He came from almost nowhere to become one of the best pitchers in the American League, but Schilling, his opponent on Saturday, does know a little something about him. "I know enough to know that I'd rather be facing somebody else," Schilling said. "He was as good as anybody I've seen this year. It's been a long time since I've got into a game being an underdog, but given the year that he had and the way he is throwing, I can absolutely see why people think we're going to have a hard time winning that game." Added Red Sox manager Terry Francona, "We'll have our hands full."
Carmona smiled when told what Schilling said."I don't think Schilling is going to be the underdog," Carmona said. "I don't believe that." Carmona just doesn't seem to let things get to him, whether it's tough times or lavish praise. "He's a rare pitcher," said Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who knows Carmona well after serving five years as the Indians' farm director from 2001-06. "He's always been a very humble, low-key person," Farrell said. "Yes, he pitches with energy, but he's not a loud, boisterous type of guy that relies on a daily stimulant to keep him upbeat and positive. He's a very grounded person. He's a very smart pitcher. He doesn't veer from his strengths." Both manager Eric Wedge and general manager Mark Shapiro said Carmona's ability to learn from last year but not let it tear into his confidence is why he had so much success this season. "You're talking about a tough young man that understands what he has experienced and how to be a better baseball player for it," Wedge said. "Did he learn from it? No doubt about it. Is he a better pitcher today? No doubt about it. He's tougher, he's more experienced. I think this young man could be very successful in any role we put him in, and that includes being a closer." The audition as closer is what many remember about Carmona in 2006. The Indians traded Bob Wickman to the Atlanta Braves on July 28 and turned over the job to Carmona. But he didn't convert three straight chances, including two against the Red Sox, and the role was taken away from him. He ended up with a five-game losing streak and was ultimately sent back to Triple-A to convert back to a starter. But the Indians didn't forget they were still dealing with one of their top pitching prospects. Carmona was called back for four starts in September, going 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA, then made eight starts in the Dominican Winter League, posting a 3.48 ERA. "He failed on the bigger stage as a closer, but he still did well as a middle reliever," Shapiro said. "He still finished up the year strong, both in the big leagues and Latin America. We believe in the guy. There was a track record. "We felt he was going to have a good season. But for him to be one of the top four starters in the big leagues? The surprise was he had this much success, not that he was successful." Carmona put himself back in the Indians' plans with a strong Spring Training and was ready to move into the rotation when Cliff Lee was injured. That's how Carmona ended up in the rotation and ultimately one of the biggest reasons why the Indians returned to postseason play for the first time since 2001. "From the stretch I went through last year as a closer, I learned a lot," Carmona said. "I don't regret what I went through last year, because it makes me stronger. I worked hard in the Dominican during winter ball and worked on my confidence and worked on my pitches, and coming into Spring Training, I forgot completely about what happened the year before." The result has been an unforgettable season thus far.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.