Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dream on

It must be a dream. No other explanation for it.

It’s a dream every Cleveland baseball fan dreams. The Indians are the best team in baseball. Just about everything goes right.

They win at home as no Indians team has done in the last 100-plus seasons. Split on the road. The formula for teams that usually wind up in the postseason.

Drama drips from just about every victory. Progressive Field is no longer referred to jokingly as Regressive Field.

The dream continues.

The pitching is not spectacular. Just steady. The hitting is not spectacular. Just downright clutch. The fielding is not spectacular. Just . . . well, just like the pitching, steady.

Runs are not hard to come by. Pitchers have learned that strike one on the first pitch to a batter elevates their chances of success. The Indians don’t beat themselves with silly fundamental mistakes. The days of giving the opposition four and five outs an inning are over.

Fans in this dream are slow to realize that this Indians team, the one many experts predicted for a fourth-place finish in the American League’s Central Division, is better than they thought. Way better.

Then I wake up from that dream every morning and get the newspaper. Turn immediately to the baseball standings. Hasn’t been that way for a few years. The team that lost to Boston in the playoffs a few years ago has been broken up. No reason the check those standings.

Until now. And now, I can’t wait.

Now, that dream morphs into reality. The standings say so. Best record in baseball.

The little team that couldn’t, the little team that emerged from spring training with the minutest hope of playing beyond September, the little team the world of baseball is just discovering, is no longer the little team.

It clearly has caught just about everyone’s attention. It’s a great story and Monday night, the rest of the nation found out – again in dramatic fashion – just why the Cleveland Indians have won two of every three games. Found out why this is no fluke. Found out that something magical is happening.

ESPN’s cameras were there to find out Monday night. ESPN, when not trolling with the glitterati of the sports world, jumps on bandwagons. It took nearly two months of the season, but the network finally discovered what was happening in Cleveland.

First national exposure for the Indians, who have become the feel-good story of the 2011 season.

ESPN loves drama. And the Indians delivered Monday night. The no-name team picked up a little national love with its umpteenth last-at-bat, come-from-behind victory, this time over the network’s beloved Boston Red Sox.

They’re doing it on offense with the likes of Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jack Hannahan, Orlando Cabrera, Shelley Duncan, newcomer Travis Buck and Matt LaPorta, a pitching staff minus a left-handed starter and a manager who has never managed a winning team in the majors.

They’re doing it even though two of their best hitters have yet to hit as expected. Shin-Soo Choo is showing signs of emerging, but Carlos Santana continues to flirt with the Mendoza line.

And they’re doing it despite injuries to a pair of offensive threats, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore.

So why is this all happening? Let’s start with the pitching staff. No one figured Justin Masterson, John Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco, Fausto Carmona and whoever at No. 5 would perform so well.

Thirty quality starts in 45 opportunities. Fewest runs (153) allowed. Second-fewest walks. Third in batting average against. Only 31 opposition home runs.

The only weakness? Twelfth in strikeouts. Cleveland pitchers pitch to contact. And the defense backs them up. Only 11 unearned runs. The Indians rank second in the league in defense with only 28 errors.

Best bullpen in the American League. With the likes of Tony Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp and closer Chris Perez, all the starters have to do is get to the seventh inning with the lead and the door slamming begins.

On offense, Cleveland leads the league in hitting, hitting with runners in scoring position, and is second in on-base percentage and OPS. Only the New York Yankees have scored more runs.

Asdrubal no longer is a funny-sounding first name. Right now, he just might be the best all-around shortstop in the American League.

Hafner, when healthy, hasn’t hit like this in three years. Same with Sizemore. But they can’t stay healthy. It’s the resourcefulness of this team that seems to have overcome those obstacles.

Manager Manny Acta is pushing all the right buttons and pulling all the right strings. And he’s making a lot of Indians fans giddy in the process.

How much longer will this continue? Or will it continue? Skeptics will say this is just another Cleveland tease. Big buildup for a bigger letdown. It won’t last.

Maybe. Maybe not.

So if this is a dream, then I hope it doesn’t stop.

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