Thursday, May 15, 2008


With a couple of exceptions -- a 12-run outburst against Toronto, notably -- the Cleveland Indians left their bats down in Winter Haven. The only regular starter hitting over .300 is Victor Martinez, who, as a No. 4 hitter, has yet to hit one home run. Though some are starting to come around - Hafner has hit in his last few - the offensive state for the Wahoos is still certifiably anemic.

OK, the complaining and negativity end here, I promise. The Indians are 22-19 and back in first place in the AL Central. What's there to complain about, really?

The starting pitching staff has handcuffs on every single hitter in their American League, going an epic 55 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. As of Friday, it's been a week since the Indians' starters have given up an earned run. In that time span, they threw three complete-game shutouts, if you count Cliff Lee's nine-inning goose egg that amounted to a no-decision (and I count it.) Lee threw a eight innings of shutout ball in his previous start against the Yankees, and two starts before that, he threw a two-hit shutout in Kansas City, sandwiching in there a terrible start in which he gave up a three-run homer and still won. (In some circles, that's known as a "quality start.")

The defense has been stellar. Sure, Asdrubal Cabrera turned an unassisted triple play, but he also has made some mind-boggling catches in the field. Grady Sizemore is running down everything hit in the air to center field, and both Franklin Gutierrez and Ben Francisco have been showcasing their strong arms, throwing out numerous base runners.

To me, the real stunner is Aaron Laffey. Laffey was solid last year as the Tribe's No. 5 during the second half of the season. He logged a 4-2 record with a 4.56 ERA in 9 starts last year and assured that Cliff Lee would stay at AAA (turns out that was a very good thing for Lee). No one really gave Laffey much of a shot to win the No. 5 starter spot out of Spring Training, and they were right. He didn't pitch particularly well in Winter Haven. But he's hit his stride since the call-up, filling in more than adequately for Jake Westbrook, who was tremendous himself before he got hurt. Laffey must stay up with the varsity when Westbrook comes back, in my opinion. Maybe the Indians should try a six-man rotation? It will save some innings from the rest of the staff for later in the season. Can you imagine? A six-man rotation with three lefties and three righties? Three hard-throwers and three finesse guys? Preparing for that kind of versatility would give managers, hitting coaches and hitters absolute fits.

In short, the Tribe has the most depth in baseball as the most coveted position. If they can move Betancourt back to the eighth-inning role, where he is most effective and comfortable, they will be set in the bullpen. And I think Eric Wedge can make this move now, as Masa Kobayashi appears to have the moxy to close out games.

The Tribe loses the designated hitter this weekend as they travel down I-71 to play a set in Cincinnati, but I don't think it matters. They've been playing National League baseball -- scratch that, 1960s era National League baseball -- for the past two weeks. The pitchers hitting my actually help them. Jeremy Sowers starts tomorrow night, and if he twirls a gem, the Indians will have a logjam in their rotation so tight that the only thing busier than Mark Shapiro's cell phone -- with offers from other general managers for a starter -- will be Carl Willis', who will receive calls from reporters who want to feature the next Leo Mazzone.

Small ball: It worked in 1948. Why not now?

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Thursday night, after the Celtics' 89-73 win in Game 2 over the Cavaliers, it started to creep into my mind that maybe the Cavs took a step backward this year. Actually, that thought started in October when the Mavericks embarrassed the Cavs on opening night, when Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic held out for better contracts preceding their subpar seasons and when the Cavalier offense looked inept every night LeBron James didn't have a huge statline.

Then General Manager Danny Ferry made the ultimate shakeup in February. He dealt away half the team for a different half, and he did it with the future -- specifically the playoffs -- in mind.

Down 2-0 in the series to Boston with LeBron James struggling with his shooting touch and Celtic triple teams, enter Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Joe Smith, and Wally Szczerbiak. Thanks to those four "trade pieces," we've got a series again in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Most people label the Cavaliers a one-man team, and there is much truth to that statement. As LeBron goes, so goes Cleveland. But we started to see some things Saturday night as the Cavaliers rolled to a 108-84 victory over Boston: Wallace's energy and interior strength, Smith's smooth elbow jumper, Szczerbiak's smart drives and pops and West's "true point-guard skills," evident by his 21 points. In short, all four contributed at their highest levels at the same time. The steady Zydrunas Ilgauskas continued to hit big shots. It didn't even matter that LeBron scored a modest 21, though he did play a tremendous defensive game with numerous steals and blocks.

Wallace, despite his inner-ear infection, showed up with a fire in his belly from the opening tip. His early jams from LeBron dishes set the tone. West calmly tossed up southpaw jumpers that found, to quote Joe Tait, "nothing but the bottom of the net." Smith made the most of his minutes, not only hitting shots but also scraping the glass and the floor for loose balls.

If "these Cavs," the Cavs that played tonight, showed up four times in a series, Cleveland could win not just this series but the whole thing.

It's going to be tough for the Cavs to beat Boston, knowing they would have to win at least one on the road. (They're aided by the fact that the Celtics seem to leave all of their drive and energy in Beantown.) Even if the Wine and Gold could pull off a comeback, it would be equally tough to beat the Detroit/Orlando winner. But with the pieces in place and the personnel puzzle starting to fit together, the Cavaliers have hope. They do, indeed, have a shot.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Consider this "Part I" of my ballpark evaluation series. In 2008, I have the privilege of visiting three of baseball finest and most historic venues: Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium. For all three, my visit is my first. Two weeks ago, I managed to take in a game within "the friendly confines" of Wrigley Field, which -- I'll just come right out and say it -- vaulted itself to No. 2 on my list of favorite ballparks. (Note: Cleveland's Jacobs Field, also known as Corporate-Insurance-Evildoer-based-Mayfield-Heights-Ohio Field, will always be No. 1. It's the park where I grew up with baseball, watching my Indians heroes on the field.) But from a general, adult baseball-lover's point of view, here are my top 10 reflections:

1.) The Cubs pounded the Pittsburgh Pirates 13-1. They turned around the next day and throttled them 13-7. This Cubs team is loaded with talent, something their payroll had a little something to do with, I'm sure. They should be a playoff team and World Series contender again this year. As a Cleveland fan, anytime I can see Pittsburgh take one on the chin, it's a real crowd-pleaser.

2.) The atmosphere at a Cubs game, particularly a weekend game like the one I attended, rivals that of a major college football game (i.e. Ohio State), and that's impressive considering about one-third of the people are present. Wrigley's advantage is that it is nestled in this neighborhood full of 20-somethings who love two things: baseball and partying. (OK, three things ... stock options, as well.) This, my friends, is the quintessential American neighborhood, even if it is kind of a graveyard for former frat boys. Walking to the ballpark for a 12:05 first pitch, people are playing cornhole in their yards and drinking bloody marys. For baseball! This is a foreign -- albeit totally pleasing -- sight for an Ohioan, where if the ball isn't brown and pointy on the ends, you just don't quite "get up" for it as much as you could.

3.) A good mix of kids and families still file into the stands. I like this aspect, and I like that it doesn't seem to bother the hardened Chicagoans that many young adults are getting belligerently wasted around them. After all, baseball is, first and foremost, for kids. It certainly makes me feel like a kid again. But the drunks and the families still seem to get along in the name of the Cubbies.

4.) Upon first seeing the first and the ivy walls, I'll admit, I got the chills a little bit. Maybe that was the 55-degree wind and mist whipping off Lake Michigan but more than likely it was that my baseball pilgrimage was finally complete. My buddy, an erudite wisecracker who is lukewarm on baseball, looked at my euphoric visage and asked me if I was suffering from priapism. I replied, "It's not suffering if you enjoy it."

5.) I wanted bleacher seats, but my buddy and I had to settle for upper deck, just down the first base line from home plate. My view was partially obstructed, but I embraced it. After all, they just don't make ballparks like this anymore. A bachelorette party of at least 10 started their festivities by sitting behind us for the first six innings, while the game was still interesting and while the beer was still flowing from the concession stands. I won't elaborate too much because I don't know who's reading this that isn't 18 or hasn't relinquished their youthful innocence yet. Kids, go look up the word "debauchery," and I'll leave it at that.

6.) I attempted to score the game, which was a bad idea. First of all, it was a 13-1 blowout, and for anyone who's tried to score a baseball blowout, it's kind of like trying to figure out whether or not Roger Clemens hooked up with Mindy McCready before she was 18; it's leads to a lot of disturbing guessing. Secondly, though Wrigley has the "no frills" scoreboard that eliminates the marketing that inundates fans at other ballparks -- and I appreciate that -- it can be tough to track pitching changes, pinch-hitters and double-switches. National League baseball is kooky. My scorecard, I'm sure, has some blemishes.

7.) Cubs fans are uncontrollably jubilant when they score, practically throwing money and babies in celebration. I've never seen so many people whoop and holler before making out, all in response to an RBI ground out to short.

8.) Troths in the bathrooms, no soap and no towels. Even though my chances of getting dysentary or cholera increased slightly, it was nostalgic to feel like I was relieving myself in the 1930s.

9.) The postgame Wrigleyville bar scene dwarfs any after-party at any ballpark anywhere. If anyone wants to dispute this, invite me to your city for a ballgame. The first round is on me.

10.) I snapped my obligatory photo in front of Harry Caray's statue so that I won't have to do that when I returned. I also piped up during "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and actually subbed in "root, root, root for the Cub-bies." I always say "root, root, root for the Indians," but I compromised -- this time and this time only.

Stay posted for my reactions to Yankee Stadium, which should come within a week or so, after I venture back from New York. I'll be watching the Tribe play, so I'll probably need two posts: one on Indians analysis and another on ballpark analysis. In either case, please stop reading this if I try to insert a "you's guys" into my next post. That's when we'll all know that I simply have nothing clever left to write.