April 2012

Covering the Bases: Game 10

Final:

Mariners 4, Indians 1

FIRST: …and foremost, Derek Lowe just didn’t have it tonight. The big right-hander’s sinker went flat and he labored through 113 pitches in 4 1/3 innings. He walked six and allowed eight hits, but limited the damage to just four runs surrendered.

“That’s hard to do,” Lowe said about that bit of silver lining.

Still, Seattle hasn’t been kind to Cleveland’s sinkerballers the past two games. Justin Masterson and Lowe combined to allow 12 runs on 15 hits with 10 walks in eight innings of work in the first two tilts of this three-game set at Safeco Field.

Josh Tomlin tosses in the finale on Thursday. He’s not a sinkerballer, so he’s got that going for him.

SECOND: On the other side of the coin, Seattle left-hander Jason Vargas tamed the Tribe’s offense to the tune of one run allowed over seven innings of work. Manager Manny Acta tried to load the lineup with some righties — Jason Donald, Carlos Santana, Shelley Duncan, Jose Lopez and Aaron Cunningham were all in (Asdrubal Cabrera remains away from the team and on the bereavement list) — but it didn’t do much good. As always, I’ll throw the SAMPLE SIZE ALERT disclaimer in here, but it’s worth noting that the Indians are hitting jusy .219 (40-for-183) against left-handed starters so far this season.

THIRD: In each of the past four games, the Indians had an inning that included at least five runs scored. It’s the first such streak of big innings for the Tribe since May 27-30, 1921. Well, a fifth game in a row with that kind of outburst just wasn’t in the cards. Cleveland had one prime scoring chance: bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning with Vargas on the hill and momentarily in search of the strike zone. He settled back in, struck out Duncan, got a groundout from Lopez and escaped unscathed.

HOME: The long ball was all the rage for the Tribe over its first nine games of the season. Cleveland had at least one homer in each game over thag span, which was tied for the second-longest homer streak to begin a season for the franchise, dating back to 1918. In the third inning, Cunningham sent a pitch from Vargas off the top of the wall in left field for what looked like a home run at first. It was ruled a double and, alas, an official review confirmed as much. There’s always tomorrow.

On deck:

Indians (5-5) at Mariners (7-6)
10:10 p.m. ET Thursday at Safeco Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 9

Final:

Indians 9, Mariners 8

FIRST: The ball always seems to have a way of finding that one player who has been thrown into the lineup unexpectedly. On Tuesday night, that was Jason Donald, who got the nod at shortstop — and will continue to do so throughout this week — with Asdrubal Cabrera back home in Venezuela. Cabrera’s grandfather passed away and he is on MLB’s bereavement list for the time being. He might not be back with the team until its upcoming homestand.

Naturally, Donald was in the thick of things on Tuesday night. In the fifth inning, he singled to help ignite a seven-run  rally. His sac fly in that frame knotted the score 8-8 (Cleveland had trailed 8-1). In the seventh, Donald delivered an RBI single that plated the Tribe’s go-ahead run, lining things up for the bullpen trio of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez to handle the final three innings.

Of course, the ball found Donald at a critical time in the ninth. With a runner on first and one out, Jesus Montero sent a pitch from Perez sharply up the middle. It took a bad hop — to put it mildly — and struck Donald in the face. Instead of a game-ending double play, the M’s had men on the corners.

Nothing to worry about. Perez sidestepped that bit of drama and finished off the inning, escaping a bases-loaded jam with two outs to seal the win.

SECOND: Sure, there was some traffic on the basepaths, but the Indians’ bullpen played a crucial role in Tuesday’s win. Nick Hagadone (added to the roster to temporarily fill Cabrera’s spot), Rafael Perez, Smith, Pestanp and C.P. combined for 5 1/3 shutout innings. That helped give Cleveland’s offense time to mount a rally and was a welcomed sight after some relief woes of late. The bullpen and offense did well in overcoming a forgettable outing from Justin Masterson, who yielded eight runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings.

THIRD: And how about that offense? The Indians had already accomplished something no other team had done in its long history by scoring at least eight runs in each of their first three road games to open a series. To make the record that much more difficult to match, the Tribe upped that streak to four games with Tuesday’s comeback win. After hitting .176 in the first five home games, the Indians have hit .333 (53-159) with 11 doubles, two triples, eight home runs and 41 runs scored in the past four road games. That’s 10.3 (!) runs per game on the road.

HOME: Carlos Santana’s three-run home run in the fifth inning extended the Indians’ long-ball streak to nine straight games to open the season. That is tied for the second-longest such streak for the team dating back to 1918 (14 in 2002; 9 in 1997, 2006 and 2012). Cleveland’s 16 homers as a team through nine games is the third-highest total through the first nine games in team history. The record of 18 shots through the first nine games was set in 1959 and matched in 1997. The Indians also had 16 through their first nine contests in 1948.

On deck:

Indians (5-4) at Mariners (6-6)
10:10 p.m. ET Friday at Safeco Field

–JB

Here’s Johnny: Damon discusses new deal

Newly-signed outfielder Johnny Damon was in a talking mood on Tuesday, when it was officially announced that he penned his name on a Minor League contract with the Tribe. Damon discussed the new deal from Arizona, where he is currently training in preparation for joining the Indians within the next couple of weeks. Here is the full transcript of his conference call with Cleveland reporters from this afternoon.

Reporter: Happy to have the deal finally announced?

Damon: I feel good about it getting done. All the procedures that have to take place and all the physicals that have to happen, I’m glad I passed with flying colors. I’m excited. It’s been about a week where I knew this was going to happen. Unfortunately, it took this long, but I got out to the Goodyear facility and I can’t believe how nice these places are now. There’s going to be plenty of work for me to do in the next week or couple weeks to prepare and get ready. They seem to have everything here that I need and the staff’s been great so far. I’m just excited about the opportunity.

Reporter: How much time do you think you’ll need to get ready?

Damon: I guess we really can’t put a timetable on it. I feel like I can be ready in a week, but I understand the sitting around and geting ready for a game and coming in from batting practice — that type of stuff. I’m working my legs out hard. I ran a bunch today. I hit. I shagged [fly balls]. I went back tot he weight room. I kept myself in pretty good shape during the offseason. That’s why I don’t think it’s going to be too long. But, I also understand that when the Cleveland Indians do get me, I need to be in great shape and just be healthy and be ready to go. Hopefully, those guys can continue to play like they played against Kansas City. That was very refrehsing to see. The bats picked up. Hopefully they continue that. There’s not as big of a rush right now, but I’m going to do whatever I can.

Reporter: What are some of your thoughts on the Indians and your new teammates?

Damon: Well, I’ve played with Shelley Duncan before, and Casey Kotchman and Derek Lowe. We all got along very well. I know the other guys mostly by passing and talking to them byt he cages and that kind of stuff. They’re a team that’s building for the future, but they also have a chance to win now. That’s a good thing to have. They locked up a few players and I know they might be working on a few more, possibly. It’s that right mix. A team that’s as youthful as they are, and adding a guy like Derek Lowe during the offseason, and now adding a guy like me, hopefully we can give them a boost and some experience. This team is young. They’re preparing for the future, but they’re aso prepared right now.

Reporter: Has GM Chris Antonetti or manager Manny Acta explained to you exactly what role you’ll play?

Damon: The No. 1 thing is get there and play as hard as I can and hopefully as good as I can. I understand the game of baseball and how guys can get hot and you can’t take them out of the lineup. I also understand that I can get hot and it can be tough to get me out of the lineup. I’m here for the team. It’s not a story about me. It’s a story about the Cleveland Indians adding another guy to help them throughout the season. Whatever role it’s going to be — whether it’s a platoon thing or an everyday thing or spell guys when they’re tired, play a little first — I’m up for whatever. I’m excited about the opportunity and playing in front of a new set of fans. It seems to be the thing I do a lot. This is team No. 7. I know the fans are going to love the way I play and hopefully I play well. I’ve been coming to Cleveland for 17 years now and I’ve always enjoyed myself. I’ve always enjoyed catching up with a bunch of my friends there. I’ll do whatever it takes and hopefully we can continue to play well before I get there and also afterward.

Reporter: Did you come close to signing with anybody during the offseason? Why do you think no one signed you until now?

Damon: I really have no idea. I think the way the game is going, some teams want to wait to see what they have first. Give guys who are there, and possibly younger than me, and see what they can do, see if they developed over the offseason. Obviously, after last season, I thought I was going back to Tampa, but they wanted to get younger, too. The New York situation popped up, because Manny Ramirez retired last year and [the Rays] moved me from playing left field every day to the DH role for a second straight year. So New York wasn’t quite sure what I can or can’t do, and Detroit had a whole bunch of young guys, too. Obviously, I looked at a few teams I played on before. There was a team where I could sign in Spring Training, but it wasn’t a perfect fit, because I would’ve had to hope somebody would get hurt and all that stuff. That’s just bad karma. It wasn’t a situation that I wanted to be in. When I started hearing rumblings about Cleveland and the possibilities, and how I could go out to the outfield, and re-establish myself some with platooning and being around a bunch of young guys, being around some former teammates, it’s refreshing. That’s why I jumped on this and hopefully at the end of the day, at the end of the year, everybody will look at it a a great signing.

Reporter: How important is reaching 3,000 hits to you?

Damon: Obviously, I would like to get it. But it’s never been something that I set out for throughout my career. I’ve never bunted with a five-run lead for that extra hit. If I have a chance to walk, I’m going to. Unfortunately, with me, because I’ve played everywhere, people want to just assume how I play. But the track record shows that I an go out and I play hard and I play to win. That’s why I’ve been able to help some teams win championships and help some teams that really weren’t that good become a bit better. Three-thousand would be great, but I’m playing to win. I’m playing for the Tribe fans. I’m playing for the Indians organization. I’m not really playing for myself. Obviously, I always want to go out there and play well and treat the game with respect, but there’s a lot of fans out there of mine that really wanted to see me keep pushing and keep fighting. And I have a lot of former teammates and friends who would really love to put on that Major League uniform again. So I think I’m playing more for them and I’m playing more for my foundation, when I’m done playing. I’m playing for all the fans out there. I wasn’t ready to pack it up. So 3,000 could be on the horizon, but if it comes or not, when I leave this game I want to make sure there’s no regrets out there. As long as I keep doing what I did last year, and hopefully this is a sucessful year, I’m going to keep going.

Reporter: How much do you think you can play in the outfield?

Damon: Hopefully as much as they need me out there. I have to go out there and play well and let Manny Acta see that I can still do it. I also understand that Shelley Duncan is the starting left fielder right now. I’m coming in more of a platoon role. If Manny can’t keep me out of the lineup, then I’ll be in more. If Shelley Duncan keeps hitting home runs and putting runs on the board, then Shelley deserves to be out there. Shelley and I worked well together in New York. I had a really bad calf injury that rookie year that he had. When he got there was a time I could actually rest it for a couple days. It became full strength again just because he was doing so well when he came up. I got those three days off that I desperately needed. That’s why I really like Shelley Duncan. He really helped me get healthy. And the way he swings the bat, he’s not afraid to swing it and is not afraid to fail. I like guys who have that home run stroke. I’m looking forward to working with him and hopefully helping him get better, as he’s going to do with me also.

Moderator: All right, guys. Thanks, Johnny.

Damon: All right. I hope to see you soon. Hopefully sooner than later.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 5

Final:

White Sox 10, Indians 6

FIRST: Talk about an offensive explosion. Six runs on 10 hits — both season highs. OK, it wasn’t exactly the second coming of the ’27 Yankees, but it was progress. After watching the lineup average 2.7 runs per nine innings prior to Wednesday’s game, it was nice to see some hits strung together.

In the fourth inning, the Indians actually pieced together three hits in a row — for the first time this season. Cleveland still hasn’t had more than three hits in any one inning, though. It wasn’t all smooth sailing though for the local nine, however. The Tribe was 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 runners.

Hey, baby steps, people.

SECOND: Within the offense’s slight resurgence were a couple of strong showings from DH Travis Hafner and LF Shelley Duncan. Hafner went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs, while Duncan went 3-for-5 with a homer and two RBIs. If that duo can contribute solid pop and run production on a consistent basis, the middle of the Indians’ order will have a much different feel to it. Hafner has looked solid since the start of spring. Duncan has shown the power, but has lacked the consistency. Wednesday was at least a promising afternoon for both of them.

THIRD: On the other hand, leadoff man Michael Brantley and second baseman Jason Kipnis have gotten off on the wrong foot. Brantley went 0-for-4 and is now hitting .059 on the season. Kipnis went 0-for-4 and is hitting .095. If the Indians want to be a playoff team, both of these guys need to have big years.

HOME: It is rare to see Jack Hannahan make a game-changing error. The same goes for Casey Kotchman. On Wednesday, both made an error that contribued to Chicago’s win. Hannahan misfired on a throw attempt to first base in the first inning and the White Sox went on to have a four-run frame. Kotchman mishandled a low throw from shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in the fifth and the Sox tacked on another run after that miscue. That might be the only time this season both guys make an error in the same game. They’ll save more runs than they cost when it’s all said and done.

On deck:

Indians (1-4) at Royals (3-2)*
4:10 p.m. ET Friday at Kauffman Stadium

*Record doesn’t include KC’s Wednesday result

NOTE: I will not be on the trip to Kansas City. I will be back on the beat for the West Coast swing through Seattle and Oakland. Keep following Indians.com for updates on the Indians-Royals series in my absence.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 4

Final:

White Sox 4, Indians 2

FIRST: Some good news. The Indians have reached an agreement with catcher Carlos Santana on a long-term contract, locking up another core player for the forseeable future. I don’t know the money or the terms yet, but it seems safe to assume (since he was contractually controllable through 2016 before this) that the new deal will cover his arbitration year and potentially a year of free-agent eligibility. An official announcement is expected to come on Tuesday. Stay tuned.

SECOND: It is April 9, so this is still fair game for saying “it’s still early.” But how long can the Indians keep playing that card if their offense continues to struggle? On Monday, Cleveland managed two runs on five hits and is now hitting .153 (23-for-150) through four games. They are averaging 3.5 runs per game, but that includes 10 extra innings. Taking that into account, it’s fair to not that the Tribe is averaging 2.7 runs per nine innings.

THIRD: Jose Lopez got the nod at first base for the Indians and belted a solo home run in a too-little-too-late ninth inning. Derek Lowe joked after his outing that Cleveland must be a home run hitting team. He’s not far off. The Indians have scored 10 of their 14 runs (71.4%) on long balls. That’s all well and good, but the Tribe needs more traffic in front of those shots.

HOME: It’s hard to fault starter Josh Tomlin too much for Monday’s loss. His pitch count climbed to 95 in his five innings, but that was mostly due to his uncharacteristically high strikeout total (seven). The first inning was rough — three runs allowed on two home runs — but Tomlin settled in after that. With a little more offensive support, that outing would’ve been acceptable on most nights. As it stands, Cleveland’s rotation has a 2.52 ERA through four games.

On deck:

White Sox (2-2) at Indians (1-3)
7:05 p.m. Tuesday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 3

Final:

Indians 4, Blue Jays 3

FIRST: Feliz cumpleanos, Carlos Santana. The man loves him some birthday cake. In Sunday’s win over the Blue Jays, the birthday boy slammed two home runs and collected three RBIs in a 2-for-4 showing.

We should’ve expected this. As it happens, Santana has hit .556 (10-for-18) with five home runs and 13 RBIs combined over his past four birthdays (including performances at Double-A in ’09 and Triple-A in ’10).

His teammates should stop saying hello and start greeting him with “Happy birthday” when he arrives to the ballpark each day. Or, maybe Indians fans should sing “Happy birthday” to him before each of his plate appearances. Just a thought.

SECOND: Three games a season does not make, but boy those starters have been dealing. Combined, Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Derek Lowe have allowed just three earned runs on eight hits over 22 innings. That’s a 1.23 ERA to this point. Lowe was the latest to turn in a gem with seven strong against Toronto on Sunday. He allowed two unearned runs on five hits en route to a win.

Josh Tomlin is up next and he wants to keep thing rolling.

“Absolutely,” Tomlin said. “You have that anxiety to get out there and get that first one out of the way, for sure. But, seeing what those guys did the first three games, it’s pretty unbelievable how well they’ve pitched. You want to go out there and mimic that. It’s almost like a competition. You don’t want to go out there and say, ‘I want to do better than those guys,’ but you kind of do. You want to go out there just because of how well they did pitch.

“It’s hard to go out there and do that — what they’ve been doing. They’ve all pitched well enough to keep us in the game every single time and that’s our job, to go out there, pitch deep in games and give us a chance to win. If we can keep this up all year long, that’d be something we can kind of hang our hats on. I’m definitely going to try to go out there and mimic kind of what they’re doing. That’s all you can do, give it your best and shoot for what they’ve done.”

THIRD: Anyone who criticizes closer Chris Perez for his latest outing wasn’t paying attention. Yes, CP gave up a leadoff single in the ninth, but then he created a flyout off the bat of Colby Rasmus and induced a would-be game-ending doubleplay grounder from Ben Francisco. Had shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera not booted that ball, Perez would not have thrown another pitch. And, to CP’s credit, he didn’t let the error derail his outing. He struck out Yunel Escobar, walked Kelly Johnson and got Jose Bautista to flyout to end the game with the bases loaded. That was a well-earned save after some unnecessary drama created by an unfortunate error.

HOME: Perez gets the save, but don’t forget the work Vinnie Pestano did to help the Tribe reach that point. In the eighth inning, sidearmer Joe Smith gave up three straight hits to allow one run to score, cutting Cleveland’s lead to 4-3. With one out, Pestano entered with runners on first and second. He struck out Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie to escape further damage. That was a critical moment in the game.

Shoot, if not for Pestano’s performance there, we might’ve had another extra-inning marathon on our hands.

On deck:

Chicago White Sox (1-1)* at Cleveland Indians (1-2)
7:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field

*Record doesn’t include late game Sunday night

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 2

Final: Blue Jays 7, Indians 4 (12 innings)

FIRST: Ubaldo Jimenez showed us there is nothing to worry about, right? Right? Well, for one game anyway. The right-hander shook off his spring woes and looked brilliant against the Blue Jays. The Big U was perfect through 17 hitters and he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Then, as he put it, “I got myself in trouble.” He walked two, threw a wild pitch and watched it all come back to haunt him in the form of a 2-run single by Brett Lawrie in the seventh.

Jimenez gave up two runs on one hit over seven.

Jimenez’s secondary stuff was extremely sharp. There were a few times he dropped his arm angle and froze hitters with a slick slider. If this is an indication of the Ubaldo the Indians will have this year, it could be a fun summer. His velocity wasn’t crazy high, but he hung around 92-95 consistently. That was just fine in colder conditions.

Unfortunately, this was the second game in a row a starter’s showing went wasted.

SECOND: Through 11 innings, the Indians had just two hits — a pair of homers. One each from Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera. Overall in the first two games, the offense has hit .135 (12-for-89) as a team. As I wrote on Thursday, that needs to improve, and it will. No lineup is going to hit under .200 on the year. It’s a slow start against some strong Toronto pitcher. Still, it hasn’t been pretty thus far. The poster boy for the early struggles has been Casey Kotchman, who is currently 0-for-12 and hasn’t hit the ball out of the infield yet. To be fair, the Jays are hitting .180 as a team.

THIRD: The Indians and Blue Jays do know they’re allowed to play only nine innings, right? After Thursday’s 16-inning marathon — the longest opener in baseball history — the teams played 12 innings on Saturday. It’s the first time since 1969 that any teams have played at least 12 innings in each of their first two games. It was easier to handle when there was an off-day following Opening Day. With another day game Sunday, both bullpens are a bit taxed right now.

HOME: Manager Manny Acta said you have to give the Blue Jays some credit, because two games in a row they have beaten the Indians’ strength. Acta referred to the Tribe’s bullpen. On Thursday, closer Chris Perez blew a save and then reliever Jairo Asencio allowed the game winner. On Saturday, Vinnie Pestano allowed a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning and Tony Sipp gave up four runs in the 12th inning. With so many extra frames, forcing guys out of their usual roles (with the exception of the blown save), some struggles are to be expected. It’s a long season and I still think the Indians’ bullpen will be fine. As for Perez, if we’re going to rip him when he struggles, we have to praise him when he does well. The closer logged a 1-2-3 inning on Saturday. Fingers off the panic button.

On deck:

Toronto Blue Jays (2-0) at Cleveland Indians (0-2)
1:05 p.m. ET Sunday at Progressive Field

–JB

Covering the Bases: Opening Day

This season, I’m going to bring back the “Covering the Bases” feature I used a few years ago. After each game I cover, I will hit on four important aspects, whether it be news, in-game events or performances. Here’s a quick look at Thursday’s Opening Day game.

Final:

Blue Jays 7, Indians 4
16 innings at Progressive Field

FIRST: Indians Opening Day starter Justin Masterson was masterful. Pun intended. The big righty limited the Blue Jays to one run on two hits and ended with 11 outs via grounders, 10 strikeouts and one walk. His game score of 83 was the best for an Indians starter on Opening Day since 1968. Masterson showed exactly why Cleveland believes he’s an ace in the making. If only he had a win to show for it, which brings us to …

SECOND: With Masterson at 99 pitches, and the Indians holding a 4-1 lead, manager Manny Acta opted to hand the ball to closer Chris Perez in the ninth inning. I have absolutely no issue with that decision. Could Masterson have gone nine? I’m sure he’d say yes and Acta might even say yes, too. But Masterson didn’t throw more than six innings in Spring Training and this was the first game of the season. Beyond that, it was a three-run lead. Pulling him under these circumstances were a completely understandable decision, and I think it was the right one.

Of course, we now have the benefit of hindsight. Perez labored to the tune of three runs allowed on three hits with two walks mixed in. It was quick and it was ugly, and the blown save sent the game on a slow march through 16 innings — the longest Opening Day game in baseball history. It’s just one outing, though, so it’s way to early to start wondering if Perez should still be the closer.

While I am of the belief that the save stat has done more bad than good to the game, the fact of the matter is that Cleveland is paying Perez $4.5 million to close games. He was an All-Star last year, when he saved 36 of 40 games. Vinnie Pestano might look like a closer in waiting, but that’s Perez’s job for the forseeable future.

Perez said his struggles had nothing to do with the left oblique injury he suffered in Spring Training.

Worth noting: Jose Valverde, who was perfect in 49 save chances last year, blew a save on Opening Day. It’s also worth noting that both Justin Verlander (105 pitches through 8 IP) and Doc Halladay (92 pitches through 8 IP) were pulled before the 9th inning on Thursday. Blaming Acta is not the way to go in this situation.

THIRD: Two aspects of the 2012 Indians will be under the microscope this season — Ubaldo Jimenez and the team’s offense. We’ll get our first official look at Jimenez on Saturday, but we’ve already had our initial taste of the Indians’ lineup. It’s only one game — sample size alert — but there were certainly some worrisome developments. Cleveland went 3-for-6 in its four-run second inning, but went just 4-for-43 in the other 15 frames. On the bright side, Jack Hannahan launched a three-run home run and the Tribe drew 11 walks. Then again, 1-for-9 with RISP and 10 runners stranded is no way to live.

HOME: In the 15th inning, Blue Jays pitcher Luis Perez threw a pitch in the direction of Shin-Soo Choo’s head, knocking him to the dirt. Choo scrambled to his feet and threatened to charge the mound. Benches emptied, but the situation was calmed quickly and the umpires allowed both Perez and Choo to stay in the game, even though warnings were issued earlier. Remember, it’s the umpires’ discretion after warnings.

Here’s what Choo, who had been hit in the back by Ricky Romero earlier in the game, had to say about the matter: “I had a hit by pitch last year — a broken thumb. Maybe that’s the reason why I’m very sensitive right now, but it’s part of the game. Pitchers need to throw inside. I understand that.”

On deck:

Toronto Blue Jays (1-0) at Cleveland Indians (0-1)
1:05 p.m. ET Saturday at Progressive Field

–JB

Bastian’s 2012 preseason picks

The Indians would like you to know that the rebuilding period is over. Their time to contend for the playoffs is now, whether you want to believe it or not.

That’s why they traded four prospects — two perceived future cornerstones — for Ubaldo Jimenez. It’s why they just locked up shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera through the 2014 season.

Cleveland really thinks it can make a push to the playoffs this year, and they don’t care what the media thinks or you think. No one else seems to be buying it, but that’s fine by them. All they care about is the expectations that exist inside their clubhouse.

“There’s no more rebuilding,” Opening Day starter Justin Masterson said. “I think rebuilding was bringing the guys in from the trades that we had done. I think last year we showed — even though some of the mind-set from media types was that we were still working to get it together — I think last year we did what we wanted to do.

“I think that’s what a lot of people expected to do within the team. For this year, it continues that process. We’ve brought in people. We have the people here who can do the job. Now whether or not that takes place, I mean, w’ere not robots. So you never know exactly what youre going to get.”

But they know where they want to get.

“When I first came over,” Masterson said, “it was kind of this rebuild and get your work in, get your understanding. That’s never really fun. It’s part of it at times, but it’s never fun to have that mentality and that mind-set. I think what was great about last year is that everyone got an understanding of what it’s like to win, what it’s like to be in first place and how great that feels. And then at the end, what it’s like to be in second place and how great that doesn’t feel.”

Everyone is picking the Tigers to win the American League Central — myself included — but Indians manager Manny Acta views the division as one for the taking. Cleveland ended last year with 80 wins — 15 behind Detroit in the standings. The Tribe feels it can close that gap this year.

What if?

“To me, this is a tremendous division that is very, very balanced,” Acta said. “Four teams have won it over the last five or six years, so we think it’s balanced and we like it. [The Tigers] are the team to beat, because they won last year. That’s normal.

“They have an MVP candidate in their lineup and they have the guy that was the Most Valuable Player last year on their pitching staff. Obviously, they are a very good team. That being said, it takes 25 to win and we like our team. I think we’ll be there.”

We’ll see. It should be an interesting season.

Since we’ve reached the eve of Opening Day, it’s time to roll out my preseason picks for 2012. I picked the Phillies over the Red Sox in each of the past two years, so take these for what they’re worth. Overall, I nailed just six teams’ finish in the standings a year ago. Some expert I am! That said, I have correctly picked the National League Cy Young Award winner two years running.

Here goes nothing…

AMERICAN LEAGUE

East
1. Yankees
*2. Blue Jays
3. Rays
4. Red Sox
5. Orioles

Central
1. Tigers
2. Indians
3. Twins
4. Royals
5. White Sox

West
1. Rangers
*2. Angels
3. Mariners
4. A’s

NATIONAL LEAGUE

East
1. Phillies
2. Nationals
3. Marlins
4. Braves
5. Mets

Central
1. Reds
*2. Cardinals
3. Brewers
4. Pirates
5. Cubs
6. Astros

West
1. Giants
*2. D-backs
3. Rockies
4. Dodgers
5. Padres

*indicates Wild Card pick

WORLD SERIES

Rangers over Giants

(The Baseball Gods have to show some mercy on Texas at some point, right?)

AWARD WINNERS

AL Most Valuable Player: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
AL Cy Young Award: Ricky Romero, Blue Jays
AL Rookie of the Year: Matt Moore, Rays
AL Manager of the Year: John Farrell, Blue Jays

NL Most Valuable Player: Joey Votto, Reds
NL Cy Young Award: Matt Cain, Giants
NL Rookie of the Year: Yonder Alonso, Padres
NL Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Nationals

Debate away…

--JB

Ubaldo: “I shouldn’t be” suspended

UPDATE: Indians starter Ubaldo Jimenez has been suspended five games by Major League Baseball and fined an undisclosed amount. Manager Manny Acta said the pitcher will appeal the suspension and is still scheduled to make his first start of the season as planned on Saturday. Check Indians.com for more on this story. The following article was posted Monday morning, before Jimenez learned that he had been suspended. — JB

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Ubaldo Jimenez leaned back in his chair inside the Indians’ clubhouse on Monday morning, calmly disagreeing with the notion that a suspension was warranted for his part in Sunday’s altercation with the Rockies.

In his first outing against his former tammates, Jimenez struck Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on the left elbow with a fastball, flaring tempers and inciting a bench-clearing episode at Salt River Fields. The pitcher insists the pitch was errant, and not the result of the bitter exchange of words in a series of reports throughout Spring Training.

“Hit by pitches happen every day in the game,” Jimenez said on Monday.”It’s not a surprise that somebody gets hit, especially a guy like him. You have to try to go inside on him.”

There were plenty of people who felt this particular hit batsmen was indeed an intentional act on Jimenez’s part. Rockies manager Jim Tracy reacted furiously, demanding that the right-hander be suspended for his actions. Colorado provided Major League Baseball with video of the incident and league officials are currently in the process investigating the matter.

Jimenez did not feel he deserved a suspension.

“I shouldn’t be,” Jimenez said. “I can’t control what people say. People act like this is the first time that somebody got hit. It happens in the game. That’s part of the game. It’s always been part of the game.”

Following Sunday’s events, Indians manager Manny Acta also did not believe a suspension was necessary, especialy because no players were ejected from the game.

“Why?” said Acta, when asked if he was worried Jimenez might be suspended. “Do you know if it was intentional? Nobody knows. I don’t know anything behind it. I don’t know of any history.”

The Indians acquired Jimenez from the Rockies at the July 31 Trade Deadline last season, when the pitcher stumbled through a 10-13 showing with a 4.68 ERA. This spring, Jimenez has criticized the Colorado organization in various reports, hinting at unfair treatment as a Minor Leaguer and a feeling of disrespect over the contract he was given.

In response to Jimenez’s comments, Tulowitzki and Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez were among those who had choice words for the pitcher in a variety of published reports this spring. That provided the backdrop for Sunday, when Tulowitzki was in the lineup and Gonzalez sat out due to stomach issues.

Tulowitzki was Colorado’s third hitter in the first inning and Jimenez sent his first pitch to the shortstop high and inside, where it struck his left arm. Tulowitzki began yelling at Jimenez, who dropped his glove, ran off the mound and seemingly dared the shortstop to charge. The benches emptied, but no punches were thrown and the situation was calmed after several minutes.

Tulowitzki left the game to have his elbow examined at a local hospital and X-rays came back negative for any structural damage.

Jimenez said he had no plans of reaching out to Tulowitzki to apologize, even though the pitcher insisted he did not hit the shortstop on purpose.

“No, why?” Jimenez said. “He was calling me [names]. I said already that I didn’t mean to hit him. It was a pitch that got away. I had five walks in the game. I was everywhere.”

During his postgame tirade over the incident, Tracy said he “lost respect for him.”

Jimenez admitted he was taken aback by Tracy’s strong words.

“I can’t control what people say,” Jimenez said. “Whatever they think, just leave it like that. … I mean, I probably was a little surprised to hear that, but that’s OK.”

The incident at Salt River Fields served as a sour ending to a disappointing spring showing for Jimenez, who went 1-4 with a 7.43 ERA in seven Cactus League outings. In his final start, the right-hander gave up six runs on four hits, including two home runs, and ended with five walks and two strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.

Needless to say, Jimenez is thrilled to put this spring in the rear-view mirror.

“I’m glad this is over,” Jimenez said. “Spring Training is over. Now we’re going to the fun part — the season. That’s where everything counts. I’m really excited for the season.”

–JB

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