Monday, April 24, 2006

Bad mojo on the mound

Apparently there's only so much good mojo to go around in Cleveland sports.
With the Cavaliers in the playoffs and LeBron James notching a triple-double in his NBA playoff debut, apparently someone had to be the fall guy.
That someone is the Indians.
While the Cavs have been riding on cloud nine, the Indians slogged through an embarrassing 4-6 road trip against Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City.
A 10-day stretch of baseball that could have solidified the Tribe as an American League power has instead dragged them back to mediocrity. Cleveland now stands at 10-9 with a difficult homestand against Boston, Texas and Chicago set to begin tomorrow.
Granted, it's only April, and a 10-9 mark is still on pace for a far better April than the miserable opening month they had last year. But there is no disputing the fact that road swings through Detroit, Baltimore and Kansas City need to be capitalized upon. Soon, the road swings will go through far less hospitable places like Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The Indians didn't get it done the past week and a half. And the primary culprit might surprise you.
The starting rotation did it. In the kitchen, with the candlestick.
We spent all March wringing our hands over a potentially-suspect bullpen and an offense that still featured Casey Blake and Aaron Boone. But this month, for the first time in two years, the Indians have an unreliable starting rotation.
Remove one quality start against Detroit, and Paul Byrd has been positively wretched in his first month with the Indians. C.C. Sabathia was injured three innings into the season, and Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee and Jason Johnson have shown a bad tendency to hit the wall in the fifth or sixth inning, forcing manager Eric Wedge to use his middle relief corps far more than he'd probably like to.
The shaky nature of the starting rotation stretches the bullpen out, exposing its weaknesses. The result is a team that can't stop the bleeding when it falls behind.
That's how a team posts 18-9 and 9-4 losses to the Orioles, and an 11-5 loss to the Royals.
Last year, the Indians possessed arguably the best one-through-five starting rotation in baseball. The dominos lined up neatly almost every night. The starter would give Wedge six or seven strong innings, allowing him to shorten his bullpen to his late inning specialists, who got plenty of work to stay sharp.
It wasn't clockwork. But it was darn close. The Indians used only six starters all last season. They've already used that many this season.
With starting pitchers who can't seem to make it out of the middle innings, we are subjected to extended looks at Danny Graves, Jason Davis, Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Slocum in long relief roles.
The faltering starters make the relievers' workload disjointed, full of three-inning mopup duty assignments. Nobody ever gets into a rhythm or clearly defines their role.
To boot, the late-inning specialists who are supposed to close out wins (Guillermo Mota and Bob Wickman) get considerably less work and gather rust.
Teams can bounce back from bullpen flameouts. Teams can work around a stagnant offense for short periods of time. But few things can derail a season like bad starting pitching. For better or worse, the starters set the tone for the rest of the team.
And for the Indians, that tone has been off-key recently.

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