Friday, October 26, 2007

Sleepwalking to the start

Let me throw a few stats at you:

Absent Cavaliers Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic combined to average 15.8 points per game during the 2006-07 season. They averaged a combined 9.1 rebounds per game and turned the ball over a little more than twice per game in a total of 34 starts.

In other words, Varejao and Pavlovic statistically combined to equal the par-for-the-course output of Larry Hughes, with a smattering of Donyell Marshall to pad the rebounding category.

It's a loss to have Varejao and Pavlovic in contract limbo, no doubt, but you'd think it wouldn't be crippling. Pavlovic was the inconsistent fifth wheel in the starting lineup while Varejao, for all his energy and charge-drawing, never gave any indication that he was blossoming into a 15-point, 10-rebound, money-in-the-bank starter anytime soon.

But cripple the Cavs it appears to have done. With the season set to tip off against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, the Cavs look like they're in no shape to start playing games that count.

Friday's 114-89 trouncing at the hands of the Celtics wrapped up a 1-6 preseason for the defending Eastern Conference champions. They were outscored by an average of 17 points in their six losses, and the final two games against Toronto and Boston featured abysmal fourth quarters by what appears to be the quintet that will be on the floor attempting to close out games beginning Wednesday.

At first glance, it appears that the losses of Varejao and Pavlovic have affected the Cavs psychologically more than anything. LeBron has admitted in at least one interview that he feels like the team is heading into the season undermanned and at a disadvantage. It might be affecting his leadership, which would unquestionably affect how his teammates approach the season.

The Cavs appear to have regressed to the state they were in when Mike Brown first took over as head coach two years ago. Not only is the offense prone to long spells of standing around and watching the guy with the ball, the ball handling is sloppy, the defense is sluggish and prone to missing rotations, and the technically-sound rebounding approach that allowed the Cavs to dominate inside for three playoff rounds last spring is gone.

Inside, on the perimeter, in transition, the Cavs have been getting smoked every which way this preseason. There is no reason to believe they are suddenly going to flip the switch and regain their conference-champion form when the fearsome Mavs take the court in less than a week.

Now is a dangerous time to pout over who isn't present and accounted for. With that collective attitude, the Cavs face the very real possibility of putting themselves in a deep hole in a short amount of time.

If LeBron and his merry band want to stop staring at the empty lockers of Varejao and Pavlovic, might I suggest the 2007-08 schedule as reading material? Knowledge is power, after all, and the knowledge to be attained at the moment is that the Cavs' November schedule is painful.

After opening night against the Mavs, the Cavs host a Knicks team that always gives them fits. Then, it's off on a six-game, eight-day Western jaunt that opens in Phoenix and includes four other Western Conference playoff teams from last spring.

When they return home, the Cavs face an improved Orlando team that beat them twice in China during the preseason, Jerry Sloan's always-tough Jazz (whom they also face on the Western swing), and a back-to-back with Milwaukee and Minnesota. The month closes out with Toronto, Indiana, Boston, Detroit and Toronto again.

To put it a different way, 12 of the Cavs 17 November games are against teams that made the playoffs last season, and Boston is vastly improved, so you can essentially say that 13 of 17 games are against playoff-caliber competition.

Did I mention December begins with a trip to Boston, followed by a back-to-back against New Jersey and Washington?

If the Cavs head into the regular season with their heads hung low and grumbling about the absences of Varejao and Pavlovic, their early-season competition will steamroll them and they'll be 10 games under .500 before most of us are stringing Christmas lights.

For a defending conference champ to sink that low is not only humiliating, it would be difficult to recover from. In possession of newly-minted hardware and with a new banner soon to be hung from the rafters of The Q, it will be almost impossible for the Cavs to sneak up on anyone this year. Cleveland is now viewed around the league as marquee competition. The Cavs have both newfound and long-simmering rivalries with teams like Washington, Boston and Detroit, LeBron has personal rivalries with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and virtually any other superstar with whom he crosses paths.

If the Cavs are expecting any team or superstar player to attack them with anything less than their A-game, they are sorely mistaken. Knocking off LeBron and Co. is a prize everyone now wants.

Looking up and down the roster, the Cavs are still a pretty good team even without Varejao and Pavlovic. They still have the point-guard issues of a year ago, and without Varejao, the backup center position is up in the air. But LeBron's chief lieutenants are all still in place. Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas are still there to bury baseline jumpers, Daniel Gibson is there to stretch defenses with his outside shooting, and it appears Shannon Brown is ready to grow into a more integral role off the bench.

But whether the Cavs -- most importantly LeBron -- realize that is another story. And that attitude might cost them dearly in the early going.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Driving a Wedge

When a team gags on a 3-1 series lead the way the Indians just did, index fingers start arrowing the blame around. It's unavoidable.

Playoff series don't just choke themselves away. When a team crashes and burns so spectacularly as to be outscored 30-5 in the final three games, there are a police lineup's worth of culprits.

A number of suspects have already been rounded up: C.C. Sabathia, who is charged with (poorly) impersonating a staff ace. Fausto Carmona, the the Tired-Armed Bandit. Travis Hafner, who is wanted for lack of assault with a deadly weapon.

There is Joel "Stop Sign" Skinner, Kenny "The Hustler" Lofton and Casey "The Swinger" Blake.

Watching it all unfold before him, unmoved except for the occasional utterance to hitting coach Derek Shelton, was Eric Wedge. Curiously, Cleveland's own Teflon Don has been hit with very little public backlash for the embarrassment his team just caused a city that is already way too familiar with sports humiliation.

You could very well make a case that Wedge was as much of a hapless bystander as the fans were. After all, he can't hit, pitch or field for his players. The players ultimately win or lose the games and series.

It wouldn't be that hard of an argument to accept, if not for the fact that this has happened to a Wedge team before.

Flash back to 2005. The final week of the season. Indians poised to clinch the wild card, maybe even stun the White Sox and nab the division. The bottom-feeding Devil Rays in town.

Is it all coming back to you? A 1-6 record over the last seven games? Losing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season?

Like the '07 Tribe, that team had a chance to do some serious damage armed with a postseason berth. They had the best bullpen in the American League, the AL ERA champ in postseason-tested Kevin Millwood and a Pronk who was actually hitting the ball well.

Like the '07 Tribe, that team entered the time frame in question with a lead and needed to do far less to clinch than the other wild-card contender -- which also happened to be Boston.

Like the '07 Tribe, that team didn't just crumble under pressure. They collapsed, first panicking and ultimately disintegrating right before our very eyes.

This year's team was supposed to make up for that collapse. Instead, it was Flameout Version 2.0.

There are plenty of common denominators between the two teams, so it's probably wrong to accuse Wedge of being the sole author of both implosions. But I'm really curious to know what Wedge's answer would be to the question, "How do you explain two of the worst late-season collapses in franchise history in the span of three years?"

It has moved from an isolated incident to a trend: Eric Wedge's teams become unglued at the worst possible times. You can even include 2004, when the Indians fought back into contention in August, only to immediately regress with a nine-game losing streak.

Only the guys in the clubhouse know what the real story is, but from where I sit, it looks like Wedge has trouble transitioning his leadership style from the marathon of a season to the sprint of pennant races and playoff series.

Wedge is the master of promoting clubhouse stability. He clings to the grind-it-out mentality like it's gospel. Don't get too high, don't get too low, take it one game at a time. It's an approach that is generally successful, tailored to the six-month march of a baseball season.

But the environment changes radically once the postseason begins. Suddenly, "We'll get them tomorrow" becomes less and less of an option following a loss. Suddenly, the pressure to win becomes like a python squeezing the blood out of your neck. Emotions take over, momentum swings are sudden and violent, and even the most experienced veteran players start to press.

When emotions take over and seasons are determined in the span of days, not weeks or months, Wedge seems to fall out of his element. His club can look downright rudderless without effective leadership, especially when the other team issues a challenge as the Red Sox did by winning Game 5.

Wedge is still a young manager. His leadership style is far from perfected. But for now, Wedge looks incapable of adapting his team to deal with adversity in the high-pressure, emotionally-charged environment of the playoffs. When calm, cool and collected doesn't work, nothing works.

If Wedge wants to last as a manager at the major league level, these late-season disasters can't keep happening. Indians management might appreciate Wedge's businesslike approach to his job, but nobody is going to remember his grind-it-out mentality if it simply translates to routine failure in September and October.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Melting ... melting ...

Three things are for certain in this life: Death, taxes and nobody, but nobody, is picking the Indians to win tonight's Game 7 at Fenway Park.

No, I can't say that I blame anyone who is picking against Cleveland.

It's not just that the Indians have lost Games 5 and 6, it's how they've lost. For the entire month of September, all of the Yankees series and the first four games of the ALCS, the Indians have been a nose-to-the-grindstone team with a workmanlike mindset, able to discard the previous game's outcome and focus on the task at hand.

Then, the Indians arrived on the doorstep of the American League pennant. And everything has changed.

The "no excuses, let's get to work" Indians have been replaced by impostors that are in the process of a complete mental and emotional meltdown. In Game 5, Kenny Lofton cleared the benches when he approached the mound after getting into a war of words with Josh Beckett. Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera screamed expletives as they waved at strike three. Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez forgot how to communicate in the outfield.

In Game 6, team leader Victor Martinez seemed to think a home run off Curt Schilling was the right time to show up Manny Ramirez with a snail-slow trot around the bases. Even Eric Wedge, the king of the cool demeanor, was found yelling at the home plate umpire from the top step of the dugout.

The fact that the Red Sox have throttled the Indians by a combined score of 19-3 in the last two games is no coincidence. The Indians have played the past two games hot under the collar, irritated at their missed chances to close the series out, frustrated by their inability to come through with the clutch hits that happened so regularly through the first eight games of the playoffs.

If I didn't know better, I'd say the Indians placed all their eggs in the basket of clinching the series at home in Game 5. When it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, they lost their collective composure.

It's a mistake that shows how woefully lacking in experience the Indians are when compared to the Red Sox. It's not so much Boston's experience in rallying from an 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees three years ago, though that did teach a lot of the Red Sox's holdovers from 2004 that, no matter the deficit, you are never out of a series.

Boston's ability to surgically implant themselves back in the series has a lot more to do with the fact that they had Beckett going in Game 5, and a trip back home awaiting after that. For a team trailing 3-1, you can't ask for the planets to align much better than that.

We all knew the Indians didn't want to head back to Boston, but it wasn't until Saturday night that we knew how much they wanted to avoid the trip. The Indians played like a bunch of middle-management minions who had been told by their boss to come in Saturday at 7 a.m. for an all-morning symposium on TPS report covers.

Now, with no days of rest to calm down and collect themselves, the Indians must play a winner-take-all Game 7. They must find a way to return to the team that was in control from Games 2 through 4 and do it fast, or you'll be better off spending your Sunday evening watching "Desperate Housewives." Really, you would.

On to the game...

I can't underscore enough how important it is that the Indians jump out to a multiple-run lead early tonight. The way the Red Sox have been swinging the bats the past two games, it guarantees nothing, but falling behind early is really bad news for an Indians team that needs something to build on in a hurry.

If the Red Sox grab an early lead and starter Daisuke Matsuzaka shows any signs of losing his grip on the game, there is always the possibility that Josh Beckett will be summoned from the bullpen on short rest, and we will be treated to flashbacks of 1999, when Pedro Martinez came out of the bullpen to pitch six perfect innings in Game 5 of the division series, eliminating the Indians.

On the Tribe's side, Jake Westbrook isn't the kind of guy you'd think you would want starting a game of this magnitude. But since the golden arms of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona have come up more than just a little short in this series, that leaves Westbrook and Paul Byrd as your best options.

Westbrook and Byrd have done what the Tribe's big guns haven't been able to do: Throw strikes and work from ahead in the count. If Westbrook can pitch like he did in Game 3, Boston hitters will have a hard time elevating the ball, which is a great recipe for staying away from the doubles and homers that have absolutely killed Indian pitching the past two games.

If Westbrook has any trouble, my first choice out of the bullpen would be Byrd. His double-pump windup and selection of super slo-mo slop seemed to mystify the Red Sox in Game 4. Plus, as a comparative playoff veteran, Byrd might be the Indians reliever most likely to take control of the situation should Westbrook falter.

Of course, if Westbrook falters (read: leaves pitches up in the strike zone), there is a good chance it will be 9-1 Boston in the fourth inning, rendering Byrd's composure a moot point.

I might as well use this as an opportunity to mention Byrd's implication in the snowballing HGH/steroid scandal, because if he enters tonight's game, 35,000 Boston fans will remind him. But that's another column for a later time.

At the plate, Indian hitters have to reverse the trend of the past two games, and do it right away. Their frustration and anxiety has been so thick you could cut it with a knife. Almost to a man, the Tribe's lineup abandoned any form of discipline, expanded the strike zone, pressed to a fault, and took what few scoring chances they had away by getting themselves out.

That putrid approach has to stop, or Game 7 is a mere formality and the offseason has already begun.

It's been said before, and I'm saying it again: The Indians had three cracks at winning the pennant. If they fail in all three, they get what they deserve. In Games 5 and 6, they played like a team not deserving of representing the AL in the World Series. They have one more shot. If they can re-grow a backbone, stop the onrushing tidal wave of Red Sox momentum and win Game 7 on the road, they will most definitely deserve a shot at a championship.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Back to Boston

We have seen the enemy, and he is Josh Beckett. Now, it's back to Fenway Park to try and secure that elusive fourth win in Game 6.

1. Anyone who wants to place this 7-1 loss at the feet of C.C. Sabathia wasn't watching the same game I was watching. C.C. wasn't dominant, but he battled, dodged bullets and kept the game close against the best postseason pitcher currently active in baseball. When he left the mound trailing 2-1 after six innings, he had done his job.

2. Unfortunately, Eric Wedge didn't see it that way, and sent C.C. out to the mound for the seventh with more than 100 pitches under his belt. After watching C.C. play the role of cat and use eight of his nine lives to get through six innings, I had to wonder how risky of a dice-roll that was by Wedge. It turned out to be too risky, and C.C. was promptly touched for a double and a triple by Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, respectively. Yes, the triple was aided by a Grady Sizemore misplay, but that ball was a rocket hit into the gap by Youkilis off a tired C.C. fastball.

That is the first honest-to-goodness butcher job I've seen Wedge pull all postseason. Wedge pushed his luck letting C.C. start the seventh, he had to have known he was pushing his luck, and it came back to bite him.

3. This was also the first time all postseason I've seen the Indians look noticeably rattled. Faced with the prospect of clinching the pennant at home, they played tight, made mistakes in the field, and Kenny Lofton nearly got into a bench-clearing brawl with Beckett, after Beckett apparently said something to Lofton following Lofton's ill-advised bat-drop on a 3-0 strike.

4. Do the Indians still have control of this series? Sure. But do the Red Sox believe the Indians still have control of this series? I don't know. Fenway is a tough place for a visiting team to play, especially as they're trying to close out the Red Sox. The Red Sox know they have the veterans who have been in this position before, while most of the Indians are new to this whole postseason thing. You can bet nobody in the Indians contingent wanted to go back to Boston, yet they have to suck it up and do just that.

After seeing the Indians' shell-shocked reaction to what transpired in Game 5, it will be interesting to see their demeanor at the outset of Game 6. They've been so good at living game-to-game this season, but to try and do that while you're one win away from the World Series is an entirely different state of mind.

5. But before you become entirely filled with despair, remember that, of the three remaining possible games, this was the pitching matchup that favored the Indians the least. For my money, if I have to manage a baseball game to save the world, Beckett is my starting pitcher. He is simply one of those competitors, like John Elway and Jack Morris, who thrives when the pressure is the highest. C.C. cut-and-pasted together his best postseason outing to date, but even if he had been pulled after six innings, it still wouldn't have been enough. The Indians weren't going to score another run as long as Beckett was in the game, and that's that.

6. I think the Indians offense will fare better against Curt Schilling, who can dominate for stretches, but has also shown holes in his armor that weren't there several years ago, namely a penchant for giving up longballs. Hopefully, Fausto Carmona's Game 2 experience served as a crash course in how to pitch in a playoff game at Fenway. Fausto, from a pure stuff standpoint, is the best pitcher in the Tribe's rotation. If he can plug in and turn on in Game 6, he can be every bit as dominant as Beckett was in Game 5.

7. Boston entered this game with their backs against the wall, Manny Ramirez's fatalistic attitude all over the papers and their ace on the mound. The Indians entered achingly close to a plateau we all desperately want them to reach. It showed, as Boston was unquestionably the looser of the two teams.

The Indians have to figure out a way to get, mentally, to where the Red Sox are. Playing like you're on the cusp of the World Series doesn't do any good if it means you're playing like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. That's probably the test the Indians need to pass if they are to advance, because if you play tight at Fenway, you're asking for bad things to happen.

8. The bottom line is this: As SportsTime Ohio announcer Al Pawlowski said following Game 4, the Indians have three cracks at winning this series. If they can't win any of the three games, they don't deserve the pennant. It's harsh, but it's true. Championship teams figure out ways to win. In Game 5, the Indians, with a lot of help from Beckett, figured out a way to lose.

The Indians are learning that this is the American League, and the playoffs aren't padded with 85-win cream puffs as in the National League. You're going to have to go through the Yankees and/or Red Sox to win the pennant more years than not. To do that, it takes mental toughness and an ability to shake off losses.

The Tribe's mental toughness has just been tested. Saturday, we'll get to see how they react.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Avoiding the 3-1 jinx

I guess it was predictable.

The first graphic that flashed on the Fox screen following the final out of the Indians' 7-3 Game 4 win Tuesday night was a reassuring pat on the back for the Red Sox and their fans.

Sixty-five teams have fallen behind three games to one in a best-of-seven series. Ten of them have come back to win.

Most notably --- say it with me -- The 2004 Red Sox Who Rallied From An 0-3 Deficit Against The Yankees, Then Went On To Win Boston's First World Series In 86 Years.

In the tradition of Steve Buffum's "Inning of Crap" and "Aura of Crap," I'm thinking Fox should get that title trademarked. We're certainly going to hear it a lot leading up to Game 5. Fox's and ESPN's coverage prior to Thursday's Game 5 will likely be sprinkled liberally with '04 Red Sox references, and the inevitable montage of recent teams to rally from 3-1 deficits to win playoff series.

On one hand, they do have a point. We can scoff at how blatantly the national media wants the Red Sox to rally and win this series, even though in order to do it, Boston will probably now need to burn themselves out physically and emotionally, and drain their pitching staff in an all-hands-on-deck Game 7.

But it still bears mentioning that while a 3-1 series lead is a commanding lead, it's not an insurmountable lead. One of the more famous rallies from 3-1 a deficit (outside of the '04 Red Sox) was the Red Sox in the 1986 ALCS, when Dave Henderson's famous homer off Donny Moore erased a ninth-inning Angel lead, helping send the series back to Boston, where the Red Sox won the final two.

There were also the Royals in the 1985 World Series, the Pirates in the 1979 World Series and the Tigers in the 1968 World Series.

But this isn't a column about appealing to your typical Cleveland feelings of dread, even when things are going well. This is simply about being sensible and not counting your chicks before they hatch.

The vast majority of teams that go up 3-1 in a series win it, even when they lose Game 5 at home and are forced back on the road to get the final win.

In 1997, the Indians held Baltimore on the precipice with a 3-1 lead in the ALCS when the most unlikely of Oriole heroes, Scott Kamieniecki, pitched Baltimore to a Game 5 win, setting up the second helping of Mike Mussina we all dreaded. It took 11 innings and a Tony Fernandez homer to break the scoreless tie, but the Indians won Game 6 on the road.

It can be done. Even if Josh Beckett once again outpitches C.C. Sabathia on Thursday and forces the series back to Boston.

Should Boston win Game 5, you will likely encounter increasing numbers of New England fans and media sycophants who want to invoke the pseudo-holy name of the '04 Red Sox. If you have the opportunity, you might want to remind them that this Red Sox team is not that Red Sox team.

That Red Sox team had a younger Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe taking the mound just about every night. This Red Sox team has a 40-something Schilling, unproven Daisuke Matsuzaka and 40-something Tim Wakefield to compliment ace Beckett. So far in this series, the old "Pedro and Pray for Rain" Red Sox of the late 1990s have shown up: do what you can against their ace, then beat everybody else. It's how the Indians won the 1998 division series against Boston.

The Red Sox's epic rally against New York three years ago was more of a rivalry thing than it was a baseball thing. A year after losing the pennant on an Aaron Boone homer, Boston's hatred of the Yankees reached a critical mass, kind of like when Ralphie beat up tormentor Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story." That 0-3 rally probably doesn't happen against Cleveland, or any other team not named the Yankees. The Red Sox had simply had enough.

The advantage Boston has in being down 3-1 is they have no choice but to take it one game at a time, and if you lose, it just wasn't meant to be this year. A fatalistic attitude tends to calm teams down.

The Indians, the team that has utilized the one-game-at-at-time attitude so well, is facing the temptation to start looking at the big picture, one victory away from the World Series. It's up to Eric Wedge to keep his team focused on the Game 5 task at hand.

It's up to the Indians, most notably Game 5 starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia, to not get ahead of themselves. Throughout his career, C.C. has had trouble controlling his emotions, trouble preventing himself from becoming frustrated and agitated when the sailing isn't smooth. He's controlled his temper very well for most of the season, but the stress of the postseason appears to have affected him so far.

There is no such thing as a low-pressure postseason start. But if C.C. can't relax and pitch with confidence with a 3-1 lead, at home, with the support of a crowd anticipating a pennant clinch, one has to wonder when he'll be able to.

If the Indians want to avoid any perceived 3-1 jinx, they need to do four things: One, turn off ESPN and Fox, and their 2004 rain dance. Two, don't be intimidated by Beckett. Three, don't be intimidated by the prospect of returning to Boston. Four, realize that no matter what happens, they are in the driver's seat for the rest of the series.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


They did what they needed to do, though the path was more than a little rocky. The Indians are coming home for Game 3 of the ALCS with the series tied 1-1.

1. Games 1 and 2 underscored just how difficult it is for a visiting team to win playoff games at Fenway Park. At the moment, it might even trump Yankee Stadium for intimidation factor.

Fenway is one of the smallest ballparks in the Majors, but Boston fans are notoriously loud and crass, and they're practically right on top of you. The opposing right fielder takes his life in his hands when he ventures close to Pesky's Pole to try and yank a fly ball away from the stands. The wall is barely four feet high.

That might have been a factor in why Franklin Gutierrez pulled up instead of diving after a ball in Game 1.

Combine the loud crowd with quirky outfield dimensions, the Green Monster, torrid clutch hitters like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell, and it's easy to see why the Red Sox have arguably the best homefield advantage in baseball.

2. C.C. Sabathia is probably going to win the AL Cy Young Award if you believe with the pundits on ESPN have to say, but Josh Beckett is the best pitcher in the playoffs right now. He didn't even have his top-notch stuff working in Friday's Game 1, but it was still more than enough to make C.C. melt under pressure.

3. If no one else will say it, then I will: C.C. was pitching scared on Friday. A 6'-7" lefty with a 95-mph fastball and nasty slider shouldn't need to nibble at the corners, but that's exactly what C.C. did, or tried to do. Many of the people who watched the game seemed to think C.C. just didn't have his good command. I saw a pitcher who seldom went inside after hitting Ortiz, apparently terrified of making the mistake that would open the floodgates.

Of course, if you pitch like that, the floodgates will invariably open. That's why C.C. was dispatched after 80 pitches and less than five innings. He was credited with eight runs in Boston's 10-3 shellacking of the Tribe.

4. The Tribe's ALCS pitching MVP so far will surprise you -- nay, utterly shock you. It's Tom Mastny.

After two innings of one-hit relief on Friday, Mastny pitched not-so-arguably the most pivotal inning of relief work in the Tribe's season thus far on Saturday, retiring Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell in succession to set up the Indians' seven-run outburst in the top of the 11th. This from a guy who surrendered 63 hits and 30 earned runs in 57 2/3 innings of work this year.

After becoming a forgotten man down the stretch, it appears Mastny has rediscovered the formula for bullpen pitching success: throw strikes down in the zone. It's something the rest of the Indians' pitchers should remember.

5. Eric Wedge is sailing through uncharted waters right now. He's never managed in the postseason, so he's going with the formula that got his team here. In other words: Don't expect a lot of adjustments from Wedge, win or lose.

It's an honorable strategy, one that places full faith in the abilities of his players. But Wedge might want to file a little tidbit away for future use: If you have a chance to start your 23-year-old ace at home in Game 3, you take that chance. Sometimes, matching the other team ace-to-ace isn't the best strategy, especially when you're asking your two aces to dive headfirst into their first ALCS at Fenway Park against Beckett and Curt Schilling, two of the best postseason pitchers around.

Sabathia and Fausto Carmona looked overwhelmed and overmatched in the first two games. C.C., a seven-year veteran, has less of an excuse. Carmona, who is for all intents and purposes a rookie, could have been saved for a Game 3 start at Jacobs Field where he probably stood a better chance of staying in control of the situation -- not to mention that fact that he would square off against Daisuke Matsuzaka, also a first-year starter in the Majors.

Carmona can't be protected forever, and sooner or later, he'd need to prove his mettle in a place like Fenway. But when you have the luxury of two aces, I'm in favor of staggering them against the other team's rotation as opposed to a head-on collision in the other team's park.

Of course, I should be the first to admit that I'm second-guessing a manager who has his team in the ALCS, and actually won the game in which Carmona pitched. So maybe I should put a sock in it. But it's something to think about.

6. Trot Nixon is making Mark Shapiro look like a genius at the moment. Last winter, Shapiro signed Nixon weeks after inking David Dellucci to a three-year deal. The Nixon signing didn't make a lot of sense then, and watching him struggle through a .251/3 HR/31 RBI season that featured a terrible .336 slugging percentage did little to shed light on what, exactly, Shapiro saw in him.

On top of that, years of injuries appeared to take their toll on the former stellar defensive right fielder, reducing him to a limping tortoise who was eventually benched in favor of Gutierrez.

But ever since the postseason began, Nixon has been placed back in his comfort zone, right in the middle of the New York-Boston crucible. Sure, there was that embarrassing fielding miscue in Game 3 against the Yankees, but at the plate, Nixon has looked (gasp!) competent again.

The appetizer was the homer and double off Roger Clemens last weekend. Saturday against the Red Sox, he looked like the ultimate fight-fire-with-fire weapon, burning his longtime former team with a gargantuan RBI single to score Grady Sizemore in the 11th, igniting a seven-run rally and propelling the Indians to the win in Boston they so desperately needed.

7. This has been the story of the Indians' lives this season. Teammates picking each other up, sometimes under the least likely of circumstances.

Sabathia and Carmona falter, the bats Travis Hafner and Kenny Lofton go quiet, all hope seems lost. Then the Indians get a boost from Tom Mastny and Trot Nixon in extra innings, in the most inhospitable postseason environment an opposing team can endure -- possibly outside of Yankee Stadium, which Paul Byrd already conquered.

Even when they get blown out in Game 1 and fall behind 6-5 in Game 2, even when their fans want to switch off the TV and not endure another possible dream-shattering Cleveland collapse, this Indians team never stops picking each other up. I don't know how or when this postseason ride is going to end, but from a purely objective standpoint, this has to be one of the toughest, most resilient $60-odd million payroll teams I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The best is yet to come

The Indians beat the Yankees. Paul Byrd beat the Yankees. Joe Borowski nailed down a save against the Yankees. Everything we thought could never happened did happen in last night's 6-4 series-clinching win. And now the Indians will play the Red Sox for the American League pennant.

1. I need to get this out of the way first to ESPN's resident overreactor and Cleveland knife-turner Bill Simmons, who predicted a Borowski series-losing meltdown and told us to bet on another "Red Sox-Yankees Armageddon" in the ALCS: Kiss my ass. That is all.

2. Two guys I am really happy for today: Byrd and Borowski. Were there two guys in more pivotal roles that we as a fan base had less confidence in? I know I was basically chalking Game 4 up to a throwaway game, figuring that Eric Wedge was using Byrd as a sacrificial lamb so he could pitch C.C. Sabathia on normal rest in Game 5.

It was a warranted mindset based on Byrd's recent history against the Yankees. But Byrd was baffling Yankee hitters for just about all of his five innings. He had the type of outing Byrd usually has when he's on, allowing the opposition a bunch of hits (eight) but not allowing them to translate into a bunch of runs (two).

Borowski, of course, had to make stomach acid well into our collective esophagus twice, allowing a towering homer to Bobby Abreu, followed by a towering near miss down the right field line off the bat of Jorge Posada. But he induced Derek Jeter to pop up to get that critical first out, and he retired Alex Rodriguez on a fly ball to right for the second out.

He came close to needed every inch of the 6-3 lead he was handed to get the save, but he got it, and in Yankee Stadium in October, beggars can't be choosers.

3. One guy I'm kind of feeling bad for today: Joe Torre. That's right, the manager of the evil, soulless Yankees.

I'm not feeling bad that he lost. I'm feeling bad because it appears the Yankees, and possibly all of New York, are going to dump this third-straight division series loss in his lap. And it might (probably will) cost him his job.

Ever since becoming the Yankees' manager in 1996, Torre has been nothing but class. He's handled the inevitable George Steinbrenner blow-ups, intense media scrutiny and a merry-go-round of a roster by never changing his attitude, and never forgetting his position as the manager of baseball's flagship franchise.

With four World Series titles, he has (or should have) written his name alongside Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel as one of the greatest Yankee managers of all time. But in New York more than any other city, the daily phrase is "What have you done for me lately?" And for Torre, it's been no playoff series wins since 2004 and no World Series appearances since 2003.

The Yankees were an also-ran when Torre took over. He helped restore the Yankees not just to championship status, but to classy winners, the antithesis of the brawling, bickering Yankees of Billy Martin as depicted in "The Bronx is Burning."

Steinbrenner and Yankees GM Brian Cashman deserve most of the blame in New York for handing Torre a pitching staff of aging ex-all stars and expecting him to win with it. But excrement rolls downhill, and it looks like Torre is going to take the fall for the Yankees' roster shortcomings. And I will have an entirely new reason to loathe them.

4. This series win was the best kind: Not only did the Indians win, they beat the team it seemed would pose the worst possible series matchup for them, a team that outscored them 49-17 in a six-game regular season sweep. If the Indians can beat the Yankees, and close them out in Yankee Stadium, they shouldn't have a reason to fear any other team.

5. The Indians now have an all-time winning record against the Yankees in the postseason, both in series (2-1) and games (8-7).

6. Blatant "Good Will Hunting" ripoff follows....

LeBron.... Do you like apples?
Well, the Yankees are going home! How do you like THEM apples?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Now, the difficult part

Yankees 8, Indians 4 ... you didn't think it was all going to be a bed of roses, did you?

1. Sunday's game underscored A) how difficult it is to close the Yankees out in Yankee Stadium and B) the level of dropoff there is going from C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona to the rest of the rotation.

The margin for error Jake Westbrook has to work with is a pinhole compared to the Tribe's dual aces. Westbrook compares to Charles Nagy, who had to live at knees in the strike zone, work the corners and rely on his defense to get outs. Leave the ball up in the zone -- as Westbrook did for one critical four-batter sequence -- and those would-be groundball double plays start getting sprayed all over the yard and outfield seats.

Not that it's entirely Westbrook's fault. Pitching in Yankee Stadium after C.C. and Fausto worked at home is akin to drawing the short straw. The Yankee Mystique is alive and well in the South Bronx. The Yankees find ways to get clutch hits, huge homers and crunch-time pitching in their own ballpark, three factors that were obviously missing for them in the first two games of this series.

2. Eric Wedge is probably going to take a lot of flack for starting Trot Nixon in right field, what with the Tony Fernandez-ing of the three-run double that put the game out of reach and all. But it makes more sense than you might realize. Nixon has had success against Roger Clemens in the past, and in the postseason crucible of Yankee Stadium, why not start a guy who has had more than his share of postseason at-bats versus New York?

It worked on the offensive end as Nixon homered and doubled. But he's very obviously reached the DH-or-bench part of his career.

3. The Indians have a lot of people rooting against them, and not all of them are LeBron James. Broadcast network TBS isn't even pretending to be unbiased. They want the Yankees to storm back and win this series. If the Yankees lose, the majority of the New York market will greet a Cleveland-Boston ALCS with their thumbs, as they use their remotes to switch off their TVs.

The TBS broadcast crew of Chip Caray, Tony Gywnn and Bob Brenly are going to great lengths to make sure Yankee fans see very little difference between a TBS broadcast and a YES Network broadcast. All it took was a single by Alex Rodriguez for Caray to declare "And here come the Yankees!" When A-Rod was erased on a double-play grounder immediately after, the frustration in the TBS booth was palpable.

When Johnny Damon homered to give the Yankees the lead, Craig Sager openly mused if that would be the moment that turned the series around, comparing it to Derek Jeter's famous ball-flip in the 2001 playoffs, igniting a rally from a 2-0 deficit against Oakland.

With the NLCS featuring the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, TBS, Fox, and above all, Major League Baseball itself, knows that the World Series is almost certainly going to be a ratings anticlimax. The "real" World Series would be a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS for the third time in five years. So, let's be real, no one controlling this series wants the Indians to win.

4. Having said that, if you're looking for a metaphorical digit you can thrust toward the Yankee love-fest on TBS, remember this: At the outset of the series, I said the Indians needed to be up 2-1 after three games in order to have a chance to win. That is exactly where they are.

It doesn't look as good because the most recent game was a come-from-behind Yankee win, and the Indians were the only team with a 2-0 lead that couldn't finish off the sweep. But the Indians still have the trump card of C.C. Sabathia, at home, in Game 5 on normal rest -- unless Wedge caves to pressure and starts C.C. on short rest Monday night, which seems a bit too risky for the normally-conservative Wedge.

5. I'd go so far as to say that Wedge is playing for Game 5. If Paul Byrd can somehow pitch the Indians to a series-clinching win Monday night, great. But Wedge knows the best shot is Wednesday night at Jacobs Field with his No. 1 starter on the mound and the crowd behind him.

It might not be a terribly popular decision with fans to start Byrd, who has a tendency to get hammered by the Yankees. But we might reap the benefits of C.C. on full rest Wednesday.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A close shave

Assorted thoughts on Friday's 2-1, 11-inning, Game 2 win over the Yankees...

1. This is the type of game the Indians would have lost in August. Utterly stymied by Andy Pettitte, who wriggled off the hook time and time again, Indian hitters began pressing, expanding the strike zone and getting themselves out. I thought the Yankees would inevitably pull the game out after Grady Sizemore tripled to lead off the sixth inning, and was left stranded after Asdrubal Cabrera grounded out, and Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez struck out.

2. The offense did everything in its power to lose this game. The credit for the win goes almost entirely to two men -- or maybe boys who became men last night: Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez. Carmona was simply amazing in holding the Yankees to one run on three hits in nine innings -- and one of those hits came on an infield single as Bobby Abreu beat out a slow-arriving Jhonny Peralta throw from short.

C.C. Sabathia battled through five innings Thursday night in his own amazing effort. Carmona, however, almost made it look easy. Perez relieved to start the 10th, and faced the minimum in his perfect two innings of work, though Jorge Posada provided a heart-in-mouth moment as he flied out to the wall in right in the 10th.

All told, Sabathia and Carmona looked every bit like the best one-two pitching punch in this year's playoffs. They are the primary reasons the Indians are a win away from their first ALCS trip in nine years.

3. One of the best parts about Friday's game? The Indians used only two pitchers, while the Joe Torre pretty much had to fire all of his bullpen bullets in the span of four innings. Joba Chamberlain allowed the tying run to score when Sizemore scampered home on a potentially bug-induced wild pitch in the eighth inning. The way Tribe pitchers were hurling, the tying run was all the offense needed to weather two innings of Mariano Rivera before breaking through against Luis Vizcaino for the winning run in the 11th.

Saturday's off day allowed both managers more leeway with regard to using pitchers, but if Torre was using Rivera in a non-save situation on the road for two innings and 38 pitches, you know A) he was desperate to win the game and B) he isn't exactly brimming with confidence in the rest of his bullpen.

4. Much has been made of the bugs that descended on Jacobs Field during the later innings. I suppose a plague of insects reminiscent of the Book of Exodus descending on Cleveland's ballpark during a nationally-televised playoff game doesn't do a lot to erase the image -- certainly in the minds of sophisticated New Yorkers -- that Cleveland is anything more than a hick town that considers bug zappers a form of entertainment. But today, I consider those six-legged specks an ally.

Us country folk out here in Ohiya, we can deal with our assorted varmints, pests, 'skeeters and icky-crawly things. Heck, we know that a roller coaster ride at Cedar Point during bug season can give you your recommended daily allowance of protein in the form of swallowed Canadian soldiers. New Yorkers, on the other hand, might be able to hail a cab from six blocks away, but when it comes to bug swarms, they are totally grossed out.

The proof was on the field. Indians players came prepared with bug spray. The most you ever saw out of a Cleveland player was the occasional swipe of the face or flinching of the arm. A trainer had to get a bug out of Kenny Lofton's eye.

The Yankees, on the other hand, looked like they wanted to run into the clubhouse and take showers to wash the icky bugs off. If there is a more humorous moment than Yankee trainers dousing Chamberlain with bug spray out on the mound, I haven't seen it yet. The best part: The spray made the bugs stick to Chamberlain even more.

Joba, you're from Nebraska. You should know a thing or two about bugs. Your air-conditioned, jet set lifestyle in New York has made you go soft.

5. The worst part of LeBron's decision to flaunt his Yankee colors in our faces during Game 1? The anti-LeBron signs and shirts were out in full force for Game 2, for all the New York media to see and begin, once again, penning columns about LeBron's inevitable departure to the Knicks or Nets in three years.

When LeBron signed his extension last year, all the LeBron-to-New York hype finally died down. But then LeBron had to make an anti-Cleveland spectacle of himself at Jacobs Field, and the predictable backlash was evident Friday night. From the more extreme (a "No LeBrains" sign hanging from a railing in right field) to the more conservative (a man wearing a "Wrong hat LeBron" t-shirt), our internal quibble with our resident basketball superstar is now the nation's dirty laundry.

I don't think LeBron is a mean-spirited person, and I sincerely don't believe he meant to vilify himself to Cleveland fans on any large scale. Twenty-two year old kids wear Yankee gear to Jacobs Field all the time just so they can get some drunkard in a Pronk jersey to scream "Jeter is A-Rod's ass-bitch!" at him, or something to that effect. But those 22-year-olds aren't 22-year-old worldwide basketball superstars who play for the team in their own backyard.

LeBron was trying to get a rise out of us, but as a superstar, he has to understand that different rules apply to him. Everywhere he goes, he represents the cities of Cleveland and Akron, and more importantly, the Cleveland Cavaliers -- who have a nice "Good Luck Tribe" banner hanging from The Q.

Whether you meant to or not, LeBron, you were mocking Cleveland fans Thursday night. They might have been dressed in Tribe colors, but they are your fans, too. I think they deserved better than have the first legitimate superstar in Cleveland in 40-plus years show up to, in essence, thumb his nose at them. It doesn't look good for Cleveland, and it doesn't look good for the Cavs. This should go all the way to the top. Dan Gilbert should tell LeBron that he just embarrassed the city and gave the Cavs organization a public relations black eye with his little "Go Yankees" stunt during the Tribe's first playoff run in six years.

Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic still without contracts. Eric Snow having knee surgery. Shannon Brown involved in a nightclub scuffle. And now this. It seems like the Cavs are just amassing bad karma hand over fist right now. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this coming season. But that's another column for another time.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Off to a good start

Some thoughts from Thursday's 12-3 Game 1 win over the Yankees...

1. It's only one game. Repeat: It's only one game. The Yankees, I'm nearly positive, realize this. The burden is on the inexperienced Indians to realize that they aren't going to be able to toss their gloves on the field and win this series just because the final score of Game 1 indicates a rout.

2. To that end, I echo the statistical anomaly noted by TBS and ESPN announcers last night: In each of the last seven division series involving the Yankees, the team that won the first game lost the series. Last year, the Yankees pounded the Tigers 8-4 in Game 1, then lost the next three.

3. However, trends can be spotted, and if Game 1 is any indication, the starting pitching discrepancy between these two teams is larger than anyone imagined. Chien-Ming Wang, New York's top starter, looked unsure of how to stop the bleeding once the Tribe's offense started rolling. The Taiwanese sinkerballer left pitches up in the zone all night, and the result was predictable as the Indians ran him out of the game in the fifth inning.

4. C.C. Sabathia, on the other hand, gave one of the guttiest bend-but-don't-break performances in recent memory. After letting the Indians fall behind on a Johnny Damon leadoff homer in the first inning, then walking Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez, he came back to strike out Jorge Posada and induce Hideki Matsui to pop up. He did the same thing in the fifth inning with the bases loaded, the Tribe clinging to a 4-3 lead and the Yankees poised for the big rally we all feared would come.

All told, it took 114 pitches for Sabathia to get through five innings, but it worked. However, one has to now wonder about his ability to pitch effectively on short rest in Game 4 if needed.

5. I was concerned that the Yankees would get into the front end of the Indians' bullpen in the middle innings of games and have a field day against guys like Jensen Lewis and Aaron Fultz.

Thursday, the Indians did exactly that to the Yankees. After chasing Wang, rookie Ross Ohlendorf came in and kept the cheeseballs coming as the Indians put the game out of reach. To stop the landslide, potential Game 4 starter Phil Hughes had to come in and pitch the final two innings.

I wonder if Joe Torre now regrets heading into the postseason without a lefty in the bullpen.

6. Kenny Lofton wasn't the blockbuster acquisition we were all hoping for at the trade deadline. But sometimes big things come in skinny packages.

The fact that the veteran leadership on this team now includes an able-bodied Lofton is crucial. Not only does he had a lot of experience in these situations, he can back up that experience with his play, unlike some of the Trot Nixons and David Delluccis on the roster.

Lofton went 3-for-4 last night with four RBI. No one is expecting that out of Lofton every night, but his presence contributes to an Indians lineup that can produce one-through-nine.

7. I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but shame on you, LeBron James. It's a free country, and I don't care what baseball team you root for. Some Indians fans think you are a turncoat because you root for the Yankees, but as long as you remain a loyal Cavs fan, it's no concern of mine.

But you might have taken things a bit too far last night, showing up at Jacobs Field with your Yankees cap on, sitting out in the open and agreeing to an interview with TBS where you said you were "representing for the Yankees."

I'll be honest, LeBron. It felt like you were rubbing our faces in it. It felt like you were showing up at the game specifically to flaunt your Yankee cap in front of all the Cleveland fans in attendance, like you were saying, "I'm rooting against your team. What are you going to do about it?"

Maybe you think Cleveland fans are too touchy about these kinds of things. You might be right. But to have the most beloved superstar in Ohio show up at the game just to side with opposition seems like it builds unnecessary animosity with the fans who passionately root for you from November through June. Don't your handlers generally coach you to stay away from controversy?

I know this much: The next time the Pistons come to The Q, I fully encourage Bob Feller to sit right behind the Cavs bench wearing a Pistons cap. Maybe throw on a Chauncey Billups jersey for good measure.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On the eve of the playoffs

Perhaps you remember the exact moment when you knew what you had been missing all these years. Or perhaps it dawned on you gradually. But somewhere along the line, you were let in on a little secret that had been kept from Cleveland long enough to be forgotten.

There is nothing like October baseball.

The playoffs of the NHL and NBA are two-month marathons conducted at a time when the days are lengthening and the weather is warming, and feature two- and three-day breaks between games. All enough to put the proceedings out-of-sight, out-of-mind on days when your team isn't playing a game.

The playoffs of the NFL are a weekend affair in the dead cold of January, and the Super Bowl so overshadows the conference playoffs, it practically feels like an extension of the regular season if you don't have a rooting interest.

But then there's October. October baseball. October baseball in a city that has seen more than its share of dark, desolate Octobers without baseball over the years.

National scribes can gush about the title-festooned tradition of New York, the way baseball is in the blood of New Englanders, the everlasting devotion of Cubs fans through 99 years without a World Series crown.

I say October baseball means more here in Northeast Ohio, where inferiority complexes reign and winter tends to bring gray skies, snowstorms and losing football.

We need it. We've needed it for longer than we've needed Browns victories on Autumn Sundays. For longer than we've bled scarlet and gray on Autumn Saturdays.

For 107 Octobers of dying daylight, falling leaves and dropping temperatures, we've needed it. And too often, our local nine hasn't delivered.

But this year is one of the years it's different. This year, the hunger has been fed. For at least one week, hopefully longer, we get to come together as a community, every day, and feed off of what the Indians did the previous night. Every morning becomes like the Monday morning after a Browns game. The conversations spill over from the office water cooler and into the streets. East, West, city, suburbs, the Indians become Cleveland's common denominator when they reach the playoffs.

Flags bearing Chief Wahoo's likeness are draped over business and residence windows alike. There is a noticeable rise in the amount of Tribe hats, shirts, jackets and ties adorning passers-by. Goofy parody songs find their way onto the radio. The net sum adds up to "Tribe Fever," but it speaks to something deeper in all of us.

This was the seed that was planted the first time your dad played catch with you in the backyard, probably when you were too little to even know what you were doing. This was the bulb that took root when you went to your first ballgame at that rusty dinosaur of a stadium on the lakefront. The Indians weren't any good back then, October baseball was something that played out elsewhere. But you learned the game. It became something that embedded itself in the deepest part of your conscience.

People who think baseball is too slow, or that it primarily involves a lot of crotch-grabbing and seed-spitting, they don't get it. Maybe you didn't quite get it until Tony Pena hit that walk-off homer against Boston in 1995, winning the Tribe's first playoff game since 1948. Maybe it didn't finally click until Kenny Lofton sprinted home from second base in Game 6 against Seattle, and you knew your team was going to the World Series.

Maybe it came full circle when that line drive zinged past Charlie Nagy's head in Game 7 two years later, and for a while, you wished you weren't burdened by this game, this team.

But at some point, you realized the power of October baseball. The power to lift you up and send you crashing back down to Earth. The power to unify an entire city in joy, suspense and sorrow. The last rays of warmth we can capture as the Sun sets on another summer of stretching out in the upper deck of Jacobs Field with a cold beer in your hand and a scorecard in your lap.

For just the 10th time in 107 years, the Indians are playing October baseball. Now older and wiser, you understand what that means.