Monday, June 16, 2008

Taking one for the team

About a week ago, the Indians were left for dead. Coming off yet another dismal road trip, they were eight games back and fading fast. The punch was gone from the lineup, as Travis Hafner was in the midst of his rehabilitation odyssey, while Victor Martinez was just beginning his.

Jake Westbrook was out for at least one calendar year. Fausto Carmona still hadn't returned from a hip injury. Asdrubal Cabrera had lugged his sub-.200 batting average back to Buffalo, and his replacement, Josh Barfield, was shelved with an injured finger days later.

Like vultures swirling over a soon-to-be dead desert mammal, scouts from other teams were lining up to gauge the specifics on C.C. Sabathia, who appeared headed out the door sooner rather than later as Mark Shapiro, it seemed, would be forced to bail out on this sinking season.

But then, a glimmer of hope. The Tribe, sans the heart of their order, sans their Nos. 2 and 3 starters, with Jamey Carroll acting as a 5'-10" gauze pad over the bleeding abrasion that second base had become, rattled off five wins in seven games, slicing their division deficit to five and a half games as of Monday. 

Five wins in seven games normally doesn't save a season. But for the Indians, the past week might have been a light-bulb moment for the team's movers and shakers. In the hierarchy of revelations, it wasn't Moses climbing the mountain to see God speak through a burning bush, but it was significant nonetheless:

Healthy guys should play. Injured guys should sit.

For most of the season, the Indians' decision-makers seemed to operate under the assumption that whatever their injured players -- Hafner and Martinez in particular -- could give them was better than not having them available at all. Shapiro and Wedge were very slow to put their two sluggers in sick bay because, quite honestly, where else was the run production going to come from?

It's a legitimate question, at least to look at the Tribe's lineup on paper. So they opted for the macho "suck it up, fight through it and play ball" route. We all know what happened. The strategy backfired like a Model T.

Hafner, with a arthritic right elbow and a shoulder injury that had been veiled from the public until he actually went on the disabled list at the end of May, was hitting at a .217 clip with four homers and 22 RBIs when the Indians finally decided enough was enough. 

Martinez had been battling a sore hamstring all season. But it was his right elbow that likely drained his home run power (again, a secret the Indians guarded until he was placed on the DL) and ultimately put his season on ice. Martinez underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow and will likely miss 6-to-8 weeks.

Keeping Martinez and Hafner in the lineup for so long was in character for Wedge and Shapiro, historically a pair of ultra-conservative baseball minds who would rather stay the course and plow through adversity than make radical changes. But as the Tribe's season foundered, their collective hand was forced. It turns out, the moves they were so reluctant to make were the best moves to make for the sake of the season.

Freed from the burden of having to stick with Hafner and Martinez, wasting at-bats on their injured limbs, nursing them along as the pair tried to get healthy and work through the mental static that accompanies any prolonged slump, Wedge was able to turn to the healthy guys left in his clubhouse and ask them to carry the load. So far, it has worked.

Youngsters such as Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo have responded well to increased playing time, both hitting well over .300. Ryan Garko has shown signs of life batting cleanup. Grady Sizemore has raised his average to nearly .270 and is on a 40-homer pace. Casey Blake, the Tribe's best clutch hitter all year, is inching his batting average through the .250s and is tied with Sizemore for the team RBI lead.

And Carroll, who just completed a 14-for-22 homestand, gets a special mention.

What happens when you add a competent offense to good starting pitching? You tend to win. The Indians are 8-7 in June as of Monday. Not something to get too worked up about, but it's at least a trend in the positive direction.

None of this should be interpreted as a statement of belief that the Indians are a better team without Hafner and Martinez. They're better off without their current injuries clogging the lineup, but there is no question that the Tribe won't be whole again until those guys are back, healthy and producing at a high level. But the moral of the story is, if you're going to try and win a baseball game, put your best team on the field, and seldom does your best team include a guy with a bum shoulder and a guy with bone chips in his elbow.

Facing how-many-ever weeks without Hafner and Martinez is a risk for the Tribe, but it might end up being a risk that saves their season, particularly as they square off against the weaker, non-Arizona-Diamondbacks portion of the NL West over the next two weeks.

7 comments:

Mary Khan said...

Youngsters such as Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo have responded well to increased playing time, both hitting well over .300. Ryan Garko has shown signs of life batting cleanup. Grady Sizemore has raised his average to nearly .270 and is on a 40-homer pace. Casey Blake, the Tribe's best clutch hitter all year, is inching his batting average through the .250s and is tied with Sizemore for the team RBI lead.

Zach said...

Casey Blake, the team's best clutch hitter all year.

Wow, my head didn't explode writing that.

Anonymous said...

Unforuntately, once again you're entire rant, sorry, article, is null and void due to evolving situations in baseball. One would think that if you updated more then simply once every other week, it wouldn't seem like you're constantly being invalidated. Hafner is off for another opinion, Carmona is now reinjured, and the Indians have been slaughtered at the hands of one of the worst teams in baseball this season, the Rockies.

Not left for dead you say? And you call yourself a sports writer.

M. Collins

Erik said...

Zach:

Casey Blake might be a Yankee by this time next month. He's actually become too expensive for the Tribe. MY head didn't explode writing that, which is a shock.

M. Collins:

Go take your hostility somewhere else.

PeteyPete said...

its easy to talk smack four days later isnt it collins??? the article was from monday and youre on hear thursday acting like you knew it all along. what you got a cristal ball or somthing? thats weak.

Anonymous said...

its crystal, not cristal you illiterate hick, and its not exactly fortune-telling. This team has been mediocre ALL season, and to post some God-awfully long blog about how after winning a few games against bad teams is a drastic turnaround for the Indians is either naive of the team in general, or shows a serious lack of knowledge about the sport. The Rockies, a team 12 games below .500 and one of the worst in the MLB just swept the Indians. Based on this, and the above info given (all of which was known LONG before 4 days ago) I would think the writer owes his readers and apology for his lack of insight, as well as an update admitting he was blatantly wrong and jumped the gun, again, trying to shill out for the Indians.

And your attitude Mr. Cassano in responding to people who have a differing opinion then yours, ESPECIALLY after the embarrassment you should feel regarding all that has transpired, is disgraceful. If this is how you treat people who take the time to read your articles, you won't be in journalism or editing very long, thankfully.

M. Collins

Erik said...

Look Collins, I'm all in favor of constructive debate, and yes I admit that events have transpired since last Monday that make my stance in this column a bit more difficult to defend. Carmona had to take a break from rehab, and Hafner sought a second opinion on his shoulder. Both those things happened after the article ran. Those are legitimate points.

However, if all you're going to post is "You suck, I hate everything about everything you write, I hope you lose your job," I'm just not going to bother going down that road with you. It's not worth it. I learned a long time ago that you can't reason with an angry person, and I'm not about to start trying now.

If that's all you're going to post, I'm just going to ignore you from here on out, because what you've posted to my blog so far has added absolutely nothing to it.