OK Cleveland sports fans, lots on my mind today.
Let’s start with the Tribe, whom I haven’t had the opportunity to watch as much this year as I have in the past. I did catch most of today’s game and, well, yikes. To put it simply, we’re not a good team right now.
I saw comments from Eric Wedge after the game that suggested roster changes are coming. They couldn’t happen any sooner. Dennis Manoloff of the Plain Dealer reported that Ben Francisco is being called up, a move that everyone in the city has clamored for.
He deserves to have a shot at being an everyday outfielder – just 26 years old, he’s hit at every stop in the minor leagues, winning the International League batting title last season with Buffalo and hitting .274 with the Indians in limited action last year.
Francisco certainly couldn’t do worse than the platoon of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci, hitting a combined .238. Michaels in particular has struggled and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s him who gets shipped out.
And why not give some more at bats to Andy Marte? I’m one of about 24 Casey Blake fans in the city of Cleveland, but he’s only hitting .202 this year and has made several costly errors in the field. Shaky defense can be excused if you’re hitting the ball – it’s indefensible if you can’t hit your weight at the plate.
Might as well let Marte have a shot. Still just 24 – 10 years younger than Blake – he should get another chance to prove himself, especially since it’s not like the incumbent is doing any better.
Finally, much has been made of Travis Hafner’s woes. I saw and read reasonable explanations for his slump by both Terry Plutoand Steve Phillips on Baseball Tonight, pointing out mechanical issues in Hafner's swing.
Wedge was smart to drop him in the order, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there is something wrong with his swing and if he’s not hitting in the three-hole he sure as heck isn’t going to hit better by moving to sixth in the lineup.
As I’ve said before, the Indians were fortunate to have as much success as they did last year without Hafner playing well. They can’t survive two straight years of sub-par play from him, and so far, they haven’t.
Coming into this season, I was also concerned with the lack of a significant roster move. The only free agent signing for the position players was Jamey Carroll, who does have a nearly .400 on-base percentage. But it’s not like he’s going to be the answer every day.
To me it seems clear: there’s some type of hangover from last year’s bitter postseason disappointment. There’s no emotion on this team, nor a strong veteran presence to whip the players into shape. Wedge is not the type of manager to light a fire under them, but he shouldn’t have to.
If the players can’t motivate themselves to succeed, then they have no business suiting up to play. That’s why Wedge MUST turn to younger players who have some fire in them to provide a spark to this team.
The lone saving grace is that the AL Central has been nothing short of terrible this year, with all five teams experiencing prolonged slumps at one point or another. The Indians trail the Twins by just 2.5 games, but changes must be made – and soon – to get this team back on track.
Meanwhile, the Cavs found out they would be playing the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That became a reality about three minutes into Boston’s Game 7 blowout of the Hawks – last I saw the Celtics were up by about a million and looked like the Monstars in Space Jam.
I’m guardedly optimistic about Cleveland’s chances in this series. Guarded, because the Celtics played ridiculously well at home against Atlanta, with an average margin of victory being about 47 points. Guarded, because three stars should be better than one. Guarded, because the Cavs continue to show signs of inconsistency.
Optimistic, because the Cavs were 2-1 against Boston with LeBron this year. Optimistic, because Boston couldn’t even win in Atlanta, for God’s sake. Optimistic, because Mike Brown has actually made some good coaching moves while Doc Rivers is coaching like, well, Doc Rivers.
So those are some of the things weighing in my head right now. Boston, with home court advantage and a stifling defense, should be the favorite in this series. After all, they did win 66 games this year for a reason.
But NBA fans shouldn’t discount the Cavs from taking this series. This reminds me a lot of Cleveland’s first encounter with Detroit in the playoffs two years ago – dominant in the regular season, tough, defensive-minded team – and an inexperienced Cavs team took them seven games and legitimately could have won it in six.
Cleveland and Boston matched up once after the trade, with the Celtics scoring a 92-87 win at home. LeBron struggled mightily in that game – remember he left with an ankle injury – and the Cavs fell behind early and never really recovered.
The biggest issue for the Cavs will be matching Boston’s energy at the outset of Game 1. You could see how the Celtics fed off of that home crowd, with Kevin Garnett screaming like a wild banshee at every moment, and the Cavs can’t play catch-up on the road. Not against Boston, anyway.
The Cavs must find ways to contain Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the perimeter. We have plenty of big bodies to throw at Garnett, but regardless he will get his 20-10 every night. I’m assuming that, to start, LeBron and Wally Szczerbiak will be shouldering the defensive responsibilities on the other two Boston stars.
Allen had three good shooting games against Atlanta, three poor ones and one so-so one. His age might be showing a bit this late into the season – hopefully, at least, for the Cavs. Pierce also had his ups-and-downs, but the key for him is that he was hitting from the outside, making 15 3-pointers in the series and hitting countless other jumpers.
The key for the Cavs is to play with the same physical nature and intensity they displayed during their best performances in the Wizards series – Games 2 and 6. Those victories rested largely on the shoulders of strong defensive efforts, and that’s how the Cavs will win this series against Boston – by playing the type of defense that got them to the NBA Finals last year.
Oh, and having that LeBron guy is a nice luxury too.