The games finally count.
Just three games into their 2010 campaign, and one thing is clear: The Cleveland Indians have the talent to be competitive.
For a team in a self-proclaimed “retooling cycle” with low expectations, the difference between being competitive each day and contending for a pennant seems like a big one. However, at this level, the difference between being merely competitive and contending for a title is not so great.
Shrinking the season into a set of three-game series, this low margin-of-error is apparent. The team that consistently wins the rubber game of a three-game series will contend for a pennant. The one that consistently loses that game is bound to be mired in futility. Winning two out of every three games will get you 108 victories. Drop the rubber game, though, and that total drops to 54. Each game counts, even in April. The question for the tribe is: can they consistently win that game?
Early signs are promising.
Following a disappointing shut-out loss on Opening Day in Chicago, the Tribe bounced back to take two of three on the road against a division foe. They did so with solid, if unspectacular, pitching, timely hitting, and strong defense. In the three-game series, the Indians did not commit an error. The bullpen, led by Jensen Lewis, Rafael Perez, and de facto closer Chris Perez, looked strong, holding the White Sox to a .103 batting average. Most importantly, the Indians scored runs when they needed to. Grady Sizemore came through with clutch two-out, RBI hits in both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s wins. Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubel Cabrera came through with big, two-out RBI hits as well.
Manny Acta showed his team could compete by playing scrappy, no-frills “small-ball.” The Tribe stole four bases in the series and laid down three sacrifice bunts. Notably, they did not hit a home run in the series. Yet, they found a way to win, coming from behind in both victories. Can they do this consistently? How Acta handles the second-youngest team in the majors will go a long way toward determining what the Tribe will be doing in August and September, but the seed of that gritty character, so endearing to fans, seems to have been sown.
The season is young, so enthusiasm should rightfully be tempered. Expectations are still low, which will keep the pressure off this young team. The return of Russell Branyan and closer Kerry Wood will help, as will the development of Carlos Santana. The back-end of the rotation will be vital to the Indians’ success, so how David Huff and rookie Mitch Talbot, who will face the Tigers this weekend, will perform remains to be seen.
Young scrappy clubs with low expectations have a way of sneaking up on teams. They also have a way of getting down when the going gets tough. Flattening those cycles is what is needed. The 2010 incarnation of the Indians will win games. They will be competitive. Whether that competitiveness translates into contention all depends on how consistent Manny Acta has his team playing over the long-haul.