SPORTS

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April 23, 2002

Foul Tips

Roughly a week ago, the Indians' new General Manager Mark Shapiro stood to address a host of local fans. "It's sure nice not having to stand behind chicken wire up here," he quipped. Shapiro's medium-grade sense of humor (not low-grade; I award him points for conjuring images of that scene in The Blues Brothers where the band plays at Bob's Country Bunker) about Cleveland's cold winter—a winter in which the management said goodbye to Marty Cordova, Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, and Roberto Alomar, to name a few—his medium-grade sense of humor about that winter was completely acceptable to the once-angry fans, because the Tribe had won ten straight since splitting its first two games of the season. Shapiro and others pointed to the speculations offered by sundry baseball analysts that Cleveland would be wallowing in third place in the AL Central, and noted that, for the time being, no one needed to worry about those allegations. For the time being.

A rainout in Kansas City. Then the Indians headed out to Comiskey to give the White Sox a few sound drubbings before heading back home to take on their real divisional rivals, the upstart Twins. A quick aside about the Twins: I find their up-and-coming start infuriatingly inconsistent. Not their production levels—their identities. One day, all the hype is about Doug Mientkiewicz, and you learn how to pronounce and spell it, and suddenly everyone wants to talk about Cristian Guzman. Then Corey Koskie and David Ortiz. Then it's Matt Lawton. Then Lawton's in Cleveland and it's Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones. Redman, Milton, Mays, Guardado. I can't keep it all straight.

Back to the topic at hand. The new-uniformed Indians had come to Chicago to take care of the White Sox, but suddenly everything went horribly wrong. The Sox battered what had previously been an unhittable pitching staff. Konerko and Ordonez were hitting business-as-usual home runs, and Ray Durham and Frank Thomas began hitting alongside them. Suddenly the White Sox looked like the brute squad that offseason predictors had made them out to be. And Danys Baez, Chuck Finley, and Bartolo Colon could not keep up with the resurgent Chicago pitching staff.

When it was all over, the Indians staggered onto the team plane looking like James Van Der Beek, et al. after the strip club scene in Varsity Blues: wearily blinking their eyes at the Midwestern sun, pushing their burned-out bodies to get them out of the dusty parking lot and to a space where they might rest. Their snappy new uniforms were dirty and sweat-covered, and they had nothing but three consecutive losses to show for it all. Colon looked like he had suddenly aged two more years.

There was no respite to be found in Minneapolis. Tom Prince and Brian Buchanan led Minnesota's offensive outburst against the prodigal C.C. Sabathia, combining to hit two home runs and drive in seven more. Sabathia gave up a career-worst eight runs in less than five innings of work, and the Cleveland bullpen surrendered four more before the night came to a merciful end. The Twins had exacted some revenge for the thumping they had received in getting swept by the Indians during their most recent series, but apparently they were not through. The weekend's games featured equally tepid showings by the starting pitchers, Ryan Drese and Chuck Finley, and by the faltering Cleveland offense, which produced only seven runs in the three-game series. All told, the Tribe has now dropped six consecutive games, and fallen to the once-impossible third place in the division in exactly one week. The Indians head home to take on the White Sox tonight in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

With a slow-footed offense and a thin bullpen, the Indians do not have the tools to come from behind when their starting pitchers falter. Ellis Burks's early season hot streak has subsided somewhat and the Indians have not been able to supplant his offense. A profound, gut-wrenching losing streak threatens to ensconce the Indians in third place if their starting pitchers do not get their collective act together. Manager Jerry Manuel insists that the team will not get frantic, and that the losing streak has come much too early in the season to be a concern. Recently, the White Sox have been playing so well, largely at Cleveland's expense, that an immediate end to the losing streak (particularly against the early season Cy Young frontrunner, Mark Buerhle) does not appear likely. The team may very likely have to lean on Bartolo Colon to get back on track, and it cannot be allowing the likes of Prince to drive in four runs every game.

Much has yet to be settled, and as Manuel said, the season remains young. Nonetheless, the Indians need to get their act together before they put themselves in a legitimate hole. And just to be sure, Mark Shapiro should see if he can find some chicken wire.