Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Back to the Future Edition
As I sit here on Friday night, I can’t help but feeling a bit nostalgic. When you are all reading this on Saturday morning, I’ll be celebrating my twelfth anniversary with my wife. For many strange and not quite clear reasons, she decided to marry me all those years ago, and I can’t help but thank the Indians a bit for my luck. You see, my wife and I shared our first date five years prior to that, on June 1, 1995, right here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Now before you click out of this article, don’t worry, this isn’t a walk through the life and times of Jim Pete’s relationships. While that would be an interesting read that would have you shaking your head in wonder at why anyone would want to spend even a day with me (let alone 17 years), that’s not what today's CoCaO is about.
Today, we start way back in 1995, on what I believe was a Thursday night game at the Jake, and was assuredly against the hated Chicago White Sox. I actually dug out my scorecard from the game (yeah, on my first date with my wife, I actually scored the game—I know, I know, the woman is a saint), and it really does sum up those 1995 Cleveland Indians. According to the card, Kenny Lofton went 2-for-5, with a stolen base. Omar Vizquel went 3-for-4, with two stolen bases. Carlos Baerga went 2-for-4. Albert Belle only had one hit, but you guessed it, it was a third inning home run. Eddie Murray went 2-for-3, with a two-run homer. Jim Thome only had a hit, but it was a solo shot. Paulie Sorrento (boy, would I take him at first base right now) also hit a two-run homer. The Indians scored seven runs that night 17 years ago, and six of them came off of four runs. It was a powerful lineup, on perhaps the greatest Indians’ team of my generation.
Looking deeper at the card, the only two players who didn’t get a hit on that late spring game was one Manny Ramirez, and catcher Eddie Tucker. No, I don’t know who he is either, but sure enough, he was an Indian. Bud Black was the starter that night, and he was relieved by Julian Tavarez (does anyone remember his BW3 commercial?), Jim Poole and Eric Plunk (ugh), who I actually have listed as getting the save that night. The Indians won the game, 7-4, and I wrote at the bottom of the card, “First Place, five in row, 22-9.”
It was quite a year, and 17 years ago.
So seeing Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle in Cleveland talking about the big years in the 90’s was a welcome sight on Friday Night. I still have my Albert Belle jersey, tucked deeply back in my closet, that I bought on that June night at Tower Center before the game. The #8 has been packed away since he left the Tribe after the 1996 season. I wasn’t happy, and while I had thoughts of burning the jersey, and even nearly buried it in Winter Haven one spring training day in 2000, I kept it for some reason. And now, all these years later, Albert is back, and smiling. You know what, so am I. Welcome back Albert, and thanks for a ton of fantastic memories.
So, I head back to the future, and as my wife and I watched the Indians on the field tonight, 17 years later, they managed to put up seven runs once again in beating the Minnesota Twins 7-1. Lonnie Chisenhall hit a two-run jack, and Jason Kipnis hit a grand slam. Go figure, the Tribe scores six of their seven runs via the home run ball.
Seems like old times, doesn't it?
The Indians will be just fine. I’ve listened to a whole lot of chatter this week talking about the Indians collapsing, just like they did last year. Here’s a couple of things to ponder. The Indians didn’t collapse last year, they ran into a buzz saw. While they never regained the hot pace of April and May, they remained in second place until August 28th last season, and of course, ended up in second at the end of the season. For a team that “collapsed” last year, they were only 1 ½ games out of first on August 18th before the Detroit buzz-saw mowed them down in a three-game sweep. Detroit would go on to an incredible close to the season, while the Indians would falter a bit. Remember, they weren’t expected to win last year, so finishing a game under .500 was a big deal. There was no collapse.
There won’t be one this year either. Think about it. A week ago, the Indians swept the Tigers. While that alone isn’t a real big deal here in the first week of June, there are a couple of things to take away from that series. First, the Indians may be a flawed baseball team, but so are the Tigers. Sure, they have bigger names in Masterson, Fielder and Cabrera, but a case could be made that the Indians are an overall better ballclub past the big three or four players in Detroit. Detroit is missing a couple of key ingredients that could absolutely demoralize them as we move through the hot summer months. Their bullpen is terrible right now, and there may not be a worse defensive team in baseball. Watching Cabrera and Fielder is absolutely laughable in the field. Of course, they bring a bunch more than a glove, but boy, that could really hurt them when the games really start to count.
I think the Indians match up really well with the Tigers.
As for the White Sox? Well, I can’t say that I saw that coming, but looking at their team right now, you can see why they are in first place. Keep a few things in mind though. There’s no way the Indians pitching will be that bad all season long. If it is, the White Sox will be the least of our worries, but it won’t be. The team also found itself behind the eight ball, with players dropping like flies, when Hafner, Cabrera and Santana went down to injury. Combine that with Hannahan going down, then Lou Marson, and you have yourself a giant mess.
Now repeat after me: “The Indians past seven games are NOT how this team will play the rest of the season.” Say that again for me.
Now believe it.
This team is good. As I’ve said from the start of the season, they can win 90 games. They can win this division. They can make the playoffs. The ingredients are all there, and while the Chicago White Sox are playing well, I’m not with the large contingent of people that think they will maintain this pace. Robin Ventura is a new manager, and this team showcased so many issues last season, that I just don’t buy you won’t see them crop up again this season.
It’s an extremely flawed group of teams in the A.L. Central, and more than one scout has told me that the makeup of the Indians may be the best of all the teams in the Central, if they stay healthy. Just a couple of weeks ago, before the injuries, an A.L. West scout at a Mudcats game told me that the only thing that could hurt the Indians this year is their depth. If Sizemore and Hernandez/Carmona come back, then you could have something down the stretch. He even thought that the Indians could put together a trade involving a guy like Jeanmar Gomez, or another starter should one emerge (turns out, Zach McAllister did just that), Matt LaPorta (he said it would be a mistake to bring him up, as he has more value raking in Columbus, then struggling in the bigs) and perhaps Hannahan (although he said adding Chisenhall would be a major piece, should the Indians REALLY go after a trade). It’s far too early to start talking trade just yet, but it was interesting to hear someone in somebody’s scouting department talk with some knowledge about the Indians.
The whole point is that there is a lot of baseball yet to be played, and a lot of changes that will happen between now and the break….the deadline…and the playoff stretch. The Tigers will play better, the White Sox likely worst, and the Indians as the unknown commodity, but with an incredible make-up, fantastic defense overall, and a back-end of a bullpen that may be the best in baseball right now.
Expect more time in first place.
Jason Kipnis is a special ballplayer. He’s second on the team with a .283 average, first in runs with 35 (by seven over Choo, 11th in major league baseball), first in home runs with nine (Hafner has six), first in RBI with 34 (by ten over Carlos Santana), and first in stolen bases with 12 (by three over Brantley). He’s top 20 in major league baseball in all those categories, and trust me on this, he’ll be top ten real soon.
His grand slam against Minnesota on Friday night blew the game open, and showcased his knowledge of the game. Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson had just come out to the mound, and Kipnis correctly guessed that starter Carl Pavano was going to try and get a changeup over the plate for a strike. Pavano left it up over the plate, and Kipnis crushed it. If you listen to this kid in interviews, you can see that he’s a leader on this club already. By the way, he hasn’t even played a full season yet. It’s hard to believe. By the way…he can play second base. He’s not Robbie Alomar, but he can play second base.
He’s the leader of this team going forward. I’d be shocked if the Indians don’t lock him down to a long-term deal in the next three to four months.
I’m absolutely ecstatic with Lonnie Chisenhall’s play so far from an offensive standpoint. You can’t help but hope that this is when Chisenhall finds his inner-Kipnis. How good has he been since he returned? He’s played in four games, and gone 5-for-13, with two homers and three RBI. His homer in the second was a two-out, two-run jack that he had to dig out from below the strike zone.
Here’s the thing. There’s a long way to go with regards to Chisenhall. Hopefully, the magic continues, and he maintains this level of play. If he does, I could see a scenario in which he sticks around when Hannahan comes back, and fills the Travis Hafner void in some form or another. Perhaps it makes Jack Hannahan play more at first, or allows some sort of hybrid DH with a bunch of guys, but perhaps Chisenhall is ready to showcase the talent that made everyone say he would be ready before Kipnis last season.
A lot of people have been talking about Chisenhall as though her were done. He’s not. Some players just need a bit more seasoning. Chisenhall is going to be a good, if not great baseball player. His time will come. Hopefully now is that time, because his bat could solve some issues for this team. Of course, he’s not a right-handed bat, which is what this team really needs.
Michael Brantley is slowly starting to look like the player that he was touted as when the Indians traded for him in the CC Sabathia deal. I’m cautiously optimistic, but he keeps showing signs of really figuring things out. Don’t look now, but Brantley is actually on a ten game hit streak. During that stretch, he’s gone 14-for-38 (.368), with nine runs and eight RBI. He’s only walked once, but only struck out six times. What’s really been impressive is his speed. He’s stolen six bases during that stretch, and really started to look like a different player in the outfield.
If you saw his double tonight, he launched a ball opposite field, off the wall, which is a nice indicator of how well he’s starting to hit. He’s actually working pitchers like he did in the minors, and taking pitches where they are at in the strike zone. In other words, he looks like he has command at the plate, where before, he was extremely defensive. His average has gone up 22 points in ten days. Now he just needs to get that OBP up as well.
Johnny Damon is starting to hit the ball as well. I’m not going to look too much into that, because it really is hard to figure out just what kind of player he’s going to be offensively, but he’s had some pop to his bat over the past four or five games. He’s gone 6-for-22 in his last six games, with two runs, a homer and three RBI. He’s had back-to-back multi-hit games as well. It’s just funny watching him play well offensively, and still get bashed about his arm while he’s hitting. Folks, we didn’t sign this guy for his arm. It is what it is. If he can provide the bat that he’s providing right now, then it’s exactly what the Indians wanted, and need with the injury issues. Damon can be a big factor on this team, and I mean in the positive. In a long season with a potential playoff push, having his veteran, playoff presence will be a big deal.
Who is this Derek Lowe fellow, and how exactly did the Indians get him to pitch like an All-Star? For all of the bashing that this front office takes (from yours truly as well), they really need to get credit for moves like this one. Without Derek Lowe, this team would be lost right now. There is no doubt that he's the pitching equivalent of Jason Kipnis right now. As much as it pains me to say it, he's the Tribe's stopper right now, and not Masterson or Jimenez. I don't know what this means for the future, but for the present, it's just fine. Masterson and/or Jimenez need to step up, as I don't think Lowe can continue to do this, but for now, it's fun to watch.
It’s a beautiful weekend for baseball, everybody…
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.