September 23, 2014

Medina
Sunny
63°F

Indians aren’t worried about sluggish stretch

CLEVELAND — The Indians are 8-9 since the All-Star break despite a favorable schedule to begin the second half, which featured 13 games at Jacobs Field.

They still trail the first-place Tigers in the Central Division, with the Mariners and Yankees right behind them in the American League wild card race.

Their offense has been in low gear since the break, while its leader, Travis Hafner, still struggles to find his way at the plate.

Yet, if the search is on for worried Indians, you won’t find many in Cleveland’s wigwam.

“The fact that we’re around .500 (in the second half) and not playing our best baseball is good,” said Indians ace C.C. Sabathia, who has lost four of his last five starts, including his last two after allowing just an earned run apiece in each of them. “Because when we turn it around, like I know we’re going to, we’ll be fine.”

Recently demoted left-hander Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook have offered up their share of lousy second-half performances and Cleveland is still in need of late-inning relief assistance. But pitching has not been at the root of the stumbling start, with the Indians posting a collective 4.38 ERA — fifth-best in the AL.

It’s been a combination of an offense that was largely hit-or-miss in the first half, missing on more occasions in the second, and a defense that made the tough plays late in games before the break, bungling them more often since.

The Indians, who rank fourth in the majors at 5.2 runs per game, are averaging nearly a run less, while their .270 team batting average has dipped to .258. The game-winning run in their last two defeats has come on fielding gaffes, with the defensive effort as a whole sagging substantially.

“That’s the difference between playoff teams and non-playoff teams, teams that execute better late in games,” said second baseman Josh Barfield. “We’ve got to do a better job of doing that.”

The second-half competition — Red Sox, Twins and White Sox among others — has also played a part, with the Indians facing a collection of the league’s top starting pitchers in Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett.  “It’s baseball. It ain’t a video game out there,” said outfielder Trot Nixon, a veteran of eight seasons and nine postseason series. “The American League is a tough league, period, no matter who you’re playing.

“We’re not in a position where guys are making vacation plans. We’re right where we want to be. I believe we’re very capable of doing some special things.”

Thus far, the Indians have been aided by what was considered the best division in baseball performing as one of its worst. That includes the front-running Tigers, who have mirrored Cleveland’s second-half inefficiency by losing 10 of 18 games — seven of their last nine.

The Indians trail Detroit by a half-game in the division standings, with Minnesota seven games back through Sunday. They open a three-game series with the last-place Rangers tonight, hoping to reverse their disappointing second-half trend.

“It’s great timing for (Monday’s off-day),” said Indians manager Eric Wedge, whose team played 17 straight days to open the second half. “We just finished off 17 days in a row, and I think that’s going to help these guys.”