CLEVELAND — Johnny Damon’s career with the Indians began slowly.
Activated prior to Cleveland’s recent series against the Chicago White Sox, Damon, 38, managed just one hit in eight at-bats while playing in two of the three games and leaving one prematurely with what the team called “general cramping.”
Not exactly the start Damon was hoping for, but after missing training camp and skipping a minor league rehab assignment, the performance wasn’t a complete surprise.
“Obviously, I’d like to get the bat a little more consistent,” Damon said, “and as we saw with my legs, I probably need to get used to the grind in the outfield. I feel great. I think I look great, but it’s the constant grinding of the season. Hopefully we won’t have many more instances like we had the other night.”
Once a top-shelf outfielder, Damon has played sparingly there the past two seasons. But with Travis Hafner holding down the designated hitter spot, left field is where Damon will get his playing time in Cleveland — for better or worse.
“At this stage, I’m here because of my bat,” said Damon, a .286 hitter over 17 big-league seasons. “Hopefully my defense can be average.”
The Indians signed Damon to a $1.25 million contract ($1.4 million in performance bonuses) for his offense and experience. They will deal with Damon’s defensive shortcomings as long as he hits.
“We needed a guy like him over here,” manager Manny Acta said. “His track record speaks for itself. We’re going to do the best we can to keep him healthy and try to get him in the outfield as much as possible.”
Damon entered Friday with 2,724 career hits and sounding as though he intended to keep playing long enough to reach 3,000.
“There’s incentive for me to go out and do my best,” Damon said. “There’s always pressure on me. If I play well, I’ll continue to play. If not, the contracts are going to be tougher to get. If I don’t play well, it could be the end, and I’m not quite ready for that.”
Reversal of fortunes
Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis had a productive series in his hometown of Chicago, going 6-for-11 with a home run and five RBIs in the three-game series against the White Sox. Kipnis entered Friday on a seven-game hitting streak, batting .444 (12-for-27) over the span to raise his season average from .226 to .292.
“He gives us something we haven’t had in the past, some stability at second base,” Acta said.
It will be a battle of first-place teams this weekend at Progressive Field, but Texas entered the three-game series more highly touted than Cleveland, owning one of the American League’s best records (17-8) and coming off consecutive AL titles. The Rangers have dominated the Indians as of late, going 21-4 against them over the past three seasons, including 9-1 last year.
“I think they’re the best team in the American League,” Acta said. “Going to back-to-back World Series is a good indicator. They don’t win every single game, though. We’re not using it as a measuring stick.”
The Indians will face Japanese phenom Yu Darvish (4-0, 2.18 ERA) in the series finale Sunday. The 25-year-old right-hander pitched against Cleveland this spring.
“He’s as good as advertised,” Acta said. “He’s a power pitcher with a big-time repertoire.”
The Indians traded Triple-A Columbus outfielder Ryan Spilborghs to Texas for cash considerations. Spilborghs, a candidate for the starting left field and extra outfielder spots this spring, hit .250 with a homer and 13 RBIs in 21 games for the Clippers.
Cleveland has won each of its first four road series, the first time an Indians team has accomplished that since 1961.
The Indians entered Friday ranked third in the American League with 10 homers after the seventh inning.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at (440) 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damon’s start is par for course