As the 47-47 record indicates, it was an average first half for the Indians, who dealt with injuries and performance issues to key players, as they began their quest to repeat as a postseason qualifier under second-year manager Terry Francona.
The Indians are still in contention for a playoff spot (3 1/2 games out in wild card), and alive in the Central Division race, where they trail three-time defending champion Detroit by 7 1/2 games at the All-Star break.
Here’s a look back at a memorable and forgettable first 94 games of the 2014 season:
A STAR IS BORN
It was a breakout first half for outfielder Michael Brantley, who was the Indians’ lone representative in the All-Star Game, after being selected (via player vote) for the first time his career.
Brantley (.322, 15 home runs, 63 RBIs in 90 games) leads the Indians in nearly every offensive category, while ranking among the American League leaders in batting average (sixth), hits (sixth), OPS (ninth) and RBIs (10th). Defensively, his nine outfield assists rank second in the majors.
Brantley, who had all of 26 career homers entering the season, is already one shy of equalling his long-ball count from the past two seasons combined, needing only 10 RBIs in the second half to reach a career-high total achieved in 2013.
He appeared to be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s elite outfielders last year and he’s taken the next step prior to the break.
SWISS CHEESE “D”
Terrible is almost an understatement to describe how the Indians played defense throughout the first half. They posted the worst fielding percentage in the majors (.979), while committing the most errors of any big league team (76) — five more than the next worst club, Arizona.
The Tribe got shoddy defense from a whole lot of key players — most notably, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (14 errors), first baseman Nick Swisher (nine errors) and catcher Yan Gomes (11 errors) — all of whom lead the league in the dubious category at their respective positions.
NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
Justin Masterson began the season as the ace, but it’s been right-hander Corey Kluber who has clearly been the Indians’ No. 1 starter. Though he lost out in the final Internet vote, Kluber has produced an All-Star worthy first half, going 9-6 with a 3.01 ERA in 20 starts (131 2/3 innings), while ranking among the AL leaders in innings pitched (third), strikeouts (fourth with 142) and ERA (10th).
Francona surprised some when he predicted that Kluber would blossom into one of the league’s top starting pitchers this spring. He’s been right so far.
Though the Indians rank fifth in the American League in runs, averaging around four per game, the offensive production has been inconsistent and Cleveland has struggled with runners in scoring position, especially with two outs, where they rank second-to-last in the AL with a .185 batting average.
Key hits and walk-off celebrations were rare during a first half that featured light-hitting David Murphy as one of the the Indians’ top run producers.
TOP 3 MOMENTS
1. A Tiger taming: The Indians had just been swept at home by Oakland when the Tigers came to town, May 19-21, owning a 10 1/2-game lead on last-place Cleveland in the division standings. The Indians displayed the resiliency that was evident all of last season, sweeping the AL heavyweights and saving a sinking ship.
2. Career night: In the midst of a hot streak that took place for much of the first half, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall enjoyed one of those games you tell your children about, going 5-for-5, with three home runs and nine RBIs in a 17-7 victory at Texas on June 9.
3. Bouncing back: Once again, the last-place Indians, who faced an 8 1/2-game division deficit, breathed life into sagging hopes, when they swept Colorado and Boston in consecutive three-game series at Progressive Field on May 30-June 4.
WORST 3 MOMENTS
1. Huge step back: Danny Salazar, a projected rising star who enjoyed a breakout end of last season (started in AL wild card game), was demoted to the minors after going 1-4 with a 5.53 ERA in his first eight starts, and hasn’t been heard from since. The right-hander appeared to be on the fast track to stardom, but it looks as though it’s going to take some time.
2. Business as usual: The Indians were 2 1/2 games out of first place when they visited Detroit at Comerica Park on June 20-22. The Tigers reasserted their control in the division by sweeping Cleveland, which got buried 10-4 in the series finale sendoff.
3. Wounded right-hander: Justin Masterson, who had headlined the rotation three seasons, lasted only two innings in a 5-3 loss to the Yankees on July 7 at Progressive Field. He was placed on the disabled list a day later for the first time in his career.
TOP 5 PLAYERS
- Michael Brantley, OF: He’s clearly been Cleveland’s best player, and one of the AL’s top outfielders as well.
- Corey Kluber, P: Where would the Indians’ rotation be without this surprising star? He didn’t even make the roster out of spring training last year.
- Cody Allen, P: Took over for deposed closer John Axford shortly into the season and appears to be en route to locking down the role long-term.
- Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B: Like Kluber, “Lonnie Baseball” has provided surprising top-shelf production since forcing his way into the starting lineup.
- Yan Gomes, C: The native of Brazil has overcome a tough defensive start and is again, one of the league’s top overall players at his position.
WORST 5 PLAYERS
- Nick Swisher, 1B/DH: The Indians’ $15 million man has been even worse than his down year last season, adding defensive shortcomings to the mix. Bro-Hio has been stealing money since arriving in Cleveland.
- Danny Salazar, P: The Indians took it easy on their phenom, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010, but he came out of the gate shooting blanks.
- Asdrubal Cabrera, SS: Cleveland’s longest-tenured player has done little to silence the wealth of critics with a subpar first-half effort in every phase.
- Justin Masterson, P: It’s looks as though the Indians made the right decision when they rejected a discount multi-year contract proposal from the right-hander this spring.
- John Axford, P: The Indians paid him $4.5 million to replace closer Chris Perez and he lost the job a little over a month into the season. At least Perez made it until the end of the year before he was replaced.
LOOKING AHEAD: 5 keys to the second half
- Masterson is no longer the ace, but the big right-hander could certainly provide a substantial boost should he come off the disabled list and at least come close to the form he’s displayed as a top-shelf starter the past three seasons.
- Despite what some may think, the Indians’ offense hasn’t been terrible. But it needs to be more consistent and come from more players, with some of their so-called big guns — Swisher, Santana, Cabrera and Kipnis — pitching in and turning it around down the stretch.
- With different faces and pitchers in different roles, the bullpen has still been a strength for the Indians, who have gotten consistent effectiveness in a fickle area for years. That needs to continue for Cleveland to contend.
- The Indians did little at the trading deadline last year and still made the playoffs as the AL’s top wild-card team. It’s probably not a good idea to take that risk again this season. The Tribe has proven prior to the break that it could use help in nearly every department.
- Since the arrival of Francona, the Indians have been a resilient bunch, able to weather losing streaks, injuries and performance issues. Facing a bulky deficit in the division race and performance issues from plenty throughout the first half, they’re going to need to display that characteristic to survive in the division and wild-card race.