Sunday, July 14, 2013

Survivor type: Resilient Tribe rolls into All-Star break

Hot Tribe has survived injuries and legal problems.
The Cleveland Indians are like a hard-tagged fighter who keeps pulling himself off the canvas with a look of determination on his bruised and bloody face. This squad has endured injuries, a tire-fire bullpen, a closer who allegedly gets his weed delivered to him via post, and a 4-16 stretch that put it 5 1-2 games back of first place at the beginning of June. 

And yet, the Tribe is entering the All-Star break with a 51-44 record, just a game-and-a half back of the Central Division-leading Detroit Tigers. You could call this 2013 club Team Bounceback. Go ahead, do it. It feels rather good.

This resilience, above all, has been the nicest surprise of the season. Fans have been all too used to poor stretches from this team turning into landslides that bury any hope of post-season contention. Fair or not, people have stayed away from Progressive Field due to the Tribe's propensity for falling off the cliff after raising hopes with fast starts.

You get the sense that things are different this year. The lineup is not a powerhouse, but it's deep enough to withstand slumps by Nick Swisher and Asdrubal Cabrera, as well as Mark Reynolds going from a one-year-deal steal to striking out approximately one million times since June 1. Guys like Drew Stubbs, Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles have all made contributions in place of the Ghosts of Benches Past who shall remain unnamed.

The starting pitching has also gotten positive contributions from unlikely sources. Over his past five starts, Scott Kazmir has gone 2-0 with a 2.32 ERA in 30.1 innings. Right-hander Corey Kluber, meanwhile, has been the staff's most pleasant revelation, notching a 7-5 record and 3.88 ERA. Kluber always seems to give the Indians a good outing when they need it most, and they have very much needed it at times this year.

The bullpen is and continues to be a concern. The Tribe does not have lefty it can count on, and 8th-inning lockdown artist Vinnie Pestano is still trying to regain his form and confidence after coming back from injury. Still, with Perez back as closer and pitching well, the Bullpen Mafia may be back in better form once the second half of the season gets rolling.

There's no doubt the front office has some work to do before the July 31 trade deadline. The aforementioned bullpen needs an arm, preferably a southpaw. Another starter to take the pressure off Justin Masterson would also be ideal, particularly with that clause in Ubaldo Jiminez's contract stating he can't pitch after the fifth inning.

That said, don't expect to hold your breath in August for fear of another Tribe collapse. While the Indians have had their difficulties beating the AL's better teams, including a disconcerting team's 3-9 record against Detroit,  their schedule softens considerably in August and September. Half the next 60-plus games seem like they're against Kansas City, the White Sox and Minnesota. Mix in a four-game series against Houston in late September, and pulse-pounding interleague matchups against the dreadful Marlins and struggling Mets, and the Indians should be neck-and-neck with Detroit for the rest of the year.

Ultimately, the Tribe has survived a tumultuous first half that would have sunk them in past seasons. Cleveland may not be world-beaters as currently constructed, but this club should be playing meaningful baseball for the rest of the 2013 campaign. I for one am ready to invest my emotions in this team, and you should be, too.