“Halfway to heaven and just a mile out of hell”
I don’t get stunned easily. I will say I was pretty stunned the first time I had BBQ chicken pizza. I mean, I loved BBQ chicken, and I loved pizza, but I never once thought to combine them. That first bite was just… indescribable. Stunning. Simply stunning.
(Sometimes… and this is absolutely true… I find myself thinking about the guy who invented BBQ chicken pizza. I wonder what his life is like. Did he get rich off the idea, or was it somehow stolen from him? I would have to imagine that even if he didn’t profit off the concept, the excitement he must have experienced the day he came up with that creation and the joy he must have felt the first time he shared it with other human beings had to be worth more than money. I’m not a father, but perhaps that’s what the birth of your first child is like.)
We live in such a pre-processed, cookie-cutter society (“Oh look, they’re opening a Panera up the street!”) that it’s hard to be stunned, in a positive sense. But this Indians team stuns me. As you know, I was subjected to many innings of bad baseball over the last few years. You expected this club to take some positive steps in 2011. There are good, smart people making the decisions and pulling the switches and there are hard-working kids with talent on the roster and in the pipeline. You expected them to put it all together and get it right at some point.
But this soon? Stunning. I’m stunned.
And then, you know, the first couple ecstatic months came and went, the injuries piled up, the June swoon hit, and, yeah, you could see all the storybook elements coming to a close and that cold, cruel reality of life with a low payroll setting in. You remember my “Gold” analogy from April? It looked like we were in that portion of the album where songs like “Nobody Girl,” “Enemy Fire,” “Wild Flowers” and the incredibly dreadful “SYLVIA PLATH” (I guess that song would be the equivalent of the moment when Shin-Soo Choo broke his thumb) come on and you think to yourself, “Well, it was a good run while it lasted.”
But in the last couple weeks, the Indians have strung together a few series wins, they’ve maintained their top spot in the AL Central, and they just had another one of those magic moments that really makes you wonder if this season is the stuff of destiny.
Sure, they’ve benefited from a weak division, and they could tank after the break. We’ll just have to see how it goes. But already, so many memories, wonderful and otherwise, have been created, and they’re worth recapping here in the first-half review.
Quite clearly, it’s Asdrubal Cabrera. From the day he arrived to the big leagues, he’s had a confident swagger, the game seemingly coming natural to him. But this is the first year that swagger has translated to such a consistent showing on the field, and it’s safe to say nobody imagined he’d have 14 home runs before the break. Plus, he’s stayed healthy and, recently, played through pain. The Indians need him, and he knows it.
THE GREG SWINDELL MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST VALUABLE PITCHER
Well, this is a tough one. I’m going to look at it this way. If the playoffs started tomorrow, who would you want to start Game 1? And as much as I love the pinpoint precision and stunning success of Josh Tomlin, I think I’d have to go with Justin Masterson. His record doesn’t indicate it, but the guy has given up two earned runs or less in 14 of his 18 starts this season (and gone into the seventh inning in each of those games). He has nasty stuff and has finally figured out how to retire left-handers on a more consistent basis.
The Tomlinator can start Game 2 in this phantom series, and Carlos Carrasco gets Game 3.
THE ANDY MARTE MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST PERPLEXING PLAYER
Just as the national media had taken to trumpeting Choo as the game’s most underrated player, he started to put up numbers that were, simply, underwhelming. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, as I can honestly say I’ve never known a player who cares so much and puts in so much work behind the scenes. But Choo just never truly got going in April, and then he got arrested. He beat himself up over that for a couple months, got scrutinized back home in South Korea, compared himself to a frog and then broke his thumb. What a miserable first half.
But the optimist in you can’t help but wonder what the return of Choo can mean for this team if they’re still in it when he’s healthy.
THE MASA KOBAYASHI MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST PERPLEXING PITCHER
It’s pretty bad when a team loses its supposed “ace” to an injury (on a belly flop over first base, of all things), and you can’t help but wonder if it’s a blessing in disguise. The Indians won’t be sending Carmona out on a rehab stint, as many hoped, but at least they’ll slot him into the back end of their rotation coming out of the break.
The Indians wanted this to be Grady Sizemore (and that looked to be the case in late April), but they’ll definitely settle for a rousing return from Travis Hafner.
Even before his grand slam heroics against the Blue Jays, this guy has legitimately looked, in doses, like the Pronk we knew and loved in 2006. The travails of Travis in recent years are well-documented. His shoulder injury was so damaging that, at one time, he couldn’t even lift a fork to his face to eat. And when he still couldn’t DH on an everyday basis last season, I was convinced his was a chronic condition that would never allow him to be a premier slugger again. Hafner’s contract was easily one of the worst in the game coming into the year, and when you factor in what a huge percentage of this club’s payroll that contract accounted for, it might very well have qualified as the worst. But aside from oblique issues that landed him on the DL for nearly a month, Hafner has been a steady presence and a persistent threat in the middle of the order this year. And he’s had a flair for the dramatic, too, as we saw Thursday night.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY
I’m open to other suggestions (most of them likely involving Asdrubal), but Cabrera’s play on that Omar Vizquel grounder in Chicago on May 19 has to be my top pick. Watch it here.
Honorable mention goes to the triple play Carlos Santana started on April 3.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAY
Having covered the Eric Wedge era and received literally hundreds of e-mails on this subject over the years, I know what a bunt-hungry fan base the Indians have. So Manny Acta’s decision to have Cabrera put down a suicide squeeze to sneak home the winning run against the Red Sox on April 7 had to win him some love.
But in my mind, nothing tops May 19, when Acta inserted Ezequiel Carrera, on his first day in the big leagues, into the eighth inning of a tie game against the Reds and had him put down a bunt with two outs and the go-ahead run at third. The cojones on that guy. And Carrera played it perfectly, getting the bunt down and then avoiding Joey Votto’s tag to get in safe with the RBI single. Just a gutsy call and a well-executed play on the first pitch the rookie ever saw.
BEST MOMENT THAT WON’T BE ON THE TEAM HIGHLIGHT VIDEO
Former backup catcher Chris Gimenez unwittingly coined the “Pure Rage” nickname for Chris Perez last summer when he used the phrase to describe one of Perez’s saves. But never has Perez shown it quite as much as when he released the frustration of a shaky outing by hurling the ball into the fountains at Kauffman Stadium (sorry, couldn’t find the video)… after a victory over the Royals. Not exactly classy, but… kind of awesome, too.
WORST MOMENT THAT WON’T BE ON THE TEAM HIGHLIGHT VIDEO
Well, you know, I’m thinking it has to be this.
BEST MARKETING SLOGAN THAT, OVER TIME, TOOK ON A MUCH DEEPER MEANING THAN INITIALLY INTENDED… MOST LIKELY
Shortly before Opening Day, you’ll remember, the Indians began rolling out this in-house creation in which they showed some of the great moments in team history and basically asked the viewer, “What if that never happened?” What if Bob Feller signed elsewhere? What if Rick Manning dropped the ball in center field? What if Herb Score had laryngitis? Etc., etc., etc.
And the answer to all these questions, of course, was… well… that would really stink. Still, it was an interesting advertising angle that, based on my conversations with people, seemed to spark questions beyond, “What if?” What were the Indians trying to say? Were they trying to remind people that if you don’t come to the ballpark, the team will leave town? Had the results of the previous three seasons plunged them into some sort of existential crisis in which they questioned their place in the world? Were these ads made by Omnicom or Kierkegaard?
The point, though, if I’m not mistaken, was that many of the Indians’ great moments didn’t necessarily happen in great seasons. Don’t focus on the record, the ad asserted, but rather focus on the memories that are created when you come out to the game.
And then the Indians started winning. And winning. And winning more still. And “What if?” began to look more and more like a sage saying. “Hey, what if the Indians aren’t destined to finish fourth?” “Hey, what if they’re not down 5-0 in the third every night?” And now it’s too the point where it’s a legitimate question… “What if this is their year?”
Great ad. Maybe they didn’t intend for it to be quite this good. But what if they did?
CLOSEST I CAME TO A RAFAEL PEREZ INTERVIEW
That “Bullpen Mafia” segment from the MLB Fan Cave was on a TV in the clubhouse near Perez’s locker, and Raffy, of course, wasn’t involved in the skit (which, by the way, was a heck of a lot funnier than I expected it to be). I asked Perez why that was, and he said something unintelligible, then said clear as day, “Too far from my house.”
Raffy Perez, ladies and gentlemen.
THE ANTI-RAFAEL PEREZ AWARD FOR BEST QUOTE
“It seems like nobody else wants this division, so we’re going to take it.” — Orlando Cabrera, after a late-April win over the Royals.
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as bulletin-board material in April, but this was nonetheless a pretty bold statement to be making about 25 games into a 162-game season. But Cabrera was right. None of the big dogs stepped up early in this division, and the Indians took over and have since kept hanging around. A pretty perfect summation of the attitude that got the Indians to this point.
TOP EIGHT GOOSEBUMP-INDUCING MOMENTS
All right, I took to Twitter for this one, and these were the eight specific moments that got votes. I took the liberty of settling all tie-breakers on my own.
8. Chris Perez strikes out the side for the save in Yankee Stadium, June 13: He needed just 14 pitches to get Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada looking, then Brett Gardner swinging to end it. Indians win, 1-0.
7. Asdrubal Cabrera’s suicide squeeze vs. the Red Sox, April 7: A perfect play to get a big, 1-0 win, finishing off a series sweep of the BoSox and putting a positive finish on a season-opening homestand that had started off on a sour note. Really, this was the series in which you could start taking the Indians seriously as a real baseball team with uniforms and everything.
6. Carlos Santana starts a triple play vs. the White Sox, April 3: His first game at first base. Yeah, I’d say it turned out pretty well.
5. Austin Kearns’ go-ahead homer vs. the Yankees, July 4: I thought this might receive more votes than it did, given that A. it happened just four days ago and B. the element of surprise was off the charts. Kearns hadn’t homered since last August, and he entered the night with a .196 average and .265 slugging percentage. So, yeah, this came out of nowhere.
4. Travis Hafner’s game-winning homer vs. the Mariners, May 13: Pronk hadn’t homered in nearly a month, then he goes deep on All-Star (?) Brandon League with two out and one on in the bottom of the ninth to give the Tribe a 5-4 win. I think what took this to another, goosebumpian level was Tom Hamilton’s call: “The magic is back at Progressive Field!”
3. Ezequiel Carrera’s RBI bunt single vs. the Reds, May 19: Again, the element of surprise goes a long way, which is why I named this the top offensive play of the half.
2. Carlos Santana’s walkoff grand slam vs. the Tigers, April 29: Just a ridiculous game that the Indians had no business winning. They rallied from a 5-2 deficit late to tie it. Then, in the ninth, they loaded the bases, Santana came up with one out, and, as one reader tweeted, it was “oye como gone.” Easily the kind of game the Indians would have lost last year. Goosebumps.
1. Hafner walkoff slam vs. the Blue Jays, July 7: Well, you had to count on this getting the most votes, given that we’re right on the heels of Hafner’s heroics. But I must say all the elements make this a legit choice. The Indians looked helpless and hapless at the plate all night. Out of nowhere, they loaded them up in the ninth, Asdrubal drove home a run with one out and Hafner crushed lefty Luis Perez’s pitch into the right-field stands for the stunning, 5-4 win. The helmet spike at the plate was a nice touch, too. Goosebumps, I tell you, goosebumps.
Every year, certain teams come along that just have that “it” factor. No matter how many injuries or rough stretches come along, they keep finding ways to win… often in dramatic fashion.
Maybe this is the Indians’ year. At the very least, it was their half.