“Seems like I’m caught up in your trap again”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

The Indians already have 18 games scheduled in the season’s final 16 days, but general manager Chris Antonetti is not opposed to taking an already extreme scenario even further.

“We’re actually planning on just postponing all of our games until the last two weeks, when we have everybody healthy,” Antonetti joked Monday. “Forty games in the last two weeks. That’s our new strategy.”

Hey, stranger things have happened for the Tribe in 2011. That the final two weeks might matter at all is strange enough in and of itself, given the expectations surrounding this club going into the year and, more to the point, the rampant injuries endured along the way.

Sure, every team encounters the bumps and bruises of the 162-game schedule. But teams with $48 million Opening Day payrolls aren’t supposed to lose their leadoff man for all but 61 games of the season’s first five months, their No. 3 hitter for seven weeks and their cleanup hitter for a month and still be a factor in the division race.

It’s the absurdity of the division in question — the AL Central — that has allowed the Indians to live off the fumes of their 30-15 start and remain in contention. But a three-game sweep at the hands of the first-place Tigers over the weekend, combined with the losses of aforementioned cleanup hitter Travis Hafner, who is back on the DL with a foot strain, and hot-hitting rookie Jason Kipnis, who is out with a pulled hamstring, raised new questions over whether The Little Payroll That Could, well, can’t. The town that came out on the wrong end of The Fumble, The Shot, The Decision and whatever other debacles people see fit to give the “The” treatment can be forgiven if it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That it hasn’t already fallen is a credit to this club’s resilience and, yes, the Central itself. And given that both of those trends have managed to hold up for three-quarters of a campaign and the Indians still have six games left against the Tigers, it’s best not to write them off just yet.

That said, keep the pen handy, just in case.

While not intended merely for short-term satisfaction, the Ubaldo Jimenez deal has undoubtedly been a dud so far. Add to that the fact that a supposedly sanctifying homestand against sub-.500 clubs (the Mariners, Royals and A’s) began with a 3-2 loss to the M’s on Monday — a night when closer Chris Perez was all over the place in a non-save situation in the top half of the ninth and the last at-bat magic that has carried the Indians so often this season fell flat in the bottom half.

Before the game, Perez himself had said that these games against second-division clubs can be dangerous – as the Indians themselves have proved in the past.

“We’ve been on the other side where we were supposed to get beat later in the year and didn’t,” Perez said. “Teams like this have got guys playing for next year, young guys getting called up and showing what they’ve got for the first time. I guarantee they don’t care what their record is.”

The Indians have increasing reason to care about their record. The Tigers just swept them without using Justin Verlander, and Verlander’s 19th win of the year on Monday night gave the Tigers a 5 ½-game lead on the Tribe and White Sox, who are now in a tie for second place. It’s the largest deficit the Indians have faced this season — an amazing feat, given that they were just a game and a half back just four days ago.

Mum was the word on a timetable for Hafner’s return, but when questions arose about the possibility of season-ending surgery for the man known as Pronk, Antonetti and manager Manny Acta both deferred to head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff, who was to talk to the media on Tuesday. That’s rarely a good sign. Hence, the rampant rumors about a possible waiver claim of Jim Thome, assuming the Indians even have the opportunity.

Grady Sizemore, recovering from both a knee injury and abdominal surgery, should be back in mid-September. Likewise, Kipnis. But will they be returning to a pennant race or a humbled home stretch? The Indians were able to make do without Shin-Soo Choo for seven weeks and not lose significant ground, but how much can a team reasonably take?

“In a way,” Acta said, “I feel good, because I never anticipated our team to be able to survive injuries to those guys. We didn’t last year, and I wasn’t anticipating to do it this year. I never anticipated us surviving this long without Choo or Grady or Hafner. It is a trying time for me, but I’m excited about the progress our pitching staff has made. They have kept us afloat.”

Well, uh, sometimes.

Jimenez has allowed 21 runs in 21 innings as a member of the Indians. The Tribe traded its two top pitching prospects for a project, as Jimenez has dealt with command issues and diminished velocity (the latter possibly related to the former). He has some of the more complicated mechanics in the game, so it is all too easy for him to get out of whack, and Antonetti said he’s utilizing his pitches “a little bit differently” than he had in Colorado. Oh, and the AL lineups probably aren’t helping his cause, either.

The rationale behind Antonetti’s bold strike to land Ubaldo made sense from the standpoint that the contractual control the Indians hold on him through 2013 meshes well with the “window of opportunity” the Indians hold during the arbitration years of Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Perez and Justin Masterson, among others. But that rationale is largely built upon the single, faulty premise that Jimenez is a proven ace. He is not that. Not yet, anyway. And certainly not in the AL.

So these are the issues impacting the Indians with less than 40 games to go and a surprising season in danger of suffocation.

It’s certainly not the first time they’ve been tested.

“We’ve had a lot of periods of adversity throughout the course of the year, whether it’s injuries or tough losses throughout,” Antonetti said. “But each time, the team has rebounded and come back and responded to the adversity.”

Now’s the time to respond again. Barring any postponements, of course.

~AC

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