Indians hit stride in hurry Shake sluggish start with 4-homer game

April 09, 1996|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- It was only a matter of time before the mighty Cleveland Indians collected themselves, but the Orioles no doubt were hoping that time -- and the Indians' offense -- would stand still just a little bit longer.

No such luck. The new-look Orioles won't have the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins to kick around anymore. The best team in the American League, and perhaps all of baseball, is waiting on the doorstep, ready to uncoil for the two-game series that begins tonight at Camden Yards.

The Indians struggled through the first few days of the season. They scored three runs in their first three games -- all losses. They were 2-for-36 with runners in scoring position through four games, including their first victory Saturday, and had hit -- count 'em -- one home run.

It was unclear at the time whether this was good news or bad news for the Orioles, who went 2-10 against the Indians last year. Perhaps the weight of all the preseason expectations was bearing too heavily on the Indians, and they would need a couple of weeks to shake it off. Or worse, maybe the Indians would arrive in Baltimore ready to vent a week of offensive frustration on an Orioles pitching staff that has gotten fat on two of the American League's weakest teams.

If Sunday's series finale against Toronto was any indication, the Indians' offense has awakened just in time. Albert Belle, who went 2-for-14 without an RBI through the first three games, hit two home runs. Manny Ramirez and Carlos Baerga added one apiece in an eight-run, 10-hit barrage. And just like that, the defending AL champions appeared to be themselves again.

"We needed to have a day like that," said manager Mike Hargrove, "where everyone swung the bat well."

There still are some stragglers. Designated hitter Eddie Murray has two hits and one RBI in 17 at-bats, and third baseman Jim Thome is hitting .071, but that just might mean more upside potential for a team that doesn't

need much more to pound a pitcher into submission.

"I think we were desperate to get started on our offense," said Baerga, who raised his average to .316. "It's good we got it going. From now on, we're going to be the Cleveland Indians."

Not a happy thought for the rest of the league. The Indians scored 840 runs last year, and that was in a season shortened 18 games by labor unrest. Belle became the first player to have at least 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same year, and also led the league in runs (121) and RBIs (126). Kenny Lofton led the league in triples and stolen bases. There was not a single offensive production category that did not include at least one Indians hitter among the top five.

And still, the organization spent big money to improve the team in the off-season. General manager John Hart believed the club needed one more front-line starter and one more quality hitter to win a World Series, so he signed free agent Jack McDowell and lured big-swinging Julio Franco back from Japan.

McDowell, who will make his second start of 1996 tonight against Orioles newcomer David Wells, was the most dramatic acquisition. The Indians already had three outstanding starting pitchers. Dennis Martinez, the winningest active pitcher in the game, is a combined 23-11 since he joined the club two years ago. Orel Hershiser won 16 games last year to complete his comeback from a shoulder injury. And Charles Nagy, who was the ace of the staff during the club's developmental years, also won 16 games to reassert himself as a premier starting pitcher.

"We wanted to make our pitching staff even better," said Baerga. "It wasn't like that my first five years here, but the last two years, we've gone out and gotten the free agents we needed."

No one would have blinked if the Indians had settled last winter for an average No. 4 starter, but Hart drew a fourth ace and the price of poker went up for all of the other pennant contenders.

"I was pleasantly surprised that the Indians wanted to make that kind of move," McDowell said. "A World Series team that isn't satisfied? You can't ask for more than that. That tells you they are going to do everything they can to put a winner on the field."

McDowell has yet to enjoy the benefits of playing for the best offensive club in baseball. He gave up two earned runs in his Indians debut against the New York Yankees, but the bats remained dormant and the defense was self-destructive (three costly errors). He couldn't have expected to be battling to get the team back to .500 tonight, but he doesn't seem particularly concerned about the club's 2-3 start.

"If this was in the middle of the season, nobody would even notice," McDowell said. "There's a lot of focus because it's the beginning of the season and there are a lot of expectations. That's just something we're going to have to deal with. We're playing a lot of great teams early, so we're going to have to turn it up a notch."

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