Indians' boys of autumn can rake up wins with best

October 06, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

If it's October, then it must be Indian summer.

The air turns cool, the leaves turn colors and the Cleveland Indians awaken from their summer-long slumber.

You've got to love the Tribe, the only team in baseball that hibernates during the regular season.

They went 39-38 after the All-Star break. They lost six of their last seven regular-season games. And then they defeated Boston convincingly in the Division Series.

No one gives them a chance against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, and probably no one should.

Then again, no one gave them a chance against the Orioles in last year's ALCS, and look what happened.

See, the Indians are easy to overlook, even now, as they prepare for their third ALCS appearance in four years.

They're the only big fish in a small-market pond, champions of a division that not even Don King would try to promote, the AL Central.

Their competition?

Three low-revenue palookas (Minnesota, Kansas City, Detroit) and one small-market wannabe (Chicago).

The Indians could win that division in their sleep. In fact, they have won that division in their sleep, four straight years.

"We are a tough team to figure out," reliever Paul Assenmacher said. "It always leaves you scratching your head."

It does more than that to manager Mike Hargrove, who faces the increasingly difficult task of trying to keep his team motivated for a full season.

The Indians went 100-44 in '95 and 99-62 in '96, but the past two seasons, they've finished with 86 and 89 victories and still won their division easily.

So, can they beat the Yankees?

No, but they can extend the series to six or seven games.

The Indians' team batting average against Boston was .206, their team ERA 5.00. But they found ways to win, as they almost always do in the playoffs, if not the World Series.

In Game 3, four of their five hits were homers, and they prevailed, 4-3. In Game 4, David Justice was their only player with more than one hit, and they prevailed, 2-1.

The Red Sox, though, were a two-man team -- Mo Vaughn and Nomar Garciaparra. The Yankees have Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter. And Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez. And Paul O'Neill and the new Mr. October, Shane Spencer.

The Yankees won 25 more games than the Indians in the regular season. The Yankees are 18-8 at Jacobs Field. But as the Indians have shown, it all means nothing.

"We don't fear any team," Indians general manager John Hart said. "We have as much if not more postseason experience than any team in baseball."

Hart is right -- seven of the Indians' nine most frequently used regulars have appeared in the World Series, as have three of their four starting pitchers.

The Indians have played 41 postseason games since '95, only one fewer than Atlanta. The Yankees have played 28 postseason games in that span. The difference is, they've won one World Series and the Indians have lost twice.

Clearly, the Yankees are a better team than they were last season, when they were four outs away from advancing when the Indians rallied to beat them in the Division Series.

But the Indians are better, too.

Kenny Lofton is back in center field and the leadoff spot. Manny Ramirez has evolved into an MVP candidate. Travis Fryman is not much of a drop-off from Matt Williams.

Then there is the starting rotation -- still lacking a dominant No. 1 starter, but better than last postseason, when Charles Nagy was struggling and Orel Hershiser and Chad Ogea were taking regular turns.

No one will confuse the Indians' starters with the Braves', but the Yankees occasionally struggle against hard-throwing right-handers such as Jaret Wright and Bartolo Colon.

Wright beat the Yankees twice in last year's Division Series and was 2-1 with a 3.66 ERA against them this season. Game 2 starter Charles Nagy was 1-0 with a 1.72 ERA. Colon pitched eight shutout innings in his only start against New York.

The problem is, the Rangers pitched the Yankees tough in the Division Series, and what difference did it make? The Yankees pitched the Rangers tougher, allowing only one run in 27 innings.

Game 1 starter David Wells is 11-3 against Cleveland including postseason play. Game 2 starter David Cone is hellbent on avenging his dismal performance in last year's Division Series opener.

Game 3? Andy Pettitte.

Game 4? Orlando Hernandez.

It doesn't look good, but then, it didn't look good in last year's ALCS, when the Indians dropped Game 1 at Camden Yards and trailed 4-2 in the eighth inning of Game 2.

Marquis Grissom's three-run homer off Armando Benitez reversed the momentum, tied the series and sent the Orioles' reliever into a downward spiral from which he has not recovered.

The Indians won Game 3 despite striking out 15 times against Mike Mussina. They won Game 4 after trailing 5-2 in the third inning. They won Game 6 on Tony Fernandez's 11th-inning homer off Benitez.

Grissom and Fernandez are gone now, but the core of the team remains intact.

If it's October, then it must be Indian summer.

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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