'99 Indians a hit from top to bottom

May 11, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Indians are on a pace to score 1,123 runs. The modern-day record, set by the 1931 New York Yankees, is 1,067.

Yes, it's early, but not that early, with the season nearly 20 percent complete. The Indians have used their Opening Day lineup only six times in 31 games. Once everyone is healthy, they might be even scarier.

As it stands, they're averaging nearly seven runs a game, leading the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not to mention total bases and runs scored.

Think they miss Albert Belle?

They're better without him.

"You've got to pitch to nine guys without any breather, without any relief," the Orioles' Mike Mussina said. "You have to take your best game out there, or you're not going to make it."

The Indians' 6-4 victory last night was actually on the tame side -- they erased three leads, but their 2-3-4 hitters, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar and major-league RBI leader Manny Ramirez, combined for only one infield hit.

The four-hopper by Ramirez to third base tied the score at 4-4 in the fifth inning, and Alomar delivered the go-ahead sacrifice fly in the seventh. The Indians' three homers? They came from No. 5 hitter Wil Cordero, No. 6 hitter David Justice and No. 9 hitter Richie Sexson.

And so began the Orioles' most difficult week to date -- three games in Cleveland, then four in Texas.

Manager Ray Miller was asked before the game which team is more dangerous offensively, and wasn't sure.

"I flipped on the TV last night, and it looked like slow-pitch softball," Miller said, referring to the Rangers' 11-5 victory over Toronto. "They weren't even waiting for a pitch to hit. Whatever [the Blue Jays] threw, whack."

The Indians are capable of erupting in the same fashion, but they suddenly resemble the defending world champion New York Yankees, working counts, drawing walks, wearing down opposing starters.

Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome and Alomar began last night ranked in the top 10 in the AL in on-base percentage, and Vizquel and Ramirez also were above .400.

"We didn't make a public announcement in the clubhouse -- `Let's do it like the Yankees,' " manager Mike Hargrove said, referring to the team that eliminated the Indians in last year's ALCS.

"But we've got a veteran club. They learn lessons watching other clubs do things very well. So far, we've been a patient club. We have gone deep in counts. And we have preached that to the players.

"[Hitting coach] Charlie Manuel and I believe that the deeper in the count you get, the better the chance you have to be successful. These guys are just real serious about playing the game the right way. It's great to be around people like that."

Especially when they're so talented.

"If the whole lineup is hot," Justice said, "we might score 20 runs."

Justice wasn't kidding -- the Indians hit the big 2-0 in a 20-11 victory over Tampa Bay last Friday, rallying from a 9-1 deficit by scoring 18 runs in the final three innings.

The lineup wasn't as hot last night, but it was productive enough, even with Thome sidelined by back spasms. Sexson replaced him and went 1-for-2 with a homer and two runs scored.

But back to Justice.

He hit 40 homers for Atlanta in '93, and the decisive homer in the clinching game of the '95 World Series. But he normally bats seventh on this team.

"David Justice hitting seventh, it's not right," Vizquel said, smiling.

Yet, Justice doesn't question Hargrove's lineup.

"It's legit. I ain't got no qualms about hitting seventh," he said. "When I look ahead of me and see all that thunder, those guys deserve to hit where they're hitting."

With Thome out, Justice moved to the sixth spot last night, and contributed a two-run homer. In the Indians' regular lineup, Justice, Travis Fryman and Sandy Alomar Jr. bat 7-8-9.

"On 90 percent of the teams in the league, they could hit 3-4-5," said Mussina, the Orioles' starter at Jacobs Field tomorrow night.

The lineup is so good, it masks the Indians' usual deficiency -- their starting rotation. The Cleveland starters are 15-5, the best winning percentage in the AL. But their ERA is a whopping 5.09.

"Vintage Indians," general manager John Hart joked after last night's game, knowing that the much-discussed, long-awaited addition of a No. 1 starter might be necessary for the Tribe to win its first World Series since 1948.

Hart has the depth to pull off such a deal -- say, for Philadelphia's Curt Schilling.

His preference almost certainly would be to trade Justice, freeing money to extend Ramirez. But Sexson seems more likely to be dealt, and potential trade partners also figure to demand Jaret Wright.

Outrageous? Perhaps.

But a productive farm system gives the Indians flexibility.

While the Orioles grow increasingly frustrated with third baseman Willis Otanez and wonder if Calvin Pickering will ever amount to anything more than a DH, the Indians could form another formidable lineup with players they've lost or traded in recent seasons -- Belle, Jeff Kent, Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey, David Bell, Brian Giles.

None is even missed.

"They've had pretty good lineups, but this one is better," Mussina said. "You can have a very talented lineup and have a couple of guys struggling. But they're not playing that way."

They've reached double figures six times. They're on pace to become the first team since the 1950 Boston Red Sox to score 1,000 runs.

Less than three years after losing Belle to free agency, they're better than ever.

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