Lofton's return sets tone for Indians

Outfielder's recovery from injury complete after big day at plate

April 04, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

He wasn't supposed to return until June at the earliest, but there was Kenny Lofton in center field for the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards yesterday, creating havoc for the opposition as usual.

"We never thought Kenny was going to start the season," said Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, the defensive hero of the 4-1 victory that spoiled the Orioles' opener. "He insisted he was going to be on the opening-day roster and we didn't believe it."

Believe it. His recovery from a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder climaxed with a go-ahead home run off Mike Mussina and run-scoring single in the eighth inning that capped Cleveland's clinching rally.

Lofton was injured in the final game of the American League division series against Boston last October and underwent surgery Dec. 15. By March 30, he had been cleared to play in spring training by Dr. James Andrews.

"I put in a lot of hard work and a lot of prayer," said the Indians' offensive catalyst and defensive outfield anchor. "Something else had to happen besides work. When I hurt my arm, my girlfriend told me maybe God was testing me, telling me to think about what I was doing.

"If she hadn't said that to me, I don't think I'd be in this position now."

Lofton jacked a Mussina fastball just over the wall in left center with two out in the sixth to push the Indians ahead, 2-1. He returned to the dugout with a big grin on his face.

"That felt kind of good," he said. "It was something I wasn't expecting. That took me back to my Little League days."

"I don't want him to start cranking up and thinking he's a big power hitter yet," said Charlie Manuel, who won his first game as Cleveland manager and Mike Hargrove's replacement. "He's the guy who makes our offense go and sets things up for the second and third hitters. He creates excitement and energy."

If Lofton's remarkable comeback was inspiring, Vizquel's sensational defensive play that defused the Orioles' seventh-inning threat was the show-stopper.

With two men on base and two outs, Delino DeShields hit a blooper into short left field far out of range for David Justice. Vizquel retreated and with his body parallel to the ground, snagged the ball and held it. It was a great play, even for a shortstop who has won seven straight Gold Gloves.

"I thought I had a 50-50 chance," explained Vizquel. "When I dove for it, I really thought that I had it. If you get to the ball, you might as well catch it."

Vizquel said that plays like that "always lift the team up a little bit. But on those tough ones, you don't have anything to lose. It's the ground ball straight at you that puts you in trouble if you boot it."

It was a grand debut for Manuel, Hargrove's long-time hitting coach, whose final offense last season became only the seventh team in history to produce 1,000 or more runs.

"Beating Mike didn't play a big part in this," said Manuel. "The game was played right. I hope they're all like this. I was just sitting there and participating in watching it. It wasn't like I did a whole lot."

"His first win in his first chance," said Vizquel. "That was nice, especially since it was a close game. We really like playing those types because sometimes the little things win them."

"Charlie was all excited about it and saying, `Thanks, man,' " said Lofton. "I had to remind him that it was just one game. But there is a special feeling about it for Charlie. He wants to win as bad as anyone. So, I felt I'd go out there and do a job. I felt I was ready."

Lofton's off-season concerns dissipated on one comfortable afternoon at the Yard.

"I was a very frustrated person, very evil," he said of his off-season. "I was snapping at people all the time. I didn't know how to deal with the prospect of not playing. They know what kind of a gamer I am. I want to play."

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