Here I am in Cleveland, and I can’t say I’m too excited. If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.
Yes, it was actually Ichiro who said that, two years ago, when the Mariners had to keep returning to Cleveland to make up that snowed-out series. It’s one of his all-time great quotes, but I rank it second to this one, my personal favorite, about facing Daisuke Matsuzaka for the first time in America: “I hope he arouses the fire that’s dormant in the innermost recesses of my soul. I plan to face him with the zeal of a challenger.”
I can’t get enough of that quote, frankly. I think it just might be the best quote from an athlete I’ve ever heard. It amuses me every time I read it.
But this post isn’t about Ichiro. It’s about the Cleveland Indians, the Mariners’ opponent in a four-game series that starts tonight.
The Indians have to rank as the biggest disappointment in baseball this season. They were supposed to be a contender, but instead have been one of the worst teams this side of the Washington Nationals. They reached the All-Star break with a 35-54 record, on pace to loss 100 games. Their .393 winning percentage is worst in the American League, and better only than the Nats at .299. They will probably start shipping out veteran players as the trade deadline nears. In sum, a disaster.
Just as last year was a disaster in the first half, though the Indians finished strong and reached .500 at 81-81. But their season was pretty much lost when they went 41-53 in the first half. Remember, this was a team that in 2007 took a three games to one lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS, but couldn’t get the one more win they needed to get into the World Series.
The biggest culprit has been pitching. The Indians rank 30th out of 30 teams with a 5.40 ERA. The bullpen has been horrible. They’ve been out-scored 69-35 in the eighth inning. They’ve had some key injuries (Fausto Carmona, Jake Westbrook). Cliff Lee at the All-Star break last year was 12-2, 2.31 ERA, .234 opponents batting average, and averages of 1.4 walks and 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings. This year, he’s 4-9 (in those nine losses the Indians have scored a total of 14 runs), a 3.47 ERA, .287 opponents batting average, and averages of 2.8 walks and 6.6 strikeouts per nine innings. The Indians lost 12 games in their opponents’ last at-bat in the first half. It goes on and on.
It has been a real mess, and some heads could well roll. Manager Eric Wedge has been promised the rest of the season, but after that, all bets are off. GM Mark Shapiro is suddenly under fire. The Indians are among the most forward-thinking organizations in all of baseball. They are extremely sabermetric savvy, and have been at the forefront of the “Moneyball” sensibility — trying to discover and exploit market inefficiencies. There was a local movement spawned by USS Mariner to hire Shapiro’s assistant, Chris Antonetti, to replace Bill Bavasi as general manager.
Shapiro and Antonetti are as smart and capable as they always were, but the Indians’ predicament shows just how hard it is to build a successful baseball team. Who knew Carmona would be a one-year wonder? Who knew Travis Hafner would get hurt and never again be the slugger they envisioned? Who knew Kerry Wood would be a bust? There are so many factors that can go wrong, unexpectedly, that the best-laid plans can be blown to smithereens.
That’s what’s happening to the Cleveland Indians. It can happen to even the smartest, best-run teams in baseball