Tribe Hopes Masterson Has Makings Of An Ace

By: T.J. Zuppe

When simplified, the ace pitcher on a baseball team is supposed to do two thingsstop losing skids and start winning streaks. That is exactly what Indians right-handed starter Justin Masterson has done once this year.

Can Indians Pitcher Justin Masterson Become The Top Starter In An Aceless Staff?

He will be counted on to do it again on Friday, in the series opener with the Baltimore Orioles at Progressive Field.

Masterson has been masterful in his two starts, working a total of 13.1 innings, scattering 11 hits, surrendering only two earned runs. He picked up wins in both outings, and has commanded his pitches beautifully, striking out nine, while only walking three.

He was the man responsible for putting an end to the two game slide that began the season, setting the tone for the team to reel off eight-straight wins.

His dominance has not just been in 2011, as he finished 2010 strong. In fact, in Masterson’s last 15 games, 10 of which starts, he is 5-3 with an earned run average of 2.57.

That performance has silenced critics (myself included) that said he was better suited for a setup role, in the Indians bullpen.

Last season seemed to back those thoughts, especially when leading into August, Masterson was 3-10. His earned run average was a bloated 5.55.

Yet, seemingly through those tough trials, he has began to understand what it is to pitch, not just throw. After all, no one had a single doubt about his stuff.

But could he learn how to control it?

He has answered that question in his first two starts with an emphatic yes.

Now, keep in mind another starter that experienced a rocky first 57 games in the big leagues. That gentleman was 13-14, with an ERA of 5.77, in that span.

His name? Roy Halladay.

The moral of that story is, do not be so quick to write off a pitcher with incredible stuff. Patience is a virtue with talent like that, a lesson that even I need to remind myself constantly.

Entering this season, one of the biggest concerns for this team has been the unknown elements of the starting rotation.

Indians Pitcher Justin Masterson

At first glance, the Tribe starting-five is constructed of mostly three-to-five starters, without that true horse to matchup with other squads’ top hurlers. If Masterson’s performance begins to match his nasty stuff, then the opposition will begin to take note.

A big reason for the 26-year old’s improvement lies in his approach. Through all of the criticism in his production, or lack thereof, the big righty never questioned his ability, or made excuses.

He has stood tall in the locker room in defeat, in the same manner he has held his head high after a victory – always looking for a way to get better, and answering every question with the utmost respect.

Slowly, but surely, that has started to translate on the mound.

Now where does he go from here? In the same direction he has been going – upwards.

Every outing is a new opportunity to build on the foundations he has laid recently, in the middle of the diamond. Each start is a step towards what the team hopes is an ace in the making.

Back-to-back outstanding efforts are a great way to kick off 2011. Now will he be able to three-peat? Can it be put together into a good half season, before stretching it into the entire campaign?

Time will render the ultimate decision. For the Indians’ pitcher, the focus can only be on one thing – the Baltimore Orioles at 7:05PM Friday, at Progressive Field.

Mr. Masterson, the floor is yours.

Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe

Does Frustration Equal Progress?

By: T.J. Zuppe

The Indians just went 4-2 on a west coast swing in Seattle and Los Angeles, and I am upset.

The Indians went 4-2 on their West Coast road trip. (Photo courtesy of the AP)

Wait a minute, did I really just write that? Upset with a team that has played well, and opened the season at 8-4, good enough for first place in the American League Central Division?

Truly, for the Tribe had every opportunity to collect a win on Wednesday night against the Angels.

Five wins on a six game left-coast trip was within their grasp.

That was before bad base running, head-scratching throws, untimely hitting and another poor outing from a bullpen newcomer led to a loss in extra-frames, as the game slipped away.

But does the fact that Indians fans are upset mean progress is being made? After all, few thought the team would experience success, especially at the outset of the season.

A 4-2 road trip would have sounded splendid after a sweep of the Red Sox last week. It would have sounded even better over the previous couple of seasons.

Yet, here we are, bitter, angry and upset.

I’m not sure that is such a bad thing.

For as unbearable as the club has been over the last few years, to raise the bar on some expectations is a welcome change. After all, the city of Cleveland has been searching for a breath of fresh air in the sports world.

Can the Indians be that?

Who knows? I have been saying for quite some time, do not put any expectations on what we have seen thus far. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

But lord knows, it is quite difficult to not want to get ahead of ourselves. It is in our nature to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

It is for that reason most people will continue to be skeptical and reserve judgment. Who can fault that?

After all, who has been burned more than Cleveland? But that cynicism and frustration means people care.

Getting the faithful to raise the bar is where it will start. They can only do that through continued positive play, starting with the fundamentals, and being fun to watch.

It may be a small step, but a necessary one in making sure “Wahoo Baseball” catches on.

Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe

Inside the Wigwam

By: T.J. Zuppe

Cleveland Indians (7-2) vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (5-4)

Monday: RHP Mitch Talbot (0-0 – 4.15) vs. RHP Tyler Chatwood (NR)

Tuesday: RHP: Fausto Carmona (0-1 – 9.00) vs. RHP Dan Haren (1-0 – 1.23)

Wednesday: RHP Carlos Carrasco (1-1 – 5.68) vs. RHP Ervin Santana (0-1 – 3.68)

Pitching, Pitching, Pitching

The 7-2 start for the Indians can be attributed to many things, but none bigger than what has set the tone in the center of the diamond.

Indians Pitcher Justin Masterson

Since pitcher Fausto Carmona’s opening day disaster, the Tribe has been outstanding in the pitching department. First with the starters, the rotation has an earned run average of 2.82 since game one.

In 51 innings of work, they have only given up 38 hits, including back-to-back gems by pitcher Justin Masterson.

Even better, the bullpen has been making things even easier for manager Manny Acta, seemingly shortening games to seven innings, or less.

Their ERA has been a sparkling 2.25, behind left-handers Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp. In particular, Sipp leads the American League with five holds, and closer Chris Perez has slammed the door on four saves, tying him for the league lead with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Right-hander Mitch Talbot will look to continue the positive vibes on the mound, as he faces the Angels, Monday night. Talbot started one game against Los Angeles last season, picking up the win.

He worked 6.1 innings, surrendering one run on six hits.

“I Have The Power”:

Acta’s squad has been receiving an unlikely power source to begin the season, in shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

After only three home runs in all of 2010, Cabrera has already reached that number. He went deep in Sunday’s 6-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners, his second in the series.

His three homers put him at a tie for sixth in the American League in that department. He has also driven in nine runs, good enough for fifth in the league.

For his efforts, Cabrera was named as Co-American League Player of the Week, for the second time in his career. During that week, he went 9-25, with three home runs, driving in eight.

Cabrera shared the honor with White Sox first-baseman Paul Konerko.

Not known for his run production, the middle-infielder is already halfway to his career-high in round-trippers of six, which he has achieved twice in his career (2008, 2009). His performance has been unexpected, but very pleasant at the top of the order.

Donald Joins Sizemore And Smith:

Despite the Indians hot start, the team is still not completely whole. Outfielder Grady Sizemore and right-handed pitcher Joe Smith have both been rehabbing at Class-AA Akron, without any setbacks.

Infielder Jason Donald joined the duo on Sunday, collecting one hit in three at bats. In his first rehab start, he played third base for the Aeros.

Both Sizemore and Smith were given the day off on Sunday.

All three will continue their rehab on Monday, when the Aeros welcome Altoona to Canal Park.

Need The Help?

One big reason to be optimistic about the return of Sizemore is the current play in left field.

Indians Outfielder Travis Buck

While still too early to fully judge, the early platoon of outfielders Austin Kearns and Travis Buck has not garnered the results hoped for. The two have combined for an average of .152, driving in one run.

The combination has struck out 10 times, while only collecting a walk on three occasions.

It is likely that Sizemore, when ready, will resume his old position of center field, while Michael Brantley will shift to left. However, Brantley should continue to leadoff, while Sizemore ideally rotates between the sixth and seventh spot in the order.

The Indians will continue to be cautious with the rehabbing outfielder. The organization wants to be sure he is completely 100% before activating him from the 15-day disabled list.

He is eligible to come off the DL on the 13th of April.

Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe

Inside The Wigwam

By: T.J. Zuppe

Cleveland Indians (4-2) vs. Seattle Mariners (2-4) – Safeco Field

Friday: RHP Carlos Carrasco (0-1 – 9.45) vs. RHP Jason Vargas (0-0 – 1.35) – 10:10PM ET

Saturday: RHP Justin Masterson (1-0 – 1.29) vs. RHP Doug Fister (0-1 – 3.18) – 9:10PM ET

Sunday: RHP Josh Tomlin (1-0 – 1.29) vs. LHP Erik Bedard (0-1 – 5.40) – 4:10PM ET

Choo-Choo Train Derailed – For Now

Indians Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo

Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has not started 2011 on the right foot. He is only hitting .083, with one home run and two driven in.

His 2-24 success rate is very surprising considering the Tribe’s fast 4-2 start. Yet, no one is too worried.

Choo is too good to go much longer without picking up. In fact, slow starts are not a foreign subject to the multi-talented outfielder.

Last season, he began the year 2-18. He then mixed in a 3-21 stretch. But at year’s end, Choo had terrorized pitching to the tune of a .300 batting average, 22 home runs and 90 driven in, on top of 22 stolen bases.

Everything is under the microscope to begin the season. If he were to have only two hits in 24 at bats in July, his batting average might dip from .310 to .300, and his poor stretch would go mostly unnoticed.

It just becomes glaring when he strolls to the plate early in the year, and the scoreboard reads .083.

Pen Picking Up Where They Left Off

The men coming out of the bullpen can often become the most important part of a club. That has held true for the Indians, over the last decade.

As the pen righted itself in the second half, so did the Tribe’s ability to stay in ballgames. In 2011, the relievers have already played a big role in the opening homestand.

Left-handed set-up man Rafael Perez has already worked out of some big jams, none bigger than Thursday’s affair with the Boston Red Sox. He cleaned up a mess started by right-hander Chad Durbin, and managed to keep the game scoreless, before picking up his second win of the campaign.

He has not been the only arm to pitch well. The unit as a whole has held opponents to a .191 average through the first six games.

They are currently fifth in the American League in bullpen ERA, checking in at 3.79.

They have been able to give manager Manny Acta both length and matchup options. If that continues with regularity, do not be surprised by the success it brings the rest of the team.

Smith, Sizemore Still On the Mend

Indians Outfielder Grady Sizemore

Outfielder Grady Sizemore and right-handed pitcher Joe Smith will continue their minor league rehab with Class-AA Akron. Next up for the duo will be Saturday’s contest with Binghamton, at 1:05 in Canal Park.

Both participated in the Aeros game on Thursday. Sizemore, recovering from surgery on his left knee, played centerfield, going 1-3. He logged seven innings in the ballgame and recorded one put-out in the outfielder.

Smith, who has been battling an abdominal strain, pitched a scoreless inning, retiring the side in order. He struck out two batters, throwing 16 pitches in total.

Battling the Mariners

The Seattle Mariners got the best of the Cleveland Indians in 2010, beating the Tribe in the head-to-head matchup, four games to three. The team was able to play better at Safeco, splitting four on the road.

Right-handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco has never faced the M’s and will get the ball on Friday night.

Pitchers Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin each faced Seattle once in 2010.

Masterson gave up one hit over six innings of work, on August 15th against the Mariners. He did not pick up a decision in the game at Progressive Field.

Tomlin notched a win on September 2nd, working six innings, surrendering three runs. He scattered seven hits at Safeco field.

All three are set to face the Mariners over the weekend.

Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe

Feeling The Fever?

By: T.J. Zuppe

The atmosphere at Progressive Field has changed over the last few days. Sure, it is still cold and the crowds are small, but the entire mood has lightened since Saturday’s loss to the White Sox.

Flash forward to Thursday afternoon. As the Tribe was putting the final touches on a sweep of the all-mighty Red Sox with a 1-0 victory, strange things were happening – they were winning.

Tribe manager Manny Acta was pulling out all the stops. Impressively, it was working.

Whether it was managing the fifth inning of Wednesday like it were the ninth, or shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera suicide-squeezing third-baseman Adam Everett home in the eighth on Thursday, Acta was coming up roses.

Indians Pitcher Fausto Carmona

Is this the “Wahoo Baseball” he had discussed at the tail-end of spring training?

Most Indians fans were in disbelief, watching the team play a little small ball. Moving runners over and getting them in was a foreign concept over the past couple of seasons.

To watch a team attempt them, on top of execute those moves to perfection, may have those same fans a little disoriented.

Most impressively, the club found multiple ways to win against the Red Sox. They blasted the Beantowners with a barrage of home runs on Wednesday. That gave way to a pitchers duel between Fausto Carmona and Jon Lester on Thursday.

A great deal of credit goes to Carmona, who matched Lester pitch for pitch. He gave his squad seven innings of two-hit, four strikeout, shutout ball.

He did what every ace needs to do, bounced back from a rough outing, and gave his team a chance to win. Carmona was flat-out dealing, mixing his pitches and tossing strikes.

It was not only important for the Indians, but for his confidence as well.

Also, give credence to left-hander Rafael Perez, who cleaned up a big mess in the eighth inning, Thursday. A return to old form means an entire complexion change in the bullpen.

And when it came time to shut the door, out strolled right-hander Chris Perez to slam it. Despite making things interesting, “Pure Rage” made the necessary pitches, and notched a couple of saves.

Through all of that, the roles of the two teams looked reversed.

Instead of the Indians looking like the young ballclub that they are, the Red Sox were making the mistakes. It was catcher Jason Varitek not tagging outfielder Travis Buck at the plate on Wednesday, handing the Tribe a run.

Boston pinch-runner Darnell McDonald was busy overrunning second base, allowing Everett to gun him down at the bag, ending Thursday’s game.

Looking flustered and confused, Boston remained winless.

And after starting the year 0-2, the Indians have now won four straight, playing fundamentally sound.

Are you feeling the Indians fever? Probably not.

However, in a season all about growing and progress, you cannot ask for much more.

Of course, it will not take long for things to work themselves out. Boston will be back near the top of the American League East soon, and Cleveland will likely be flirting with the .500 mark.

But damn, isn’t sports all about those unpredictable moments?

Take off the negative cap for just one day and bask in a little Wahoo baseball fun. There will be plenty of time for that negativity in the upcoming campaign.

Photos courtesy of the AP and Indians.com

Follow T.J. Zuppe on Twitter @TJZuppe

Inside the Wigwam

By: T.J. Zuppe

Boston Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians – Progressive Field

Tuesday: RHP Josh Beckett vs. RHP Josh Tomlin – 7:05PM

Wednesday: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. RHP Mitch Talbot – 7:05PM

Thursday: LHP Jon Lester (0-0 – 8.44) vs. RHP Fausto Carmona (0-1 – 30.00) – 12:05PM

Healthy Hafner?

For the past couple of seasons, one of the biggest question marks has always been the overall health of designated hitter Travis Hafner. If opening weekend was a sign of things to come, maybe the Indians finally received a favorable answer.

Indians Designated Hitter Travis Hafner

In the first three games against the White Sox, Pronk is hitting .385, with a home run and two driven in.

He nearly missed a second homer in Saturday’s game, and has been getting around on the ball much better than years past.

“It’s just good to get off to a good start,” Hafner said. “I feel good swinging the bat. Looking forward to keeping it up.”

On top of health, another reason for optimism with the stick is his approach, which he has changed from the previous years. Through those adjusted mechanics, he believes he is feeling much better.

“I just feel good and looking forward to every game.”

More than just numbers, Hafner passed the eye test over the weekend. Even his singles had more authority reaching the outfield, and was able to get the good part of the bat around on inside pitches.

Can this continue?

This is only a question Hafner can answer. Track record says no.

He will be eager to prove otherwise.

Starting Off On The Wrong Foot

The Indians starting pitchers  experienced the weekend from hell.

The top three men in the Tribe rotation (Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco and Justin Masterson) combined for an earned run average of roughly 9.72.

In 16.2 innings, they surrendered 18 runs, on 28 hits.

If it was not for Masterson’s solid seven-inning performance on Sunday, manager Manny Acta might be looking for more relief. In those seven frames, Masterson only surrendered one run, kept the bullpen fresh and was able to pick up the team’s first win of the season.

The biggest question mark entering the 2011 campaign was the starting pitching. It does not put anyone at ease to watch the top two starters get lit up in the first weekend.

Sizemore, Smith On the Mend

The Indians are not quite at full strength to begin the season, but a couple of players are making strides to rejoining the big club.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore and right-handed relief pitcher Joe Smith will be playing with the Class-AAA Columbus Clippers on Tuesday at Huntington Park. They will both be taking part in an exhibition game against Ohio State at 6:35PM.

Sizemore was placed on the 15-day disabled list to continue rehabbing from micro-fracture surgery on his left-knee. Smith was also DL’ed, as he mends from an abdominal strain.

Fans in the Columbus area can purchase $5 tickets by visiting ClippersBaseball.com

If all continues as planned, the two will begin a rehab assignment at Class-AA Akron on Thursday, April 7th.

Indians Launch New Campaign And Videos

For those that have not had a chance to see the new videos the team has put together, you might want to take a few minutes to check them out.

“What If”

“The Ball

These videos accompany the team’s new slogan: “Creating Memories.  Connecting Generations. Celebrating Families.”

Despite what you may or may not think of the current team, the videos should leave you with a few good memories, and even more goosebumps.

Carmona, Carrasco, Cause For Concern?

By: T.J. Zuppe

The combined pitching line of starters Fausto Carmona and Carlos Carrasco has not been pretty. In fact, the pitching in the first two days of the season has been downright putrid.

Indians Pitcher Carlos Carrasco

In both losses, the two have combined to surrender 17 runs in 9.2 innings of work. They have also given up 21 hits, including Carrasco getting knocked around the yard early by the White Sox, on Saturday.

If not for a few “at ‘em” balls, his day could have been much worse.

For the top two men in the Tribe’s rotation, it has been anything but top-notch. Based on starting pitching being a question mark, it is fair to raise your eyebrow in concern.

However, manage Manny Acta does not seem to think so.

“It has only been two games, Acta said. “I think these guys are going to be fine. I’m not anticipating either of these two guys to struggle this way. They are both going to be fine.

“It’s early,” Acta added, stating he is not going to judge his team based on two games.

No one would expect him to do so. One start each is not enough to sell them down the river. But you do hope both have learned something valuable from their starts, that they can put into action in the near future.

Carrasco already knew some adjustments needed to be made, and it showed briefly in his outing on Saturday.

“I started throwing my breaking stuff and my fastball later,” Carrasco said. “When I started throwing my breaking stuff in the third inning, it got a little easier. In the first two innings I threw too many fastballs.”

Indians Manager Manny Acta has not gotten exactly what he hoped for at the top of his rotation.

Yet, no matter what the pitch, Carrasco noted, at times it did not matter. “They hit everything,” he added.

Chicago is a fastball mashing team. Carrasco threw mostly fastballs. The White Sox made him pay.

Hopefully, you can chalk that up to the learning curve of being in the big leagues, as he continues to grow. The same cannot be said for the 27-year old veteran Carmona, who does not have those excuses to fall back on.

One big difference between the two was the amount of innings Carrasco gave his team, saving Acta from taxing his bullpen two games into the young season.

Carmona tossed three innings on opening day, while Carrasco battled his way into the seventh frame.

“I think it’s a starters responsibility to do that,” Acta said. “It was very important that he was able to bounce back, after the first two innings.”

Not only from a team importance standpoint, but also based on confidence, it was key for him to be able to settle into a groove.

Now, it can come down to a few adjustments in the attack strategy.

Just as Carrasco was able to bounce back on Saturday, it is infinitely as important for both starters at the top of the rotation to find their groove in start number two.

This is certainly not how Acta wanted to set the tone for the rest of the rotation. Just hope it is indeed, “early.”

Take the finger off of the panic button. They are not cause for concern – yet.

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