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Clock ticking down on Tribe



Published: Wed, August 8, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners departed Cleveland early Tuesday as two teams in contrasts, just the way they began the 2001 season.

Many Indians observers see this season as the last one in which the Tribe will have a decent chance to contend for a championship (unless the small- and mid-market owners ban together this offseason to force the big boys to share local broadcast revenues).

Minus a better economic plan, it's no secret that the Indians will slash next season's payroll and that's the main reason General Manager John Hart wants out (probably to assume that post with the big-bucks Los Angeles Dodgers).

For the Tribe, it's now or not-for-a-long-time, if ever.

Seattle: The Mariners, last-year's American League wild-card team, began the season after suffering the departure of their third superstar (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez) in three seasons.

The Mariners were expected to finish behind the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics. A World Series appearance seemed an impossible dream to East Coast observers, but pitcher Paul Abbott disagrees.

"We knew from the beginning that we were going to be good," the Mariners starter said after Monday's win at Jacobs Field.

Both teams began the season with strong starts, but as the pennant races heat up, the Mariners are cruising to the AL West title while the Indians are struggling to keep pace with the surprising Minnesota Twins.

The main differences between the teams can be found on the mound, on defense and in the leadoff spot.

The Mariners boast four starters with at least 12 wins (Garcia, Abbott, Aaron Sele and Jamie Moyer). The Indians have rookie C.C. Sabathia with 11 and Bartolo Colon with 10. Missing from that list are Dave Burba, Chuck Finley, Charles Nagy and Jaret Wright.

That means the Mariners' bullpen has been used far more judiciously by Manager Lou Piniella and is in better shape for the stretch run.

Defensively, the Mariners lead the AL with only 56 errors through Monday's games. The Indians have committed 20 more, which hasn't helped their struggling pitching staff.

Ichiro: Finally, Mariners general manager Pat Gillick will be the AL's Executive of the Year for taking a chance on 27-year-old outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, Japan's best export since Sony invented the Betamax.

Ichiro's three hits Monday raised the certain rookie-of-the-year's average to .335.

Look what Kenny Lofton (and his $8 million contract) hasn't done for the Indians.

Lofton's .246 batting average combined with only 11 stolen bases in 19 attempts is a big reason why Roberto Alomar, the league's top hitter, will be lucky to drive in 100 RBIs this season.

Lofton no longer gets on base often enough, nor steals much when he does.

And the surly outfielder hasn't helped his cause by constantly questioning umpires after looking at called strikes. His pouty glares might carry a lot more weight with the men in blue if his batting average had another 80 points.

Weakness: Finally, there's Lofton's arm in center field, which has become much weaker since he separated his shoulder foolishly diving head first into first base in the 1999 playoffs.

The Mariners openly spoke about not being afraid to run on Lofton every chance they get. The rest of the league has to have noticed.

For the Indians to salvage the season, Lofton, one of the team's most adored players, must improve greatly at the plate and Finley, Nagy and Burba must find the control that has eluded them much of this season.

As for the Mariners, Abbott said the difference this year is that it's 25 guys contributing, "not three or four guys doing it and everybody else just a supporting cast. We've got 25 guys doing their jobs. People are starting to realize that we are a complete team."

A complete team standing in the way of the Tribe's World Series dreams.

XTom Williams covers Major League Baseball for the Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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