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Indians contend, but could be better



Published: Wed, July 11, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



CLEVELAND -- Thirteen games above .500 -- how impressive that is depends on how lofty the goal.

At 49-36, the Indians remain one of five American League teams seriously contending for four playoff spots. But is making the playoffs enough?

If time is running out on the Indians' current window for a World Series championship, how much better does this year's Tribe need to get before Sept. 30?

These are questions puzzling Indians fans over the All-Star break.

Many of the 35,000-or-so fans who stuck around for the finish of Sunday's Indians-Cardinals game departed Jacobs Field muttering.

To the bullpen: With the game tied 3-3 going into the sixth inning, Charlie Manuel lifted rookie starter Jake Westbrook and turned the ball over to what the Tribe manager likes to refer to as his "back end of the bullpen": Paul Shuey, Bob Wickman and John Rocker.

Shuey (sixth and seventh innings) and Wickman (eighth) kept the Cardinals off the scoreboard.

Rocker, who entered to a standing ovation while running in from the center-field bullpen, didn't, giving up a run in Cleveland's 4-3 loss.

Rocker -- deservedly -- was a popular target of the fans walking and grumbling to their cars, but he wasn't the only Indian who dropped the ball.

Too late: In the first inning, Roberto Alomar ran into the first out of the inning when he broke for third base on Jim Thome's base hit to right field, then saw too late that third-base coach Joel Skinner had stopped Omar Vizquel at third. Skinner should have acted sooner.

With the bases loaded, nobody out and Ellis Burks batting, the Indians could have jumped out to a huge lead and buried the Cardinals. Instead, Cardinals starter Dustin Hermanson escaped when Vizquel and Thome were stranded.

Manuel's bullpen strategy is questionable. The Shuey-Wickman-Rocker plan makes sense once the Tribe is ahead.

But in a tie game that precedes a three-day break, why use Wickman for only one inning? Surely, his arm could have handled another three outs, saving Rocker in case the game went to extra innings.

Lessons: Sunday's game is over and it's time to move on, but there are lessons to be learned.

Specifically, should Manuel give Wickman back the closer role he had until Rocker arrived? In seven appearances since the June 22 trade, Rocker has two losses and a blown save.

Rocker's not converting and Wickman isn't happy.

Wickman and another disgruntled pitcher, right-hander Steve Woodard, are trade candidates as the deadline approaches. But with Rocker struggling, can General Manager John Hart afford to package them for a starter to offset the struggles of Chuck Finley, Dave Burba and Charles Nagy?

Cleveland is far from the best team in the American League, but are they really as bad as they have played over the past month (11-16)?

Timetables: The Seattle Mariners should clinch the AL West sometime around Labor Day.

The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are in a race for the AL East, but with Pedro Martinez sitting out July, the Yanks should receive a boost in their quest for a seventh-straight postseason berth.

Cleveland is five games behind the surprising Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division race.

Last year when the Tribe missed the postseason by one game, the Indians were 44-42 at the break and 101/2 games behind the then-surprising Chicago White Sox.

Because the Twins and Indians still have nine games to play against each other, that deficit is manageable.

Wild-card race: At present, the wild-card race is a chase between the Indians, Twins and Red Sox.

With 77 games to go and the Red Sox without the ace for what could be a long time, Cleveland's situation is not so bad if the starting pitchers get their acts together. The schedule for the rest of the month is soft.

Things could be worse -- a lot of fans would be tickled if their team was 13 games above .500 at the All-Star break.

But is making the playoffs enough?

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




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