Sabathia is centerpiece, eyes return to playoffs

He was a rookie four seasons ago when Cleveland made the playoffs.
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Four Octobers later, it's all a blur of bunting, balloons and bedlam for C.C. Sabathia.
The AL playoffs are just a hazy, distant memory.
Sabathia was a rookie the last time the Cleveland Indians were in the postseason. Back then, as the youngest member of a team overloaded with players who have since gone elsewhere, the left-hander was overwhelmed by his first playoff experience.
He took it for granted.
"I didn't even know what was going on," Sabathia said.
Fast forward to 2005 and Sabathia, 24, is the centerpiece of an Indians team that has been dismantled, rebuilt and resurrected in three years.
"When we do win the AL Central this year and go to the playoffs," he said, "I'll be a lot more excited than I was back then."
The big lefty is talking big, and he's not alone.
"Everything I see, the pitching staff, the bullpen, the offense, everything is working together," said All-Star catcher Victor Martinez. "The other teams in the Central are going to have serious problems."
They would have had them last year, too, but Cleveland's bullpen wasted any chance of the team winning a title with a deplorable first half, posting a major league worst 5.60 ERA and blowing 21 saves before the All-Star break.
Tribe's late run fizzled
Still, the Indians regrouped to win 10-of-11 and pulled within one game of first-place Minnesota on Aug. 14.
The push ended the next day. With Jacobs Field sold out, the Indians lost in 10 innings and continued to drop nine straight -- their longest losing streak since 1979 -- to end their unexpected run.
Casey Blake still wonders what might have been had Aug. 15 gone differently.
"It drained us," said Blake, now a left fielder after playing third. "We had spent a lot of energy to get to that point and losing that game was tough emotionally. If we had won, our spirits would have been a lot different."
They weren't broken, though, and Cleveland finished with a flourish. The Indians ended August by beating the Yankees 22-0 -- New York's worst loss in 101 years. Cleveland won eight of its last 12, wound up 80-82 and 12 games behind the Twins.
"This team has tremendous character," said manager Eric Wedge, entering his third season. "They kept fighting. Everything that happened to us last year before and after Aug. 15 is going to help us this season."
Trade ended Indians' reign
Three years ago, after trading ace Bartolo Colon, a deal that signaled the end of Cleveland's Central reign, general manager Mark Shapiro promised that '05 would be when the Indians returned to contention.
It's here, and Shapiro's prediction appears prophetic.
"This year," said Wedge, "we're going to contend from Day One. We know there are expectations and we're not afraid of them."
With Martinez and Travis Hafner (28 homers, 109 RBIs) in the middle, Cleveland has one of the most balanced lineups in baseball. It produced seven players with at least 70 RBIs last season has improved with the addition of Aaron Boone and two-time AL MVP Juan Gonzalez, who will start the season on the disabled list.
Boone has fully recovered from knee surgery after not playing since the 2003 postseason for the Yankees.
"I came here because I believe this team has a chance to be really good," said Boone. "And everything this off-season and spring makes me feel that way even more. Hopefully, we're ready to take the next step."
Peralta replaces Vizquel
Jhonny Peralta, MVP of the International League last season, takes over at shortstop for Omar Vizquel. The 22-year-old Peralta is smooth with the glove and has home run potential.
Cleveland's chances will hinge on a starting rotation that added free agent Kevin Millwood and is front-loaded with young, talented arms in Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee.
Millwood came cheap to the Indians after an injury-slowed season as Philadelphia's No. 1 starter. The right-hander is guaranteed $3 million but can make another $4 million if he pitches well and stays healthy. Last year, he spent six weeks on the disabled list.
"I kind of knew that was the kind of contract I was going to get," he said. "I don't mind. All I've got to do is stay healthy and I'll make what I should make."
The bullpen has been rebuilt around closer Bob Wickman, who was 13-of-14 in saves after spending the first three months last season on the disabled list following elbow surgery. His durability is still suspect, but the bullpen's overall fitness is better.
"Night and day from last year," said Wedge.
The darkness has lifted from the Indians, too.
"Not too many people outside this clubhouse know what we can do," Sabathia said. "But they will in about three or four months."

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