AL CENTRAL Laid-back Indians applying pressure to first-place Sox
Cleveland has won 12 of its last 13 games and has a chance to win the division.
CLEVELAND --Rubbing a wood shaver up and down his black bat just above the knob before Sunday's 11-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians infielder Jose Hernandez stripped the paint completely off the skinny handle.
"Won't slip this way," Hernandez explained.
No question these Indians know how to get a grip.
They arrived Sunday night in Chicago for a three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field grasping reality as tightly as the hands the first-place White Sox must feel around their throats.
Despite winning 12 of their last 13 to reduce the lead in the American League Central to 31/2 games, the Indians have placed all the pressure of the coming days on themselves-even with the Sox's burden feeling heavy enough at 35th and Shields to tilt the city south.
"They're still 31/2 games ahead of us," Indians closer Bob Wickman said. "So we are the ones who have our work cut out for us, not them."
The Indians have been the ones cast as the 1969 New York Mets opposite the Sox's role as the fading Cubs in the tragicomedy playing to stunned audiences in Chicago this month. Having completed a sweep at Jacobs Field of the same Kansas City Royals team against which the White Sox wilted last week, the Indians looked the part of a team playing better than any team in baseball since Aug. 1.
Lots left to play
They are 32-11 since that point, compared to 22-23 for the Sox, but begin their biggest regular-season series since the Kenny Lofton era believing they have proved nothing yet. Because against the Sox this season, they really haven't.
"We've lost 10 of 13 times to [the Sox]," said reliever Bob Howry, a former Sox. "Now we're really going to find out what we're made of."
Mostly, the Indians are made of starting pitching, a lineup full of surprising power hitters from Nos. 1 through 9, and a closer in Wickman that has been as steady as the winds off Lake Erie.
Unlike the Sox, the Indians' top two starters have made this pennant race memorable for the right reasons. C.C. Sabathia's shutout Sunday marked his eighth win in his last nine starts. It followed a Saturday night gem by Cliff Lee, who won his eighth decision in a row. Luckily for the Sox, neither lefty will pitch in the upcoming series.
Not that the Sox can exhale: Overall, Cleveland starters have gone 12-2 with a 1.83 ERA over the last 16 games.
"Our starting pitching has set the tone," said Wickman, dean of a bullpen that boasts the lowest earned-run average in the majors at 2.85. Originally a Sox draft pick 15 years ago, Wickman has saved 14 straight games and leads the league with 43.
Wickman's consistency is one of the reasons Kansas City's TV broadcast, pressed into action due to a local blackout, opened Sunday with an observation as obvious as a line-drive single.
"Cleveland enters [Sunday] 361/2 games behind the White Sox," the announcer began, "but you just sense the momentum is on the Indians' side."
Travis Hafner, the most dangerous hitter on a team full of names only a Rotisserie baseball player could love, assured momentum for the trip to Chicago with a 421-foot shot into the right-field stands in the first inning. A slew of runs followed as pesky hitters such as Grady Sizemore and Ben Broussard and Jhonny Peralta contributed to a cause that is ruining many a summer party on Chicago's South Side.
Sizemore, the center fielder, is on pace to make 630 plate appearances this season but looks young enough at 23 to suspect half of those at-bats came in Little League. Aaron Boone, a clubhouse sage at 32 and a former Yankee no stranger to ruining another team's postseason, just laughed when asked to explain what about the Indians had changed since the Sox's staff made them look silly in a four-game sweep in July.
"One reason is, we don't analyze, man," Boone said. "These guys just play."
They play hard and smart for a manager, Eric Wedge, whose media briefings are known to be as bland as Ozzie Guillen's are spicy. If Guillen is salsa, Wedge is oatmeal, but the young Indians have fed off the 37-year-old's diet of one-day-at-a-time messages.
"We have to keep our mind-set exactly where it is," Wedge said in response to a question on the importance of the Sox series. "The focus is on ourselves."
Whoever they are. LeBron James' chauffeur has a higher profile in town than some of the Indians' starters.
But like the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, the no-name Indians win by playing according to a fundamentals-first organizational philosophy that fulfills general Mark Shapiro's pledge made June 27, 2002, when he made Cleveland's version of the White Flag trade and dealt ace Bartolo Colon to Montreal.