After a rough final week in 2005, the Tribe is thinking big in 2006.
By BILL SULLIVAN
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Cliff Lee has the look.
After registering the best major league year of his career in 2005, Lee is itching for this baseball season to begin. Immediately.
While talking about the Cleveland Indians, Lee had the look of a 9-year-old boy on Christmas Eve: Can't we just get this thing started right now?
"I wanted to play more games last year," Lee said of the strong second-half charge by the Tribe.
"I felt like it should have kept going and it didn't. I'm ready to get back and try to get to the playoffs."
Lee had a breakout season in 2005, posting an 18-5 pitching record. His .783 winning percentage led all American League pitchers.
After a slow start in the month of April -- a 9-14 month -- the Indians fell 15 games behind the Chicago White Sox in the Central Division standings.
Then, Lee won nine straight starts beginning on July 18 and the Indians nearly caught the White Sox down the stretch.
Last September the Tribe trailed the eventual World Series champion White Sox by just 1 1/2 games until a dismal 1-6 week ended all postseason hope.
Now, Lee can't wait to prove the Indians have the make of a champion.
"We've started out slow the last couple of years and that's something we need to change," Lee said. "We cut it down [Chicago's lead] pretty good. If we had won some more games early in the season, it would have made things a lot easier for us."
Lee placed fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting, the highest by a Cleveland pitcher in six years.
"It's an honor just to be mentioned with those guys," Lee said of the Cy Young voting. "I'll take something like that every year. I'll never complain about being mentioned in any of those types of awards at the end."
Lee, along with fellow left-handed starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia, DH Travis Hafner and Tribe manager Eric Wedge were in town Thursday as part of the Cleveland Indians press tour.
Wedge, now in his fourth season, is excited about the changes in the team.
"I feel we've done a good job of bringing in veteran ballplayers over the last couple of years as well as our youth," he said.
Wedge led the team to 93 wins last summer but won't be happy with anything short of making the playoffs.
"There really aren't any question marks," Wedge said of his roster. "There's not going to be too much to be had -- maybe a spot or two in the bullpen, and our utility roles."
While the Indians will try to build on their second-half success of 2005, Wedge said it may be hard to carry over much momentum.
"We're talking about two different years, two different teams, and you're also talking about us still being a young team continuing to get better," he said.
One player who will be hard-pressed to have a better season is Hafner. Last summer Hafner collected 33 homers, 108 RBIs and finished third in the league in on-base percentage (.408).
"Everybody's pretty excited," Hafner said. "We probably had the best team in baseball the second half of the season.
"We're just looking forward to carry that momentum over to this year and hopefully put together a full 162 game schedule and to win 100 games would be nice," he said.
With his outstanding offensive season, Hafner finished fifth in the American League's MVP voting.
The No. 1 starter again will be solid with Sabathia. In 2005 he won 15 games and had a 9-1 pitching record from August 5 until the end of the year.
An imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, Sabathia, 25, is starting his sixth major league season. He spoke of last year's disappointing close call.
"We won 93 games but fell a little but short. I feel if we win 93 games this year, we'll get to the playoffs," he said.
It all comes down to starting strong and staying consistent.
"If we get off to a good start this April, win a few more ball games, I think it will carry us to September," Sabathia said.
Cleveland starts the season on April 2 against the Chicago White Sox.