This is real, Manny Acta says, and he knows when he says it that people are shaking their heads. He wonders when that's going to stop. It's nearly the end of May. His Cleveland Indians are still the best team in baseball, like they were at the end of April. They've outscored their opponents by a larger margin than anyone. They've weathered a rash of injuries. They're 30-17.
One more time: 30-17.
"What do we have to do?" Acta says. "Sweep every series? Win the rest of our games? I understand people didn't think we were going to contend. That's fine. We are contending now."
This is no revelation to the 42-year-old Acta. He believed at the beginning of spring training, and when he sat his team down for its first meeting, he came armed with statistics. He understands ballplayers became ballplayers so they didn't have to slave away in a cubicle crunching numbers, but he needed them to understand a simple tenet: "There is no redshirting this year."
For the entirety of his managerial career, Acta had babysat. He somehow spun a vomitous 2007 Washington Nationals squad into a respectable 73-89 team, which spurred management to pursue a playoff spot by bringing in problem child after problem child: Elijah Dukes(notes), Felipe Lopez(notes), Odalis Perez. While Acta won't disparage Washington, those there with him paint a stark picture: He spent more time placating malcontents than managing.
Which is why this year has been such a blessing. It's not just the winning, though that helps. It's the support from Indians president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti. It's the gradual return of fans to Progressive Field. It's the positive feedback on Acta's Twitter feed, a team-mandated endeavor that he worried would turn ugly if losses mounted.
More than anything, it's the team's resilience. He likes this group. Legitimately enjoys managing them. While rebuilding efforts always entail toil, the Indians' last season became futile when a few of the players – Trevor Crowe(notes), Luis Valbuena(notes), Jason Donald(notes) – proved unfit for everyday duty. It left the team scrambling, particularly with Grady Sizemore(notes) and Carlos Santana(notes) out with season-ending knee injuries.
It's what made that first meeting this spring imperative. Last season, Acta's first with Cleveland, half the roster had less than three years experience. Often the Indians started six rookies. And still, after the All-Star break they played near .500. Acta imbued this, "showed them every way possible how well they played. We didn't have a PowerPoint, but I don't know how many of them knew we finished the second half with the fourth-best pitching staff in the American League, with the second-best bullpen. In September, we were second behind the Giants, who had the most historic month of pitching ever."
Acta believed in his pitching then and even more so now, even if it's due a massive regression. Josh Tomlin(notes), the right-hander with a middling strikeout rate, a minuscule batting average on balls in play and an exorbitant percentage of runners left on base – the Bermuda Triangle of bad omens – is nonetheless 6-1 with a 2.41 ERA. Justin Masterson(notes), who throws his turbosinker four of every five pitches and entered the year incapable of getting out left-handed hitters, is 5-2 with a 2.50 ERA. And the bullpen, from Tony Sipp(notes) to Joe Smith(notes) to Vinnie Pestano(notes) to Rafael Perez(notes) to closer Chris Perez(notes), has been implacable.
"Great pitchers do not fall out of the sky," Acta says. "They develop, they come on, they put themselves up there. We have a staff with guys who are doing that this year. It's the right age, the right time to take a step forward. We were optimistic that they weren't going to regress."
Players love that about Acta – the attitude, the swagger. He balances bruising honesty with nurturing sensibilities. He doesn't panic after losses like the 14-2 whitewashing by Boston on Wednesday. He stood by Masterson amid concern that his stuff would play better as a right-handed relief specialist, "and I appreciate that," Masterson says. "I'd say it's worked out pretty good for everyone." Acta pulls struggling players into his office and gives them straight-up assessments because he trusts them and they trust him.
"He called me into the office in Philadelphia [with the Nationals]," says outfielder Austin Kearns(notes), the lone holdover from the D.C. days. "We were talking about hitting. I was scuffling pretty bad. He said: 'Look, you've got to make an adjustment. You're terrible right now.' He puts it right out there. He's a great person, but that doesn't make him soft as a manager."
It just makes him sensitive. Acta hates hearing chatter that this is some mirage, that the Indians are going to tank any day. Asdrubal Cabrera's(notes) breakout is real. Shin-Soo Choo(notes) is finally hitting. Sizemore could be back from the DL on Friday, and if Travis Hafner(notes) returns from a strained oblique before the All-Star break, that can only help. Perhaps the ligament in rookie Alex White's(notes) injured middle finger will heal in time for the stretch run.
If the Indians are still in it by then, it will only vindicate Acta. He wanted his players to know one more thing in that meeting, a maxim that goes not only for his team but others in Cleveland's situation: "Just because you have a low payroll and you're young doesn't mean you're rebuilding. It just means you don't have the resources and that you're young."
He's got an addendum today.
"It doesn't make your success any less real."
- Manny Acta