COMMENTARY| As the Major League Baseball season hits the quarter-pole, the Cleveland Indians have no doubt been one of the surprises of the early season. At 23-17, the Indians are currently tied with the Detroit Tigers for first place in the American League Central, having won 15 of their last 19 games after an 8-13 start to the 2013 campaign. Do the Indians have the firepower to keep pace with the Tigers, or has the month of May just been an oasis of wins in what will eventually become a desert of losses?
Here are five reasons the Tribe can shock baseball and prevent a third straight division crown for the Motor City Kitties:
This Team Can Hit: With the exception of stolen bases, the Indians rank among the top ten in Major League baseball in every single major offensive category, including a league-leading OPS of .791. A case can be made for first baseman Mark Reynolds as an early MVP candidate, with his 11 home runs and 34 RBI leading the team in both categories. After a slow start, second baseman Jason Kipnis has been torrid in May, belting 6 home runs and knocking in 19 runs with still two weeks left in the month. The Indians currently have 11 players over double-digits in runs batted in, which is also tops in the big leagues thus far. This consistency across the board makes any part of the batting order a threat, and opposing pitchers have been relatively unsuccessful keeping the Indians lineup in check so far this season.
The Offseason Moves Are Working: Much was made here in Cleveland over the winter with what seemed like the umpteenth rebuilding process in the last decade. Most fans felt this was the last chance Team President Mark Shapiro would receive to turn around the fortunes of the Tribe. So far, so good. New Manager Terry Francona has brought a professional attitude in his leadership of this young team, secure in the knowledge he has brought teams to the pinnacle of this sport twice in his career. As mentioned earlier, Reynolds is putting up terrific numbers. Outfielder Nick Swisher, a native Ohioan, has already become a fan favorite, and his veteran leadership is invaluable to this group. Highly touted young pitcher Trevor Bauer has fared well in limited action, posting a 2.76 ERA. This roster has a lot of names not familiar to the casual Indians fan, but so far that has not been a bad thing.
The Pitching Has Been No Slouch, Either: The Indians current ERA of 3.95 is near the lower rungs of the MLB rankings in the category, but looking beyond that, there is more than meets the eye. The Tribe have tossed five shutouts this year, and the bullpen ERA of 2.98 is currently second in the American League. Much of the talk of the pitching staff here in Cleveland has centered around Justin Masterson, who is 6-2 with a 3.14 ERA. Not to be forgotten, though, is Zach McAllister who possesses an ERA of 2.68. The much-maligned Ubaldo Jimenez has been pitching well recently, bringing much-needed depth to the starting rotation. The 1-2-3 punch of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez are continuing where they left off last year, pitching well at the end of games to seal victories. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have become another pair of reliable arms out the pen, ensuring that the Indians are not a team you want to trail in the late innings.
Fan Apathy=Motivation:There is just no way of sugarcoating it, the glory days of 455 straight sellouts at Jacobs Field are a distant memory. As the Jake became Progressive Field, attendance went from reasonable to mediocre to flashbacks of old Cleveland Stadium in a hurry. Attendance is so dismal that earlier this month relief pitcher Frank Herrmann chided the fanbase on Twitter and personally gave away tickets to a game, which inspired teammate Josh Tomlin and even Shapiro to follow suit. The Indians are a major league team with minor league attendance, but Shapiro has been around long enough to know if the team is winning, the fans will come. I believe this group is tough enough to look to the sparse crowds as motivation to keep winning, and come August and September will reap the rewards of double the attendance.
The Six-Year Rule: In 1995, the Indians won 100 games and appeared in their first World Series in 41 years. Six years later, in 2001, they went 91-71, winning the AL Central. In 2007, after a six-year drought without a divisional crown, the Tribe won 96 games and advanced to the ALCS, narrowly losing to Francona's Red Sox. So here we are six years later in 2013, will history repeat itself once again? Indians faithful sure hope so.
Shaun Heidrick is a Yahoo! Contributor who has been an Indians fan for 25 years.
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