COMMENTARY | After completing a thrilling four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners on May 20 that included three walkoff wins and a shutout, the Cleveland Indians had won 18 of their last 22 games. The Tribe had gone from last place on April 28, 5 games off the lead in the American League Central, to first place by 2 1/2 games over the Detroit Tigers.
The team and fans alike were riding high with the Tigers coming to town for two games, hoping to keep the good times rolling.
Back down to earth
The first game proved the adage that good pitching beats good hitting. After the Indians jumped on Max Scherzer for a run on two hits in the first inning, Scherzer clamped down and retired the next 22 Cleveland batters. Indians starter Corey Kluber pitched well until surrendering two home runs in the sixth, and Detroit went on to a 5-1 win.
In the second game, Ubaldo Jimenez returned to his ineffective ways (4.0 IP, 6 R, 7 H, 3 BB), and the bullpen didn't fare any better. The Tigers built a seven-run lead, and endured two Indians rallies and two rain delays before finally winning 11-7.
The brief two-game series with the Tigers was the last meeting the Indians have with an AL Central foe until June 7, when they return to Detroit for another three-game set. In the meantime, the schedule doesn't get any easier, with visits to Boston, Cincinnati and the New York Yankees wrapped around home dates against Cincinnati and Tampa Bay.
Divisional games very important
With the two losses to the Tigers, the Indians will finish May with a 9-8 record within the division, 2-3 against Detroit. Although the poor showing didn't help the Indians or encourage the fans, the schedule will bring plenty more opportunities for the Tribe to make waves in the AL Central.
Major League Baseball has been operating under an unbalanced schedule for several years, and the Houston Astros' move from the National League this year has made the schedule even more unbalanced. The Indians will play 76 of their 162 games this season within the division, with 19 games each against the Tigers, Royals, White Sox and Twins. After June 7, nearly 60 percent of their schedule will be within the division.
To date, after a 12-3 win over the Red Sox on May 23, the Indians are 18-11 outside of the division, including 3-1 against the NL, 5-9 against the AL East, and 10-1 against the AL West. The Tribe need to have continued success outside the division to stay in contention for a playoff spot and with the strength of the AL East, it seems that Cleveland's most likely path to the postseason would be to win their division. The Royals and White Sox have not been as competitive as many thought they would be, and the Twins are starting to live down to expectations, which puts the Indians in a position to seize control over the coming months.
2007 playoff spot won by dominating in division
A look at Cleveland's last AL Central championship shows just how important it is to win games within the division. In 2007, the Indians finished at 96-66, 8 games ahead of second-place Detroit. Outside the division, Cleveland was only 6 games over .500 at 48-42. The Indians rose to the top of the division because of the strong showing they had against all the AL Central teams. Overall the Indians went 48-24, including a 12-6 record against Detroit. They also turned it up late in the season, going 13-6 in August and 13-4 in September within the division.
The script for the 2013 season is still being written, but the scene is set. The Indians have 14 more games with the Tigers, the last of which is on September 1, and they play their last 20 games of the season against the Royals, Twins, White Sox, and the hapless Astros. If the team can maintain a consistent starting pitching staff, keep the bats hot, and take care of business against the Tigers and the rest of the AL Central, there is every reason to believe the playoffs are within reach.
Matthew Frame is a lifelong resident of northeast Ohio, a baseball enthusiast, and a freelance writer. He has also been published locally in the Canton Repository.
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