KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Inside the Cleveland Indians clubhouse, they talk in the future tense. The past is too tender and the present, after the latest indignity Sunday, too sad.
For the second straight day, the Indians lost to the Kansas City Royals, this time 6-1. The same Royals who, the prior evening, had snapped a 12-game losing streak. Only six teams this decade had suffered through worse funks, though if the offensively enfeebled Royals were to get right against anyone, the equally impotent Indians fit like a batting glove.
So there is a lot of will in the Indians. Literally.
"You've just got to believe we will get it going," first baseman Ryan Garko said. "We will."
"We will find it," manager Eric Wedge said.
"At some point, it will turn around," catcher Victor Martinez said. "You will see. It will happen."
The baseball season is nearly at its one-third pole, and though disappointment abounds – from Seattle to both of New York's baseball boroughs to Colorado to Detroit – the greatest may reside in Cleveland, where the Indians, one game from advancing to the World Series last year instead of eventual champion Boston, are 25-31 despite possessing baseball's best starting rotation.
Part of the blame lands on Cleveland's bullpen, which, with a 4.49 earned-run average, ranks second worst in the major leagues. Most of it, however, goes to the hitting, a mystery that might be called a whodunit if the answer wasn't so obvious.
Uh, pretty much everyone.
Only two Indians hitters exceed the major league average on-base-plus slugging of .735: Grady Sizemore (.859), whose power loses some of its jolt from the leadoff spot, and Jhonny Peralta (.750), whose sub-.300 on-base percentage negates much of his value anyway. Aside from those two, the Indians are a cast of disappointments (Garko, Asdrubal Cabrera, Franklin Gutierrez), head-scratchers (Martinez, homerless and playing like he's injured, and Travis Hafner, who was punchless before he landed on the disabled list) and straight-up bums (Andy Marte and since-traded Jason Michaels).
Last season, the Indians scored 811 runs, six of their regulars with a better-than-league-average OPS. These Indians are on pace for 654, and no starting pitching can overcome that.
"It's weird," Garko said. "You can understand if it's in the cold weather, but the weather's getting better, and the results are staying the same. You've got to have faith. Most guys in here have a pretty good track record. It's the same team that went deep in the playoffs last year."
As perplexed as anyone is Derek Shelton. He's the Indians' hitting coach and resident scapegoat. When he replaced Eddie Murray in the middle of the 2005 season, Indians hitters underwent a renaissance. The next season they ranked second in the major leagues in runs scored. Last year, no one saw anything wrong with the Cleveland offense.
And now? Shelton might as well be Art Modell.
"I don't think anybody foresaw it," Shelton said. "It's a different year. Baseball's a funny game."
Sure is, though Cleveland sees no humor in its current situation. Paul Byrd, the losing pitcher Sunday, said the Indians "need to turn it around right away." While it's not quite that dire – the White Sox, who lead the American League Central, so enraged manager Ozzie Guillen on Sunday that after a loss he requested wholesale changes – there comes a point at which seasons crumble.
The good news: Cleveland plays only four games against teams with records over .500 this month. The bad news: 16 of the 28 games come on the road, where the Indians are 9-15.
Wedge can do his best 45 EP impersonation, repeating that the Indians swung well and were victims of good defense, but at some point those balls must start landing. They do for good teams.
And with Cliff Lee poised to start the All-Star Game, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook dealing before their trips to the DL, Aaron Laffey a revelation since his recall and C.C. Sabathia looking more like his Cy Young self after a miserable start, the Indians should be a good team.
Yet here they are, at the beginning of the season's third month, not only struggling to find a reliable closer – please spare any Joe Borowski nonsense – but seemingly required by law to lock up their bats late in games, too. From the seventh inning on, the Indians are hitting .202, the game's worst batting average, and before his home run off Royals starter Brian Bannister on Sunday, Sizemore had one extra-base hit in the latter third of his 51 games, a double.
Garko said numbers are numbers, and they're bound to even out. And maybe he's right. Perhaps this is an aberration and the Indians will roar back and render moot two months of struggle.
"I feel like these guys are starting to come," Wedge said. "This is the fight. This is where you can't give into it."
The Indians choose to address such issues in the future tense, though rather than doing so in the affirmative, it might be more accurate to state in the interrogatory.