Fits And Starts For heavy-hitting Cleveland to catch the division-leading Twins, its erratic rotation has to stop throwing away wins

July 22, 2001

When it comes to aces, the Cleveland Indians don't even pretend
to be playing with a full deck anymore. The franchise that
hasn't had a perennial elite starter since Gaylord Perry was
lubricating baseballs in the 1970s has lowered its expectations
for members of its rotation. Such is the Indians' offensive
prowess that mediocrity will suffice. "We need two or three guys
to give us six innings every time out and the other two to give
us five innings," Cleveland assistant general manager Mark
Shapiro said last Friday, in the midst of his team's taking two
of three games from the Cincinnati Reds at Cinergy Field.
"That's all. If that happens, this club will be fine."

The Indians play a brand of ball usually associated with beer
kegs on the bases. At week's end they led the American League in
batting (.290), ranked second in runs (512, or nearly 5.8 per
game) and boasted the league's two leading hitters, rightfielder
Juan Gonzalez and second baseman Roberto Alomar (each .353); its
leading home run hitter, first baseman Jim Thome (27); and, in
Gonzalez, its leading Triple Crown threat. (Between his average,
his 25 homers and his league-high 87 RBIs, he was two homers away
from leading in all three categories.) Despite all that pop
Cleveland, with its $93 million payroll, was five games behind
the Central Division-leading Minnesota Twins, whose payroll was
about one fourth of the Tribe's. The most obvious explanation is
that the Indians' rotation hasn't even achieved mediocrity.

After a 5-3 loss to the Houston Astros at Enron Field on Sunday,
Cleveland's starters ranked last in the league in innings pitched
(5.39 per game) and 11th in ERA (5.41). The Indians would be even
worse off if not for C.C. Sabathia, a 21-year-old rookie
lefthander (8-3, 4.48 ERA) with the perpetually sunny disposition
of a lottery winner. Sabathia is so young that he idolized Ken
Griffey Jr. growing up, calls his mom every day and spent the
All-Star break riding roller coasters at an amusement park. "It
was cool," he says.

Pitching coach Dick Pole, still smarting from last season when
Cleveland used a major-league-record 32 pitchers, says, "The
bullpen [3.12 ERA, second best in the league] has been great, but
with the workload it's gotten, you don't want to wind up with
corpses out there in September."

Shapiro says he and general manager John Hart, who will yield his
duties to Shapiro after this season, decided that "the first 10
games out of the All-Star break are very important. That's two
times around the rotation and lets us know where we stand at the
July 31 trading deadline." On cue, and with assistance from a
tame Cincinnati club, the Indians began the nominal second half
with starters Bartolo Colon, Sabathia and Dave Burba each
pitching into the seventh inning, a three-game streak not seen
from the rotation since May 1.

Alas, just when Cleveland seemed to find cruise control--last
Saturday the Tribe was up 5-0 and eight outs from a sweep of the
Reds--another warning light flashed, this one set off by closer
John Rocker. After righty Burba and the bullpen blew the lead in
the seventh inning, an erratic Rocker lost the game 6-5 in the
13th. It was the third defeat in only eight Cleveland appearances
for Rocker, who was acquired in a June 22 trade with the Atlanta
Braves. One Indians source described Rocker as "a classic
top-stepper," a baseball term for a pitcher who causes his
manager and staff to watch anxiously from the top step of the
dugout. Indeed, through Sunday, Rocker had allowed 14 runners and
four runs, all earned, in 8 1/3 innings with Cleveland.

"Taking two out of three is a good start toward turning this
around," Burba said after the defeat. "The way Minnesota
[victorious in 15 of 19 at week's end] is playing, we've got to
win each series to have a chance." The 35-year-old righthander,
who allowed two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings, called his effort
"an ego booster," following a horrendous seven-start stretch in
which he threw only 33 innings, gave up 32 earned runs and won
once. "It's like moving to the back nine after a bad front nine,"
said Burba, who lowered his ERA to a still-robust 6.22. "It feels
like you're starting over."

Likewise, after a 6-7 first half, Colon opened with seven shutout
innings in a 7-0 win last Thursday. In 1997 Colon, then 22, and
fellow righthander Jaret Wright, 21, were the Indians' aces in
the making, with fastballs that nearly hit 100 mph. Cleveland
figured one of them, or perhaps both, could become the team's
first 20-game winner since Perry went 21-13 in 1974. (Only the
Anaheim Angels, who have not had a pitcher win 20 since Nolan
Ryan in '74, have waited as long for a 20-game winner.)

The vigil goes on. Wright's development has been stunted by
injuries, the latest being weakness in his surgically repaired
right shoulder that put him on the shelf at Triple A Buffalo.
While Colon did win 18 games in 1999, he hasn't become a staff
leader because of his stubborn insistence on throwing fastballs
as hard as he can. He is a voracious reader of scoreboard
pitch-speed displays. "In some ways he was more of a pitcher in
[1995 at Class A] Kinston [N.C.], where he sat at 92, 93 mph and
could go get 98 when he wanted to," says Shapiro. "He still has
the ability to be a Number 1 starter. But even if he's not one,
he gives you a chance to win every time he's out there. Now,
though, he still needs Chuck Finley [to take some of the pressure
off him]."

The lefty Finley is 38. At week's end he was 4-4 with a 6.45 ERA
and hadn't pitched since June 25 because of an inflamed disk in
his neck and a knot in his left shoulder. The Indians expect him
back this week, when he is likely to replace either of two
righthanders, 34-year-old Charles Nagy (3-3, 6.25 ERA) or
23-year-old Jake Westbrook (2-1, 3.60) in the rotation.

Surprisingly, Sabathia has become as reliable as any Cleveland
starter. Using a 97-mph fastball, a deceptive changeup and a
biting breaking ball that he learned from Pole in spring
training, Sabathia last Friday went 6 2/3 innings in a 5-1 win
over the Reds, allowing four hits and becoming the first
Cleveland rookie in seven years to strike out 11 batters in a
game. Only three years ago the Indians used their first-round
pick, the 20th overall, to draft him out of Vallejo (Calif.)
High, for which he pitched, played first base and was a star
tight end.

"As good as he is, the grades I gave him for makeup and character
were higher than his talent grades," says Paul Cogan, 43, the
area scout who signed Sabathia. "There are talented guys who
don't quite have the character, and there are guys with character
who are a little short on talent. But C.C. is Number 1 alltime
for me as far as combining talent and character."

Says Shapiro, "It's rare when the best player on the team is also
the best person. That's how much we think of C.C."

Sabathia was named after his father, Carsten Charles Sabathia.
That turned out to be too much of a mouthful for his grandmother,
who started calling him C.C. when he was six months old. The
nickname stuck. He grew to be 6'7" and a rather lumpy 250 pounds
as a high school senior. (He weighs a slightly firmer 260 now.)
"Other teams might have been concerned about his body type, but
you could see he was a good athlete." Cogan says. "As a hitter he
had the most raw power I've ever seen in a prospect."

Sabathia signed quickly with Cleveland. His deal--which included a
$1.3 million up-front bonus--was negotiated by his mother, Margie,
a switchboard operator who raised him as a single mom after she
and her husband separated when C.C. was 12. "It's tough to put
into words what my mom means to me," Sabathia says. "She's more
like my best friend or a big sister. I still talk to her every
night, twice on the days I pitch. My first time away from home, I
was in [Rookie League] Burlington, N.C., and I was so lonely I
wanted to quit and come back home. One day I spent $88 just on
phone calls, calling my mom and friends."

Sabathia rose quickly through the Indians' system. This season,
exceeding Hart's expectations, he pitched himself onto the major
league club with an impressive spring training. Through Sunday he
led all American League rookies in wins and smiles. Cleveland is
convinced that his success--he had given up only one home run in
his past eight starts, and the Indians were 12-6 when he
pitched--is partly due to his cheery outlook. "I always tell him,
'C.C., you're going to live to be a hundred. You have no blood
pressure,'" Cogan says.

Adds second-year Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel, "He doesn't
say a lot, but he's very self-assured and doesn't get rattled. He
stays cool, man."

Manuel is a cheery character himself, a 57-year-old with a thick
Virginia drawl and a knack for bludgeoning syntax. Think of a
Southern Yogi. Among Manuel's pearls this season have been, "I'll
tackle that bridge when I get to it," and "If I'm going to use
Wil [Cordero], I've got to start using him," and "When Russell
[Branyan] is striking out, he's missing the ball a lot," and
"Sometimes people don't see what they are seeing."

Manuel used less humorous phrasing to tear into his club in a
July 8 meeting following a 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals,
the Tribe's final game before the All-Star break and another
Rocker defeat. Without using names, Manuel accused some players
of not giving their all. (At the time he didn't know that Rocker
had flown to Atlanta the night before to attend a Black Sabbath
concert; Manuel later said he did not object to the overnight
sojourn.) After the outburst Manuel spent a quiet vacation in
Ohio's Amish country--particularly quiet because none of the local
television stations carried the All-Star Game.

The second half began tidily enough for Manuel until Saturday. In
the 12th inning he summoned Rocker, who loaded the bases. Only a
powerful throw home by Gonzalez to complete a double play
prevented a run from scoring. The reliever wasn't as fortunate in
the 13th, which he began by hitting pinch hitter Jason LaRue.
Rocker got into deeper trouble by making a throwing error on a
bunt by Kelly Stinnett and then surrendering a four-pitch walk to
Juan Castro (a .204 hitter). Ruben Rivera followed with a
game-winning sacrifice fly.

Hart says he traded relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed to get
Rocker only after canvassing several players on the volatile
lefty. Hart says he received unanimous support for the deal.
Alomar, whom Manuel consulted regarding the trade, says, "I told
the manager, 'You do what you think you need to do. If you think
he can help the team, you do what you think is right.'"

The trick for Rocker will be to assimilate in midstream into a
multiethnic team and a heretofore reliable bullpen. By week's end
he had been relegated to co-closer with righty Bob Wickman, whom
he had initially displaced. "His control, that's the big
problem," Manuel says of Rocker. "He's got to throw strikes. He
may need a settling-in period. I'm not going to give up on him."

Rocker, a notorious talker when he's in the mood, told a
Cleveland official after the Saturday-afternoon game that he had
nothing to say to the media. He dressed without a teammate's
speaking to him, then sat alone clipping his fingernails as the
clubhouse emptied. "You have to get a feel for how can you
approach him," Burba said. "I haven't been around him enough to
have that comfort to say something to him."

Rocker, dressed in a black sport coat and black shirt open at the
collar, left the clubhouse alone and continued unaccompanied down
a long concrete tunnel to the team bus. Everyone but Alomar was
already on board. The second half officially was in motion for
the Indians. They were bound for Houston and, beyond that, only
as far as their pitching would allow.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON Festive Bunting Shortstop Omar Vizquel of the Indians (page 36) lays down a bunt during a 13-inning, 6-5 loss to the Reds in Cincinnati. [Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Young reliable The towering Sabathia, 21, has become Cleveland's steadiest starter. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Dealing smack Thumpers like Thome continue to chase Tribe table setters like Omar Vizquel (left, scoring) across the plate. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Rocker 'n' roller In his first three weeks as an Indian, raucous Rocker rang up two saves, three losses and one concert appearance.

Shell Shocked

Although the struggles of closer John Rocker (above) have been
making most of the headlines lately, starting pitching has been
the Indians' biggest weakness this season. At week's end seven of
the eight pitchers Cleveland had used as starters (all except
rookie Jake Westbrook) had endured at least one early shelling,
defined here as a start in which the pitcher had surrendered five
or more runs in five or fewer innings. In the American League
only the much-maligned Rangers staff had more poor-quality starts
than the Indians. --David Sabino

SHELLINGS PRIME OFFENDER
TEAM RECORD (SHELLINGS) HIS WORST PERFORMANCE

Rangers 24 5-19 Darren Oliver (5) 2 1/3IP, 7R, 6ER, 8H, 1BB

Indians 22 2-20 Dave Burba (5) 3 2/3IP, 8R, 8ER, 11H, 1BB

Devil 22 0-22 Bryan Rekar (6) 4IP, 10R, 8ER, 13H, 0 BB
Rays

Royals 20 2-18 Chad Durbin (5) 2 2/3IP, 7R, 7ER, 7H, 2BB

Tigers 19 3-16 Dave Mlicki (7)* 3 2/3IP, 7R, 7ER, 8H, 2BB

*Traded to the Astros on June 23

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)