July 22, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Lack of hitting vs. Red Sox still stings Indians

VERMILION — The last time we saw the Indians, they were walking meekly off the field after the end of their season.
They were outscored 30-5 as they blew a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead to the Red Sox in the ALCS. One more win, and the Tribe would’ve taken down the Colorado Rockies for its first World Series title since 1948.
Indians fans are still waiting for that one more win.
Starting pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona took much of the heat for the collapse. Sabathia, the Cy Young winner, couldn’t finish off Boston in Game 5 at Jacobs Field, then Carmona crumbled in the pressure-cooker of Fenway Park in Game 6.
But Tribe hitters deserved to share the blame. Casey Blake was the only regular to hit .300 versus the Red Sox, and he ended the Tribe’s hopes in the seventh inning of Game 7 by hitting into a first-pitch double play with runners on, then making an error in the bottom of the inning.
He wasn’t alone in the misery.
Designated hitter Travis Hafner hit .186 in the playoffs, .148 versus Boston. Franklin Gutierrez hit .207 and Asdrubal Cabrera .217 in the postseason. Grady Sizemore hit .222 in the ALCS.
“I don’t know what happened,” Gutierrez said Thursday at German’s Villa during the Tribe’s winter press tour. “Maybe guys were pressing and trying to do too much.”
Three months later, hitting coach Derek Shelton is still coming to grips with the failure.
“It’s still there,” he said. “Until the first game of the year, it’s always going to be there.”
Although Shelton didn’t watch film of the Red Sox series until after New Year’s Day, he thinks the failure will help in the new season.
“Tremendously. Anytime you can get playoff experience is good,” he said. “And we did it in two very harsh environments.”
The equipment trucks leave for Florida any day. Pitchers and catchers will report Feb. 14. The Grapefruit League seasonwill start March 1.
The press tour is designed to generate excitement for the 2008 season. But that’s impossible without taking a look back at 2007 — even its disappointing end.
While Shelton was restricted to the dugout while his pupils struck out or popped up, he had something in common with most of them: a lack of postseason experience. Kenny Lofton was the only regular who’d ever played in October.
Anyone wanting proof that experience matters in the playoffs need only look at the Tribe’s three-game slump to end its run, or the performances of Boston pitchers Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling in Games 5 and 6. Shelton wouldn’t admit that inexperience hurt the Tribe, but he acknowledged it plays a role.
“You learn every pitch in the postseason is the most important pitch,” he said. “It should be like that every day, but in the postseason it really is. The biggest thing you take out of it is that when there is a mistake made, you have to capitalize on it.”
Shelton enters under the microscope. While the pitching staff looks strong and deep with seven possible starters and Masahide Kobayashi bolstering the bullpen, the lineup is questionable.
As Detroit added Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria to re-establish itself as favorite in the Central Division, the Indians added Jamey Carroll.
Who? He’s a 5-foot-9, 170-pound utility infielder from Colorado.
The Indians also failed to add a power bat in the outfield (Jason Bay, anyone?), which means David Dellucci and Jason Michaels will platoon in left field and Gutierrez is the de facto right fielder.
“It doesn’t affect our approach at all,” Shelton said of the moves by the rest of the league. “We’re going to have our game plan regardless of what anyone else does. It’s not a game of Battleship.”
But it is a game of power. So the Indians need Hafner, who slumped to a .266 average with “only” 24 home runs, to return to form. He is the only true big bopper in the lineup.
“Travis Hafner is going to bounce back. He’s going to have a good year,” Shelton said.
He better be right. The road back to the playoffs is paved with potholes, and the Indians must be at full strength to complete the journey.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.