April 20, 2014

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Indians had more ups than downs during the first half

They aren’t in first place, but it was nonetheless a successful first half for the Indians, who pulled into the All-Star break seven games over .500 and trailing two-time defending Central Division champion Detroit by just 1½ games. Their 51 wins accounted for the most prior to the break since 2007 — which, coincidentally or not, is Cleveland’s last playoff year.

The Indians were hit hard by injuries to a number of key players, including both of their two-time All-Stars — shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and closer Chris Perez — but marquee manager Terry “Tito” Francona’s team played well enough to stay afloat in the division race.

Now, they begin the second half still considered a significant underdog to wrestle the division title from a Tigers team stacked with talent from top to bottom.

But an underdog that has proven it is capable of at least playing meaningful games in September.

Best moment

Reversing course: After a hot start to the season — 18-4 from April 28 to May 20 — left them in first place, suspicion rose that the Indians were headed toward another second-half collapse when they went 4-16 from May 21 to June 10 to trail the Tigers by 5½ games. But Cleveland weathered the storm and won 15 of the next 20 games to track down Detroit and reclaim the lead in the division standings. At the very least, it proved the Indians were a different team than they were the past two years.

Honorable mention: Accomplishing a rare feat for a season let alone first half, the Indians beat seven different Cy Young Award winners — Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, David Price, R.A. Dickey and Bartolo Colon.

* Second baseman Jason Kipnis and starting pitcher Justin Masterson are named to the
All-Star team, with the Indians getting more than their obligatory one representative.

Worst moment

The Boston massacre: Tito’s first trip back to Boston was memorable, mostly in the forgettable fashion. Francona’s Indians, who were swept by the Red Sox in a three-game series in Cleveland (April 16-18), took the first game of the four-game set at Fenway Park (May 23-26), then got spanked 8-1 before losing the final two games in unimaginable ways. To make matters worse, Perez is injured in the series finale and heads to the disabled list.

Honorable mention: Right-hander Zach McAllister got off to a nice start in his first year as a fulltime member of the rotation, then sustained a right finger injury that has thrown his season into jeopardy.

* While on the injured list, Perez is charged with possession of a controlled substance.

Best player

Second baseman Jason Kipnis: After getting off to a slow start at the plate, Kipnis caught fire and played himself into the All-Star Game, thanks in large part to a torrid month of June that saw him hit .419 with four home runs and 25 RBIs. He carried that into the break as the Indians only .300 hitter (.301) and the team leader in pretty much every offensive category, including RBIs (57), hits (96), runs (53) and on-base percentage (.383).

Honorable mention: Left fielder Michael Brantley, starting pitcher Justin Masterson.

Worst player

Starting pitcher Brett Myers: There’s no real debate here. The Indians paid the veteran right-hander a whopping $7 million to hold down the No. 3 spot in the rotation and he’s given them close to nothing — 0-3, 8.02 ERA in four appearances. On the disabled list now with a lingering elbow issue and rehabbing as a reliever, the Indians will be fortunate if Myers never returns.

Honorable mention: Relief pitcher Rich Hill, relief pitcher Nick Hagadone.

Biggest surprise

Starting pitcher Corey Kluber: Recovering from offseason knee surgery, the right-hander didn’t even make the team out of spring training. At the break, he might have been the best the Indians had to offer out of the rotation, going 7-5 with a 3.88 ERA in 17 appearances (15 starts). No one saw this coming from Kluber.

Honorable mention: Starting pitcher Scott Kazmir, outfielder Ryan Raburn.

Biggest disappointment

Right fielder Nick Swisher: The Indians’ marquee offseason free-agent acquisition has been hampered by shoulder issues from the start and he hasn’t been terrible. Still, a .242 batting average, nine homers and 31 RBIs isn’t cutting it for a guy signed to a four-year, $56 million contract, and certainly not the type of production the Indians were looking for from their Ohio-loving cleanup hitter.

Honorable mention: Relief pitcher Vinnie Pestano, third baseman Mark Reynolds.

Second-half keys

Relief recovery: Cleveland’s bullpen, one of the best in the big leagues the past two seasons, was surprisingly a weakness, with pretty much every member struggling at times, including the proven trio of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez. That can’t continue in the second half if the Indians hope to contend for their first playoff spot since 2007. An unreliable bullpen almost always catches up to you at some point and it hasn’t cost Cleveland dearly … yet.

Solid starters: The Indians’ rotation wasn’t spectacular but there were more bright spots than bad ones, with Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber, for the most part, giving the team a chance to win. Cleveland has proven it can hit and score runs. The Indians need their starting pitchers to hold their first-half form and keep them in the game.

Easy trek? One would think the Indians’ schedule over the remaining two months of the season benefits a potential playoff run. Cleveland plays 39 games against teams under .500 at this point, a span which includes its final 23 against the likes of the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins — two of whom currently hold down last place in their respective divisions. If the Indians can’t take advantage of the soft schedule, they aren’t a postseason contender.

Clubhouse chemistry: The Indians have a veteran manager outside a veteran clubhouse, two of the reasons many credit them for being able to shake off an extended first-half dry spell that could have sent a different team with a different makeup into a tailspin. Both will be key down the stretch.

Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him @CAwesomeheimer on Twitter.