With a weekremaining last season, the Indians appeared poised to win the AL wild card.They were a half game up on the Red Sox with an enticing schedule in front ofthem: one game at Kansas City and six at home, three each against the DevilRays and the White Sox, who had already clinched the Central title. With a37--12 record since the start of August, the Tribe seemed destined to be amajor force in October. "They were the team nobody wanted to play,"says Paul Byrd, who pitched for the Angels last year before signing a two-year,$14.25 million free-agent deal with Cleveland in December.
Then it all cameapart in a 1--6 finish. In the game against the Royals, centerfielder GradySizemore lost a ball in the sun, allowing K.C.'s winning run to score. Theimmortal Seth McClung (6.59 ERA in 2005) threw a shutout for the Devil Rays,who took two of three from the Indians. And, despite resting several regulars,Chicago swept Cleveland. Over those final seven games the Indians scored 20runs and hit .227. The word choke filled the airwaves in Cleveland, butSizemore has a different explanation for the sudden collapse. "I'd chalk itup to inexperience," says Sizemore, who, at 23, is one of the Indians' 19players who are under the age of 25. "Maybe our downfall that last week wastrying too hard. But from being around the guys in this room all last year, Ican tell you we try hard every single game. I mean, if I don't get a hit in agame, I want to jump off the top of a building."
In 2005 Sizemore,shortstop Jhonny Peralta, 23, and DH Travis Hafner, 28, emerged as three of thegame's best hitters at their positions. And the Indians tied the world championWhite Sox for the league's best ERA (3.61) while scoring 49 more runs thanChicago. But at the same time, the Indians averaged less than one sacrificeevery four games and succeeded on only 63% of their steal attempts. The WhiteSox, by contrast, excelled in those areas, which helps explain why Chicago took14 of its 19 meetings against Cleveland, including nine of 10 at Jacobs Field.The two teams played nine one-run games, all of which the White Sox won; forthe season the Indians set a franchise record with 36 one-run losses.
Therefore, duringthe spring Cleveland focused on such things as bunting, stealing bases andadvancing runners. "Eric addressed it with us right away," says Hafnerof manager Eric Wedge's extra attention to smallball. "When we're notscoring seven, eight runs a game, we've got to be able to manufactureruns."
And that has tostart with Sizemore, a handsome, graceful, 6'2", 200-pound native ofSeattle, who became a matinee idol in Cleveland in his first full major leagueseason. (Swooning women wore T-shirts with mrs. sizemore on the front.) He isjust one example of the exceptional job fourth-year general manager MarkShapiro has done in mining young talent. Since his 2002 acquisition ofSizemore, lefthander Cliff Lee and Triple A second baseman Brandon Phillips forpitcher Bartolo Colon--a deal that laid the foundation for the Indians'renaissance--Shapiro has continued to stockpile first-rate prospects. Amongthose who could soon make a Sizemore-like impact are third baseman Andy Marte(On Deck), lefthanded starter Jeremy Sowers (14-4, 2.37 ERA in the minors in'05) and righty closer-of-the-future Fernando Cabrera (2-1, 1.47 ERA in 15appearances with the Indians).
While theiryouthfulness may have cost the Indians down the stretch last year, it also hasits benefits. Sitting with Sizemore, one can see why the club has so muchconfidence in him and is so excited about the seasons to come. He has a humbleaura and exudes a passion for the game that is unusual for someone of hisgeneration. Asked if he had been shocked by his success in his first season,Sizemore smiled and looked away, in an aw-shucks manner. "What'sshocking," he said, "is that I get to play baseball for a living. I getto come to the ballpark every day and do what I love most. I mean, look atthis. Look at my arm right now."
Sizemore'soutstretched left forearm was covered in goose bumps. "See," he said,"and we're just talking."
Last year CliffLee (18) and C.C. Sabathia (15) became the first pair of Indians lefties toeach win 15 games in the same season since Al Milnar (18) and Al Smith (15) didit in 1940.
a modest proposal
The Indians' eightevery-day position players averaged 146 games each last season, more than anyother team's except the Yankees' (148). Considering that Cleveland lost six ofits last seven games--and the Marlins, who ranked third in average games played(142), dropped 12 of 17 at the end of the year--Tribe manager Eric Wedge shouldconsider giving his regulars more days off during the season. Reserves such asEduardo Perez, 36, who hit 11 homers in 161 at bats for the Devil Rays lastyear, and Todd Hollandsworth, 32, (right) who has a career .275 average and.772 OPS, could help the Indians avoid another swoon.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
second in ALCentral
fourth season withCleveland
JASON MICHAELS[New acquisition]
EDUARDO PEREZ [Newacquisition]
KELLY SHOPPACH*(R) [New acquisition]
been thebest-fielding third baseman in every league he's been in."
PHIL MASTURZO/AKRON BEACON JOURNAL/KRT/ABACA
20 SOMETHING Sizemore, 23, was the only major leaguer to have 20 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in '05.
JOHN IACONO (HOLLANDSWORTH)
MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (MARTE)