3:29 PM CDT, May 25, 2013
Zach McAllister didn't appear out of nowhere for the Indians last September at U.S. Cellular Field. He was making his 25th big-league start, but he looked too good to have a 4.56 ERA.
Turns out the six strong innings McAllister threw against the White Sox finishing up 2012 were no mirage. McAllister is pitching like a guy who has turned the corner, and he's on a team that has done the same thing.
With Terry Francona as manager, Sandy Alomar Jr. as bench coach and Brad Mills as the third base coach, the Indians have set a course that gives them the look of a serious contender in the American League Central for a long time.
The Indians' starting pitching isn't great. Far from it. But Justin Masterson and McAllister are turning into a 1-2 combination that should provide time for Trevor Bauer to develop and for general manager Chris Antonetti to import an arm better than Ubaldo Jimenez, the failed 2011 addition.
Good first halves are nothing new for the Indians. But with additions such as Francona, Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher, along with the development of Masterson and McAllister, these aren't the same Indians that faded after 47-42 and 44-41 records at the All-Star break the last two seasons.
You could see their fade coming a year ago.
While they were only three games behind the White Sox in a tepid Central race as the Tigers ran in place, they had a minus-29 run differential in the first half. That ranked 10th in the AL, and their record would slide from seventh best to second worst during the 24-53 nightmare after the All-Star break.
This time around, it appears they are built to last as wild-card contenders, if not a serious threat to the Tigers. They entered the weekend with a plus-28 run differential, behind only the Tigers and Rangers in the AL. They had winning records at home and on the road and were on pace to top 90 victories with ease.
Significantly, a manager who has won two World Series is their guide. Francona's standing in the game was clear when he returned to Fenway Park on Thursday night. He was given a scoreboard greeting that read "Welcome back to our old friend.''
So much for all the antipathy that has gone in other directions since Cubs President Theo Epstein and he left after the Red Sox's stunning September collapse in 2011.
Francona's teams don't back down from challenges. His 2004 Red Sox became the first major league team to recover from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series, and his '07 Red Sox won seven games in a row after falling behind the Indians 3-1 in the ALCS.
The Indians have been at their best this season against their toughest competition. They already have faced eight Cy Young winners, and they have beaten all of them except Jake Peavy.
Justin Verlander needed run support to get an 11-7 victory Wednesday after the Indians beat the Tigers ace 7-6 earlier in May. Toss in victories over R.A. Dickey, David Price, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Bartolo Colon and Felix Hernandez, and the Indians have gone 7-2 against Cy Young winners.
Here's the most impressive stat: The Indians have hung that Who's Who of starters with a combined 8.29 ERA in those nine starts, becoming the first team ever to beat seven Cy Young winners before June.
"We've been able to do that because we all have a good approach,'' outfielder Michael Brantley said. "We make those guys work hard and throw a lot of pitches."
The Indians have used eight starting pitchers, who have combined for a 4.52 ERA. Scott Kazmir is getting a chance to establish himself, and Daisuke Matsuzaka waits in the wings for a shot this summer.
Antonetti could be in the market for Matt Garza or even Peavy two months from now. It's going to be an interesting ride.
Welcome back: Chicagoan Neal Cotts appeared blocked by the other lefties in the Rangers' bullpen, but GM Jon Daniels decided he was throwing too well to overlook. He retired nine of the 10 hitters he faced Tuesday and Wednesday, making an impressive comeback after being out of the big leagues for four seasons.
Cotts last pitched with the Cubs on May 25, 2009, and since then has undergone Tommy John surgery and three procedures on his hip. His low point came when the Yankees signed him before the 2012 season and then voided his contract based on a spring training physical.
He could have quit then, but the Rangers signed him based on reports from Chicago-based scout Scot Engler, who had watched him work out. A.J. Pierzynski caught Cotts, just like he had in the 2005 World Series.
Pierzynski noted that Cotts has become more of a pitcher than in those days, when he could overpower hitters with his mid-90s fastball.
"His stuff is similar in that he's sneaky and it gets in on hitters,'' he told the Dallas Morning News. "But he does throw more off-speed. He's getting guys on cutters and sliders, which he never used to throw. He was 95, 96 back then and he's 91, 92 now. But that's fine. He has been gone so long that people have forgotten how good he was.''
Gone, not forgotten: How important is it to have an ace like Zack Greinke? While Ryan Braun didn't name Greinke, he made it clear he felt a lot better about the Brewers' 2012 team that included Greinke than the current one that entered the weekend having lost 16 of its last 20 games.
"It has been pretty terrible, miserable," Braun said. "It's no fun playing like this. We're barely even competitive."
The Brewers weren't much better at this time last year, but Braun says he felt differently.
"Last year, there was hope," he said. "This year is miserable. We have to win some games so we can feel good about ourselves again."
The Brewers entered the weekend last in the NL with a 5.28 ERA from their rotation.
Pushing it: Jim Riggleman still wonders if he leaned on Kerry Wood too hard in 1998, although he knows the Cubs wouldn't have gone to the playoffs if he hadn't. Fredi Gonzalez knows the feeling.
The Braves' manager is under the gun after a run of Tommy John surgeries to Atlanta pitchers, including seven in the last five years at the big league level. He has been on the job since Bobby Cox retired after the 2010 season and contributed directly to the usage of Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, who have fallen victim the last two years.
Venters made an NL-high 85 appearances in 2011 and 79 more last season. O'Flaherty appeared in 78 games in 2011, when he had an 0.98 ERA. The Braves' collapse down the stretch two years ago admittedly has caused Gonzalez to be more judicious in using his top relievers, but he wonders now if the damage was done.
"That's a good question I keep asking myself,'' Gonzalez told Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "I mean, (O'Flaherty's number of appearances) aren't crazy. You could have an argument with Jonny. But (O'Flaherty's) numbers were OK, appearance-wise. … I am a believer, the more I'm in this, you have a certain amount of bullets, and when it's time to blow, it blows.''
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