CLEVELAND — Getting swept in embarrassing fashion on their own turf by the dreaded New York Yankees, falling out of first place in the Central Division and playing poorly for the better part of the second half — the Indians have the opportunity to make amends for all of their previous evils over the next 10 days.
Beginning tonight at Jacobs Field, Cleveland will play five of its next eight games against defending AL champion Detroit, which shares the Central lead with the Indians after the Tigers lost 7-2 to Oakland on Monday night.
With a month and a half left in the regular season, it’s a span that could factor significantly in Cleveland’s bid for its first division title since 2001, and possibly in its postseason fate as a whole.
“These are some big games coming up,” said Indians third baseman Casey Blake, whose team enters the five-game fray with a 6-4 record against the Tigers. “This is a pretty important stretch for us. We need to get back to playing and having fun again. We could be 10 games out right now. We have to look at the positives.”
It hasn’t been much fun for the Indians, at least around the batting cage, where Cleveland hitters have undoubtedly spent tireless hours attempting to excavate themselves from a collective funk that has fueled a dismal 13-17 record since the All-Star break.
Over their last 20 games, the Indians are batting .234, while averaging 3.4 runs per game. They lead the league with 231 second-half strikeouts.
“There’s nothing we can do about it. You have to deal with it,” said Indians catcher Victor Martinez, who carried Cleveland’s offense for much of the season before slumping as of late (.197 last 21 games). “If it was easy, everybody would be hitting .500.
“We’re still a half-game (going into Monday) behind Detroit. There’s no panic yet.”
That’s the song the majority of those within the Indians organization have been crooning throughout the team’s current tailspin, justified only by the Tigers’ similar second-half futility — 13-18 — that has enabled Cleveland to stay in the division race.
But at least some of them are starting to feel a sense of urgency.
“We have to do something,” said starting pitcher Jake Westbrook. “I don’t know what we have to do but we have to figure it out. We have to get it going and we have to get it going now, especially with Detroit coming in.
“I still think we’re OK, but it’s our job to kick our own selves in the butt and get it going.”
“It’s important,” said Indians manager Eric Wedge of the stretch of games with the Tigers.
The struggles of the top two teams in the division have ensured that no ground has been made in the Central, where the Indians and Tigers — clubs drawing comparisons for their positive virtues in what was considered the best division in baseball — enter a two-game series in Cleveland sharing the negative light.
Detroit has won two straight, but just four of its last 12 games, while the Indians are losers of six of their last nine.
“We’re similar in that we’re probably both disappointed in how we’ve played,” said Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro. “But I really feel our fate is not going to be determined by who we play, but by how we play.
“Every team in baseball has flaws. It’s a question of which flaws are going to appear and for how long. Ultimately, what’s really there will come out.”
The Indians are hoping this isn’t what’s really there.
The Indians are hopeful that Travis Hafner will return to the lineup tonight for the series opener with Detroit. Hafner (.254, 18 HRs, 70 RBIs) has missed the last four games after sustaining a mild hamstring strain and left knee inflammation on a slide into second base.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 653-0899 or firstname.lastname@example.org.