Tribe delivers early knockout punch
Sizemore homers to ignite five-run first inning
CHICAGO -- Josh Barfield, a product of the National League and the small-ball Padres, had just one question after his first game as an Indian on Monday."What did I get myself into?" the young second baseman said. As Barfield discovered during the Indians' 12-5, slugfest victory over the White Sox on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field, American League ball is not for the faint of heart. For while the Indians pounded out five runs against right-hander Jose Contreras in the first inning -- a franchise record for the first inning of a season opener -- they could hardly punch their time cards and reflect on a job well done. Especially not after the White Sox retaliated with two runs of their own off C.C. Sabathia in the bottom of the inning. "A three- or four-run lead is nothing over here," Barfield said. "A 5-0 lead in the first? That's usually the game. But not over here." So the Indians kept hitting. And scoring. And hitting. And scoring. By the time it was over, they had put together their highest run total in an opener since the 1925 club threw up 21 against St. Louis. Barfield, obviously, wasn't around to see that game. Nor was he around to see the Indians' feast-or-famine offensive tendencies in a disappointing 2006. That club would put up 14 runs one night and one the next. It's the goal of the Indians offense this year to put a stop to those erratic tendencies, leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore said. "We're going to have games like this where we get off to a good start and keep it going," Sizemore said. "If it's 3-2 in the eighth and we need to come through, those are the games we struggle with. We have to do better with those. But hits are going to come easy on certain days." Hits didn't come very easy to Sizemore during Spring Training. He had just seven of them in 18 Grapefruit League games, amounting to a lowly .115 batting average. But Exhibit A in the ol' "Spring Training numbers don't matter" argument came on the second pitch of the ballgame, when Sizemore launched a Contreras fastball over the right-field wall and became the first Indians player since Julio Franco in 1988 to lead off Opening Day with a homer.
"That was huge," Sabathia said. "Second pitch of the year, and he goes deep. Hopefully that's a good tone-setter for the season."In the present, it stood as a tone-setter for a big inning. Trot Nixon, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez followed Sizemore's homer with consecutive singles to bring home another run. Later, with two outs, Jhonny Peralta contributed an RBI single, and Barfield laced a two-run triple to right to make it 5-0. "The guys kept going," manager Eric Wedge said. "That's what you want to do. You can't let up." As the 37-pitch inning lingered on, any Opening Day jitters Sabathia possessed wore off. But when Sabathia stepped to the mound, it sunk in that the Spring Training tune-up he essentially missed last week, when Toronto leadoff man Reed Johnson nailed him in the left forearm with a line drive, had left him a little rusty. "I hadn't faced live hitters in a while," Sabathia said. "It took me a minute to get adjusted." The scoreboard adjusted when Sabathia gave up a leadoff double to Pablo Ozuna and a two-run blast to Darin Erstad to make it 5-2. Incredibly, the Tribe's first-inning heroics were in danger of being rendered moot. Ah, but that's where a four-run second came in handy. The Indians strung it together when Hafner hit a hard grounder up the middle and shortstop Juan Uribe's throw to first was errant, allowing two runs to come across. That knocked Contreras out of the game. After Casey Blake doubled and David Dellucci walked to load the bases against reliever Nick Masset, Peralta came through again -- this time with a two-run liner to center. In the third, just for good measure and ridiculous run support, Martinez stroked a two-run double off Masset to make it 11-2. By that point, no amount of rust was going to keep Sabathia from notching a victory in his fourth career Opening Day start. He got better as his six-inning outing progressed, though he was never extraordinarily efficient with his pitches. Still, Sabathia was hardly going to complain about improving to 13-3 lifetime against the South Siders. Or about seeing the Indians win an opener for the first time since 2002. "This is going to make everybody more relaxed," he said. "We did the little things right. Hopefully we'll just keep rolling." As the runs rolled off in this one, Barfield learned he's in a brave new world. "Everybody had 40 jacks and 100 RBIs last year," he said with a laugh. "I have to step it up a little bit. When you see the first six guys come up and hit lasers, it definitely helps your confidence. Hitting is contagious." And the Indians, clearly, came down with a strong case of it on this day.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.