Less than a week later, the Tribe's home opener was controversially snowed out. With the Indians leading in the top of the fifth inning, Paul Byrd pitching a no-hitter and the game just one strike away from becoming official, then-Mariners manager Mike Hargrove emerged under the flurries to argue that the conditions were unplayable. Heavier snow soon followed, and the game was delayed and later called, leaving Byrd to fume at the perceived gamesmanship.
The entire four-game series was ultimately wiped out, as nearly three feet of snow buried Jacobs Field. A similar fate looked to doom the Tribe's following three-game home set against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim until discussions of playing at a neutral site arose. And so it was that the Indians opened their "home" slate at Miller Park in Milwaukee, winning two out of three in front of surprisingly lively crowds which were lured by $10 general-admission tickets.
The strange month continued when the Indians won a game over the White Sox in which they got just one hit for the first time since 1992, and appropriately, it ended in more controversy. The Tribe played its final April game under protest after the umpires awarded the Orioles with a run three frames after a contested third-inning timing play. The Indians lost their protest of the retroactive scoring change, but they closed out the month at 14-8 and were off to their best start since 1999.
The Tribe's projected Opening Day roster saw a few other shifts, too. The Indians, having run out of both patience and Minor League options with the struggling Jason Davis, traded the hard-throwing right-hander to the Mariners, and Andy Marte was demoted to Triple-A Buffalo. The expected starter at third base, Marte went on the DL with a hamstring strain in April before briefly rejoining the Indians midway through May. But with Casey Blake using a solid start to entrench himself at third and Marte struggling both defensively and offensively, the Indians felt Marte would be better off playing every day in Buffalo.
The early-season flux, however, mattered little on the field. The Indians continued to roll, going 19-11 in May and establishing themselves as a clear contender in the American League Central. Never was the Tribe's early success better encapsulated than in a sweep over the defending AL champion Tigers in Detroit. From David Dellucci's game-winning eighth-inning homer one day to Carmona pitching the Tribe to a sweep the next day, the Indians' successful first half was marked by unexpected stars, late-game heroics and the dizzying ascent of Carmona from bullpen outcast to one of the game's finest starters.
Meanwhile, Cleveland's roster makeover continued. The Tribe released ineffective 41-year-old reliever Roberto Hernandez, optioned Jeremy Sowers to Triple-A Buffalo -- after he was never able to regain the form that made him so brilliant in 2006 -- and finally placing Dellucci on the 60-day DL with a strained hamstring that required surgery. Also, situational lefty reliever Aaron Fultz went on the DL with a strained rib-cage muscle, and he would never rejoin the bullpen's late-game fray, having been surpassed by rookie lefty Rafael Perez, who emerged as a brilliant third option behind closer Joe Borowski and setup man Rafael Betancourt.
A trio of Indians made the All-Star Game roster, and one more -- Carmona went into the break at 10-4 despite opening the year as a fill-in and spending some time in the Minors -- might have deserved to join them. Sizemore, Sabathia and Victor Martinez made the trip to San Francisco, and they did not disappoint. Sabathia tossed a scoreless inning, and Martinez hit a two-run homer that ultimately provided the winning margin for the AL over the National League.
The Tribe also added some stretch-run help by bringing back Kenny Lofton to the city that he called home during the team's 90s glory days. No. 7's return, which came by way of sending Class A catcher Max Ramirez to the Rangers, was unfamiliar in many ways, as the 40-year-old Lofton was moved to left field to platoon with Jason Michaels. But the offensive spark was still there, and Lofton showed it immediately, going 3-for-5 in a return debut.
At month's end, Sabathia was 15-7, Carmona at 14-7 and Byrd at 13-5. And that doesn't include Westbrook, who went 4-1 with a 1.90 ERA in six August starts, and Borowski, who entered September with a league-leading 39 saves.
Few, unlike during the 90s glory run, took it for granted. As reliever Betancourt lept into catcher Martinez's arms after recording the division-clinching out in a Sept. 23 win over the A's before a sellout crowd at The Jake, the celebration was on. And why not? Despite a number of key injuries, a small payroll, a bizarre April and playing in what many once felt to be baseball's best division, the Indians were heading to the playoffs.
David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.