Respect doesn't come easy for Blake
Third baseman always hears about his struggles with RISP
CLEVELAND -- Casey Blake just wants some R-I-S-P-E-C-T.You can't blame the guy for being tired of hearing about the career .219 average with runners in scoring position he took into this season. Then again, you can't blame reporters and fans for making note of his dubious RISP record. One of those reporters pointed out to Blake after Monday's thrilling, albeit exhausting, 10-8 victory over the White Sox -- in which the third baseman's three-run double in the bottom of the eighth sealed it for the Tribe -- that he now has a 1.000 average (that is, 1-for-1) with RISP this season. "Write it," Blake said. "You guys won't write it." Some will, some won't. And although Blake was the provider of Opening Day heroics in front of a packed house at Progressive Field, his RISP reputation will still follow him around. It is beyond dispute, though, that the bearded Blake has come up with some big hits in his tenure with the Tribe. None were bigger than the two walk-off homers he hit within three nights of each other last September. Those blasts against the Royals and Tigers put the finishing touches on the Tribe's bid to win the American League Central title. "Casey still needs to do a better job with runners in scoring position," manager Eric Wedge said recently. "We all know that. On the flip side, he's had some of the loudest hits we've had here over the last two years with the game on the line." Of course, no easily obtained stat can illustrate "loud hits." Nor can a number define the importance of having a veteran like Blake, who can ably play at third, first and in right field and can hit in any spot of the lineup. Actually, one number that was placed on that value was 6,100,000 -- as in, the number of dollars Blake will earn this season, as a result of a deal struck during his final round of arbitration-eligibility this offseason. But another number to come out of that contract was the number zero -- as in, the number of years the Indians committed to Blake beyond this season. Blake has been in the organization since the Indians signed him as a Minor League free agent before the 2003 season. He's been a steady presence in their lineup since, even if his job description has been in a constant state of flux. That the Indians did not offer the 34-year-old Blake a multiyear deal this winter, however, is telling. They have Andy Marte on hand as Blake's heir apparent, though Marte has yet to make good on claims that he can be the club's third baseman of the future. In the Minors, Wes Hodges and Beau Mills, last year's No. 1 Draft pick, are also looming. It's also conceivable that the Tribe could one day shift shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third, second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to short and re-install Josh Barfield at second. Blake, who hit .270 with 18 homers and 78 RBIs last season, knows all of this, and he knows his position at third -- and with the club, in general -- could be tenuous. "Obviously, I'd like to stay here," Blake said, "but they've got a lot of issues to iron out, certainly before they think about what they're going to do with me. I just need to take care of my business. If I do that, the rest will take care of itself." Blake's current business is to be a capable defender at third and to round out the order in the No. 9 spot. After slotting Blake primarily in the No. 2 spot for much of last year, Wedge took a liking to having him bat last at the tail end of '07 because of the power Blake brings to that position. "It's very valuable to have a guy hit in the nine-hole like him," said catcher Kelly Shoppach, who was driven home by Blake's dynamic double Monday. "Casey's one of those guys we believe in." Blake gave them further reason to believe on Opening Day. But even as he was getting pats on the back for the 11th-hour energy he provided against Octavio Dotel, another reporter brought up a less-inspiring instant from Blake's recent past. The topic was the seventh inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park. After Kenny Lofton was memorably held up at third by coach Joel Skinner, Blake came up with runners on the corners, one out and the Tribe trailing, 3-2. He swung at Hideki Okajima's first-pitch fastball and grounded into an inning-ending double play. "I felt pretty comfortable swinging there," Blake said. "I thought I got a decent pitch to hit. Yes, I regret what I did with the pitch, but we're talking about a millisecond. I hit that ball well, but I cued it off the end of the bat. Hitting is timing." This, however, seemed like an odd time to have such a discussion, as Blake pointed out. "I can't believe we're talking about last year," he said. That's just how it is with Blake, though. Fans either love him for his blue-collar approach to the game or hate him for his numbers in the clutch. And any talk of the leadership and versatility he brings to this club is inevitably tempered by a mention of his misfortunes. Indeed, respect, no matter how you spell it, does not come easy for a guy like Blake.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.