Tribe's dreams of AL Central crown dashed
After fast start, injuries took a toll on reaching postseason
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Indians woke up on Saturday morning, their dreams of capturing a division crown had officially slipped away in the night.
Once the talk of baseball with its fast start to the season, Cleveland's fade over the past four months finally caught up with the ballclub. Out in Oakland, the Tigers were the ones popping open champagne bottles on Friday night, celebrating a surge in the standings that culminated with an American League Central championship.
That left the Indians with a sense of missed opportunity.
"I felt that this year we had an opportunity to do it," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
Acta proclaimed his team a contender during Spring Training. While his words were well documented, they might have been taken with a grain of salt. After all, the Tribe had piled up 190 losses over the past two years combined and was fielding a young roster out of the gate this season.
Soon enough, the Indians made their manager's predictions of challenging for a division title look realistic. Cleveland led the Central for most of the first two months, climbing to a 30-15 record and a seven-game lead over Detroit for the top spot in the division by May 23. It was a glimpse of the team that the Tribe hopes to be for the foreseeable future.
Since then, though, the Indians have gone 43-60, entering Saturday's game against the Twins in Minnesota. Over that same span, the Tigers roared to a 64-40 record, overtaking the Tribe for first place and holding steady through Friday night's postgame clinching party on the West Coast.
Acta grimaced when asked how much injuries played a role in Cleveland's downfall.
"I really don't like bringing that up," the manager replied. "Because no matter how I spin it, it's going to sound like an excuse. You guys, you look for all the reasons you want."
Acta paused, and then continued.
"Our offense, overall, if you want to simplify one, probably is a big reason for [not making the playoffs]," Acta said. "You can't hit below .250 as a team and expect to win the division -- unless you have over-dominant pitching. But again, why was our offense that way?"
The offense, which entered Saturday with a .248 average and a .708 OPS (both ranked 11th in the AL), was overcome by health woes this season. The list of position players who landed on the disabled list this year included Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Travis Hafner, Jason Kipnis, Matt LaPorta, Jason Donald and Trevor Crowe.
There was no denying the losses contributed to the Tribe's troubles.
"Obviously," Acta said, "if you don't have Grady, and you don't have Choo, and you don't have Brantley, and you don't have Hafner, and then when Kipnis comes up and becomes a sparkplug for our team -- he also goes down -- all that adds up to our offense.
"We can't sit here and pretend that we're better without four of the first five guys in our lineup. We're not that good."
The Indians' pitching staff was not immune to the injury bug, either.
Carlos Carrasco recently underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and will miss the 2012 season.
Injuries clearly hindered Cleveland's chances this year.
"It's played a role," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "There have been a lot of other factors that have certainly come into play, but not having -- for a large period of time -- your intended starting outfielders, third baseman, second baseman, designated hitter and 40 percent of your starting rotation, that [had] a significant impact on our team.
"To their credit, and I think it certainly bodes well for us heading into next year, is some young players from our Minor League system have had the opportunity to come up and contribute and get their first initial exposure at the Major League level. That certainly will position us well going into next year.
"We were largely able to be a competitive and contending team this year, despite being the third-youngest team in the American League."
Prior to Friday's game, Acta called a team meeting to discuss maintaining a high level of motivation over the final two weeks of the regular season. Now that Detroit has its first division title since 1987, Acta said it is time to shift goals. Finishing in second place and with a winning record now make that list.
The Indians have not ended with a winning ledger since 2007, when they led the American League with 96 wins and came within one victory of reaching the World Series. Cleveland, which has not suffered three straight losing campaigns since 2002-04, carried a 73-75 record into Saturday's game.
Acta wants to make sure his team sharpens its focus down the stretch.
"As a team, everybody goes through it," Acta said. "I go through it every year as a manager. Once you've been eliminated, then now you're like, 'Geez, now I have to come to the ballpark every day just to see how these kids are going to get better or not.' In my case, it's been different in the past, because I've been doing rebuilding jobs up until this year."
Acta referred to his time in the manager's seat for the Nationals and his first season at the helm for the Indians last year. This year, though, Acta entered with a different outlook. He felt this year's club had a chance to contend for a spot in the postseason.
Instead, the Tigers earned a ticket to the October dance, and the Indians entered Saturday one loss away from officially being eliminated from the Wild Card picture, too.
Now, Cleveland will try to meets its goals for the rest of this season.
Then, the focus will shift to 2012.
"A lot of things happened throughout the year," Acta said. "So I'm thinking we're going to be even better next year. There's no way that any of these guys are going to take a step backwards. That's the same way I felt coming in this year.
"I can't control injuries and stuff, but I can't see it getting any worse next year."