Teams in the American League are supposed to win with offense, and in the glory years of the 1990s, the Cleveland Indians had no problem scoring runs in bunches.
But in the early-going of the 2012 season, the Tribe seem to have a blueprint for success that isn’t traditional in the AL — keep the offense down, and rely on your pitching to take care of the rest. Through May 19, Cleveland is atop the Central Division, 3.5 games better than the Chicago White Sox and 4 games better than the Detroit Tigers (who were expected to run away with the Central this year).
First, take an aging starter who is leading the AL in ERA. Braves fans, you’ll be shocked to know that I’m referring to Derek Lowe. With a 2.05 ERA, Lowe is allowing less runs per nine innings than Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish and everyone else in the league. After eight starts, he boasts a 6-1 record and even threw a complete game on May 15 against Minnesota.
Next, throw a closer into the mix that is keeping pace with the most dominant stoppers in the majors. Chris Perez already has 13 saves (and only one blown save) in 18 appearances. In more than 16 innings pitched, Perez has allowed just 12 hits while striking out 15.
And when your offense has actually been outscored by its opponents (the Indians have scored 176 runs this season while allowing 178), the games are going to be close. So you’d better have a closer that can shut the door as often as he’s needed.
Mix in the rest of the starting rotation that has 24 quality starts, fourth-best in the American League, and you have what is needed to thrive.
It’s a general trend that a team knows where they stand by May 15; if they’ve played well for six weeks, they’re good enough to stay the course the rest of the summer, more times than not. It’s May 20, and the Indians are still in first place.
Atlanta fans know Lowe, though. Most of the league does, too. If the trends play out, it’s going to be a very frustrating stretch run for Indians fans as they watch their ace slow down, sputter and eventually come to a crashing halt.
On the other hand, if there’s one thing Indians fans can hang their hats on, it’s that they have a resilient bunch on the field. If any team is built to absorb a choking Lowe in August and September, it’s the group that has found a way to come back multiple times this year. Regardless of their success so far, coupled with the “May 15 rule,” it’s going to be very hard to hold off the Tigers with a .246 team batting average. Magic only takes a team so far, and it can’t be the lifeblood of a 162-game season.
The Braves learned that lesson in 2011. Hopefully, the Indians don’t suffer the same fate, with Lowe captaining their ship this time around.