Admit it. After falling behind by two touchdowns on Opening Day and then being blown out again the next afternoon, you already wrote off the entire 2011 Tribe season.
It’s ok… I was right there with you.
But for the last four games the Cleveland Indians have rebounded. They completed a sweep of the Boston Red Sox, a team with a payroll greater than the GDP of a third-world country, a team most “experts” picked to reach the World Series. The Indians are winning with improved pitching – only six runs in the last four games. They’re winning with great defense – just two errors in six games. And the bats are coming around, even with Shin-Soo Choo starting the season in a bit of a slump.
As Lou Brown would say, “there’s two or three potential All-Stars on this team!”
But I’ll propose that the star of the young season isn’t Travis Hafner, whose bat has suddenly been reborn or Rafael Perez, who’s sitting down batters like it’s 2007. No… the real star is manager Manny Acta.
You could make the argument that out of all major sports, a baseball manager has the least impact on a game once it begins, especially in the American League where the DH rules the day. But there are certain moments in a game when a manager can make a difference. And Acta is shining in all of these moments so far.
Flash back to Sunday. The Indians are clinging to a one-run lead over the White Sox. With a runner on first, Acta sends Lou Marson to the plate to bunt. But after two pitches outside the zone prompts a visit to the mound from Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Acta knows that Marson is about to be served a meatball. He instructs Marson to swing away and the backup catcher promptly smacks a double off the wall, scoring the runner from first. The Indians go on to win 7-1.
Sure, Carlos Santana’s triple play gets all the press, but this was a key point in the game as well.
Now flash forward to Tuesday. The Indians are ahead 3-1 over the Red Sox in the ninth inning, but closer Chris Perez is struggling. Runners are on the corners and he’s fallen behind 2-0 to the dangerous David Ortiz. He’s working so fast that Santana barely has time to get into his catching squat. Acta decides to pay Perez a visit, which is unusual - typically you’d see the pitching coach here. He slows Perez down, and probably surprises him by telling him to attack Ortiz rather than issue the “unintentional” intentional walk. Three pitches later, Ortiz flies to left to end the game.
Why allow the pitching coach deliver your message when you can do it yourself?
One day later, Mitch Talbot is in a pickle in the fifth inning. Runners again on the corners, one out, and the Indians ahead 3-2. Acta decides to make an early move to the bullpen, bringing in Chad Durbin to face the insufferable Kevin Youkilis. Durbin gets the strikeout and Acta surprises everyone by making a second move. He opts for the lefty-lefty matchup of R. Perez versus Ortiz. In the fifth inning! Big Papi grounds out to end the threat and the Indians go on to win 8-4.
While a former Indians manager would almost certainly have left Talbot on the mound to “grind it out”, Acta realized this was the key moment in the game where the best matchups should be exploited.
But Acta’s finest moment came on Thursday. Sure he used the Durbin/Perez combo to perfection again; his bullpen management has been flawless. But his call for a suicide squeeze in the eighth inning was baseball genius. It almost certainly had everyone’s heart racing before the flawless execution. Credit Asdrubal Cabrera for executing the bunt on a tough pitch, but kudos to Acta for having the guts to call this do-or-die play in a 0-0 game.
The 1-0 squeeze victory was icing on the cake, dropping the Sox to 0-6 on the season and putting the Indians *gasp* in a tie for first place!
Yes, I know it’s early. I know the Indians will now deal with a West Coast trip where they’ll face their former skipper Eric Wedge in Seattle. But I also know that the Indians have an edge in that department now. The team is only now coming out of a cloud of “Wedgie-ball” that had players stretched tighter than John Adams’ drum.
In Manny Acta, the Indians have a manager who holds a better understanding of the tactics and the psychology of baseball. It’s a positive sign for the youngest team in baseball, a team that will look to do plenty of growing in 2011.