CLEVELAND -- Derek Shelton would never take all the credit. The Tribe's hitting coach is the first to tell you that no matter how well the Indians' bats are swinging, he doesn't notch a single hit. But the differences in offensive numbers since Shelton, who reached 162 games of service with the Indians on Friday, took over for Eddie Murray one year ago are hard to ignore.
When Shelton took over 54 games into '05, the Indians ranked last in the AL in batting average with a .243 mark. They went on to hit a big-league best .285 in the final 108 games. Those numbers were no aberration. Because through 53 games, the Indians rank second in the AL in batting with a .290 average and second in the Majors in runs scored with 305. Is it all Shelton? Of course not. "Our guys are good," he said. "They know when they need to do the work and how they need to do the work. I'm lucky with the 13 guys we have. They have solid routines. It makes my job easier." But that help has gone both ways, thanks mainly to Shelton's communication skills, according to right fielder Casey Blake. "A good hitting coach has to make himself available, and Derek's always available," Blake said. "He's extremely positive. He recognizes that hitters got to this point because they hit their way. He takes unique styles of hitting and works us out and recognizes that's the way we're going to hit and doesn't mess with it." When a player does want Shelton to mess with, tweak or even just talk about his swing, Shelton is there. The Indians won't come right out and say it, but that appears to be the most noticeable difference between Shelton and his predecessor. "The biggest thing I tried to do was open up the communication lines and make sure I was giving them enough information and they were giving me enough information," Shelton said. "I had to learn each individual guy. They were very open with me and gave me a lot of feedback. It made it easier to get me in a situation where I felt we could work together." Marte watch: The latest numbers are a little more encouraging for third-base prospect Andy Marte. Marte has hit .417 (10-for-24) over the course of a six-game hitting streak for Triple-A Buffalo. This stretch has brought Marte's average up to .255. He still hasn't shown much power, though, as he has just two homers and 13 RBIs in 50 games. Marte has been struggling to live up to the hype surrounding him when he was acquired in the Coco Crisp trade over the winter. Farm director John Farrell thinks that hype might be playing a part in Marte's slow start. "He's in a new organization, and he's trying to uphold, maybe play to the reasons he was traded and the conditions in which he was traded," Farrell said. "As a result, when he's been in good hitter's counts, he's really overswung the bat and broken down fundamentally and not given himself a chance to put a good swing on the ball and drive it." Farrell wouldn't rule out that Marte's confidence might have taken a hit when he got off to a slow start, compounding his troubles. "I think any player that goes through performance that's less than what they've experienced in the past, there's going to be some initial or surface confidence mistakes that are going to play a role," Farrell said. "There has been a trend over the last three years that he gets off to a quick start and then goes through a little bit of a downturn before coming back up." Here's the question: The Indians have had two players steal home twice in one game. Can you name them? Working in tandem: Backup catcher Tim Laker was back in the starting lineup, and Jason Johnson was back on the mound Friday. It wasn't really a coincidence. The Indians liked what they saw from Johnson with Laker behind the plate in Detroit last Sunday, when he limited the Tigers to no runs on six hits over six innings. And with a day game coming Saturday, manager Eric Wedge decided Friday would be a good day to give Victor Martinez off. "We'll give them a shot to do it again," Wedge said. "Jason had success [with Laker catching] last time." Rocket launch: Roger Clemens is mounting his comeback, and some Indians prospects will have a front-row seat. When Clemens, who signed a contract for the remainder of '06 with the Astros on Wednesday, makes his first of three Minor League tuneups Tuesday, he'll do so against Class A Lake County. The game will take place in Lexington, Ky., home of the Astros' Class A affiliate. Down on the farm: Right-hander Rob Bell gave up no runs on five hits over 5 1/3 innings to get the win in Buffalo's 15-0 victory over Durham on Thursday. Outfielder Jason Dubois hit a grand slam, and Ben Francisco was 3-for-4 with three RBIs. Ramon Vazquez went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs. ... Double-A Akron left-hander Rafael Perez pitched a complete-game, two-hit shutout in a 2-0 win over Altoona. Perez improved to 4-5 on the year. ... Left-hander Scott Lewis gave up two runs on three hits over four innings to get a no-decision and right-hander Scott Roehl pitched three scoreless innings of relief to get the victory in Class A Kinston's 6-2 win over Frederick. ... Lake County right-hander Albert Vargas gave up five runs on 11 hits over five innings in a 5-1 loss to West Virginia. Tribe tidbits: The Tribe's No. 9 hitters are batting .324 with three homers and 31 RBIs this year. According to STATS, Inc., the next-highest average in the Majors in the No. 9 spot is owned by the Twins (.266). ... The Indians' 16 home wins are the third most in the AL behind Chicago and Toronto, who have 19. ... Ronnie Belliard has hit in 11 of his last 14 games and is batting .347 (17-for-49) with a home run and six RBIs in that stretch. And the answer is: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson stole home twice on Aug. 11, 1912, and Vic Power did it on Aug. 14, 1958. On deck: The Indians and Angels will continue their three-game set with Saturday's 1:25 p.m. ET game at Jacobs Field. Left-hander Cliff Lee (3-5, 5.47 ERA) will start the game, which will be broadcast by FOX, opposite right-hander Kelvim Escobar (5-5, 3.96 ERA). It'll be "Beach Day" at the ballpark, as 100 tons of sand will be dumped on the plaza outside Gate A, and Jacobs Field beach towels will be given out to all fans.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.