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Acta, Belcher pushing all the right buttons

Acta, Belcher pushing all the right buttons

Acta, Belcher pushing all the right buttons
CLEVELAND -- Manny Acta has his eye on the big picture. The image in the manager's mind involves popping champagne bottles and bringing a World Series crown back to Cleveland for the first time since 1948.

Acta also understands that the big picture is a mosaic made up of a variety of paths to victory.

No matter how young the roster or how small the payroll, the emphasis has to be on finding a way, any way, to win each ballgame. Egos must be checked at the clubhouse door, and the players have to be willing to buy into what Acta and his coaches are preaching.

"That's what you're looking for," Acta said, "guys that are willing to believe in everything we're trying to accomplish here."

Believing and executing are two entirely different things, though, and this is a team that lost a combined 190 games over the past two seasons. Yet as the calendar nears June, the Indians boast baseball's best record at 29-15, and their success is largely due to the solid performance of the pitching staff.

Since Acta's arrival at the start of 2010, he and pitching coach Tim Belcher, along with bullpen coach Scott Radinsky, have helped turn the Tribe's pitching staff into one of the top units in baseball. In a year when the American League Central appears to be up for grabs, Cleveland's timing could not have been better.

"We're leading the American League in victories," said Indians closer Chris Perez, who laughed as he pondered that reality. "That's crazy."

Acta never thought such a prospect was far-fetched.

But performing at such a high level this year?

"To tell you the truth," Acta said, "it has come quicker than I was expecting it."

For Acta, it all begins with the players' willingness to learn, because he is always ready to teach.

On May 1, Acta held a discussion with pitchers Fausto Carmona and Jeanmar Gomez in the dugout while the Indians were playing the Tigers. The manager called the impromptu meeting after instructing Justin Masterson to intentionally walk Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera in the first inning.

Speaking in Spanish, Acta began to explain the thought process behind the move. The manager knew Masterson was not afraid to go right after Cabrera, but Acta felt it was more appropriate to play the percentages. This was about winning the war by conceding one early battle.

"I was trying to tell them that no one is questioning anybody's manhood here," Acta said. "We're just trying to do what's best to win the ballgame. It was about doing what's best for the team."

As Acta spoke, a funny thing happened.

Josh Tomlin got up from his seat on the bench and headed over to join the in-game discussion. Carlos Carrasco, Alex White and Mitch Talbot did the same. Acta had not called to those four starters, but they all wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to add to their baseball education.

"Before I knew it," Acta said, "I had six starters there listening to the conversation. I had to switch from Spanish to English, which was fine. I was like, 'Wow.' The rest of the game, I was so happy. I told so many people about that moment."

The situation with Cabrera was an exception to the real factor at play when it comes to Cleveland's early success.

Since Day 1, Acta has strived for aggressiveness from his pitchers, and Belcher and Radinsky have preached as much to the members of the rotation and bullpen, respectively. That trio has come at the pitchers with statistics to back up their desire to pound the strike zone relentlessly, especially early in the count.

"For two years, we've hammered the statistical advantage of throwing first-pitch strikes," Belcher said. "We've had the analytical people upstairs look at the numbers, and over the course of the last three years, less than seven percent of first-pitch strikes were put in play for a base hit.

"To me, you just turn that statistic around. You say, 'All right, if more than 93 percent of the time I throw a first-pitch strike and it doesn't result in a hit, why wouldn't I do it?'"

Through Saturday, the Indians had registered a first-pitch strike 59 percent of the time -- just shy of Acta's goal of 60 percent for the season. Cleveland's overall strike percentage of 63 was the second-best mark in the AL. The Tribe was tied for first with a ball-in-play rate of 72 percent.

Those percentages show that the Indians' pitchers are firing off strikes at a rapid rate, enticing hitters to swing and trusting that the defense will do the rest. Cleveland's arms can have such faith in the men playing behind them after the organization improved that aspect of the roster over the winter.

The Indians signed veteran shortstop Orlando Cabrera to man second base, added Adam Everett as a backup at multiple spots and brought in the slick-fielding Jack Hannahan for third base. Add in a healthy Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Cleveland's pitching staff has the luxury of one of the best infields in the game.

Consider that game on May 1, for example.

With Everett manning third for the day, and the Cabrera combination up the middle, Masterson -- a sinkerballer by trade -- had three natural shortstops playing behind him. Beyond them, Grady Sizemore was in center field and Michael Brantley, who can also patrol center with ease, was in left.

It was a lot of defensive range for Masterson to use to his advantage.

"That builds your confidence," Masterson said.

That confidence is increasing with the results.

Individually, the Indians have enjoyed standout showings from Tomlin (6-1, 2.41 ERA) and Masterson (5-2, 2.52). Throw out a pair of brutal showings against the White Sox and Carmona has a 2.56 ERA. Carrasco, White and Talbot have each spent time on the disabled list, but Cleveland keeps managing to survive.

Overall, the Indians' rotation has gone 19-10 with a 3.63 ERA, and the bullpen has gone 10-5 with an AL-best 2.92 ERA. The way Perez sees it, the strong performances of the relief corps has everything to do with the tone being set by the club's starters.

"Without a doubt," Perez said. "We haven't had many mop-up, sloppy innings for the bullpen to cover this year. The least amount of those, the better. We're being put in the situations that put us in the best position to succeed."

And on the rare occasion when a starter does not last deep into a game, they will probably hear about it from their teammates.

"We'll give a little ribbing," Masterson said. "If a guy only goes six innings, we're like, 'Hey, wow, all you could go was six innings today?'"

That, in many ways, is the attitude sweeping through the Indians' clubhouse. The players are expecting success.

"Everybody came in here knowing that we had a good shot of competing in our division," Tomlin said. "We expect to win as players, and Acta expects to win, obviously. I think if all of us are on the same page like that, it's just great chemistry going forward."

A large reason for that level of confidence is the fact that this run that Cleveland is on did not begin on Opening Day. It dates back to last season.

That is why it seems like everyone except the Indians are surprised by the team's incredible start.

"They pitched well in the second half last year," Belcher said. "In that respect, maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that they're pitching so well."

Acta and Belcher often cite the second half from 2010, but the roots of this strong stretch can be traced back to June 27. In that game a year ago, Talbot, a rookie at the time, allowed just one run over seven innings in a road win over the Reds. That ended a seven-game losing streak for the Indians.

It also set the turnaround in motion.

Since that outing by Talbot, Cleveland has gone 72-61 with a 3.69 ERA as a team. In the AL, only the Yankees and Rays have had more wins, and only the A's and Angels have had a better staff ERA in the same time period.

Rankings like those are what inspired Acta to deliver an impassioned speech at the beginning of the season. He wanted to make sure the players inside Cleveland's locker room understood just how well they played down the stretch a year ago, even with an injury-riddled, youth-filled roster.

"I just didn't go over there and talk and say, 'Go get them. We can do it,'" Acta said. "I was giving them facts. They play. They don't do analysis of a week, or a month or a half like we do. I was giving them facts."

The numbers indeed opened some eyes.

"I thought we'd be improved as a team," Perez said. "But we didn't know just how good we really played in the second half last year."

They do realize how well they are playing this year, and the Indians do not want it to end.

"We're definitely riding the high end of the roller coaster," Tomlin said. "We'd like to stay like that."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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