I've seen this play before. Team X gets off to hot start before running into a rough stretch in May that carries over into a disastrous June. The ending of this story is one that the Indians are hoping to avoid.
It was 2009 and the Blue Jays -- the team I covered for MLB.com back then -- roared out to a 27-14 start that had the club in first place in the American League East. Then came a nine-game losing streak. Then, a 16-30 stretch for Toronto had them below .500 by July 9. When the curtains closed, the Blue Jays sat in fourth place with a disappointing 75-87 ledger.
It was a hot start and nothing more.
Many teams share similar tales. Right now, Cleveland is trying to find a way not to fall into that category. It happens to a few teams every year, and the Tribe does not want the recent struggles to be what it is remembered for in 2011.
On May 23, the Indians boasted a 30-15 record and a seven-game lead above the next-best team in the AL Central. As of this writing, Cleveland is mired in a 4-11 stretch that trimmed said lead to just 1 1/2 games over the surging Tigers. Talk about perfect timing for Thursday's off-day.
The good news is that the Indians -- a club that lost a combined 190 games over the past two seasons -- remain in first place. Entering this year, what Tribe fan would have complained about a 34-26 record and a spot atop the standings on June 9?
With more than three months left on the schedule, Cleveland's story is far from complete. That said, there are plenty of questions and concerns arising from the ballclub's latest lull.
Here is this week's Inbox.
How do you feel about the latest struggles by the Tribe? Is the worst-to-first season over already, or is it just a stretch of hot opposing teams with good pitching? I understand you can't win them all and I have a hunch that it's just one of those skids. I hope my hunch is right.
-- Brad T., Toledo, Ohio
Well, I'm not going to sit here and pretend to be Miss Cleo. I can't predict the future. All I can say is that the Tribe showed the ability to be a strong team early on, and that should provide some hope that they can stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. Right now, it's about weathering the storm.
Obviously, a few things need to improve. First and foremost, the Indians need Shin-Soo Choo to get himself right between the ears and swinging with authority again between the chalk lines. Without his presence, Cleveland's lineup takes on a very lackluster look.
Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore can't hoist two hitters each on their shoulders.
The starting rotation and bullpen both have what it takes to remain solid enough down the stretch. The only thing standing in their way is health. The Tribe does not have the depth or resources to withstand losing any of its key arms. If the staff can avoid the disabled list, it should be able to give Cleveland a chance.
The Indians made it clear from the start this year that they needed three things to happen in order to have success. Cleveland needed its roster to stay healthy, its young pitchers to take a collective step forward in their development and its hitters to play to their full potential.
Each of those areas has absorbed some blows. Losing Sizemore for two stretches hurt, as did seeing Travis Hafner land on the DL. The DH should be back within the next two weeks, if all goes according to plan. The well-documented struggles of Choo and Carlos Santana have hindered the offense as well.
Is the worst-to-first season over? Not by a long shot. In fact, the Indians are still in first place in the AL Central. Are they signs for concern? Certainly, but there are also 102 games left on the schedule.
Time for some rapid-fire answers ...
With the recent call-up of Cord Phelps, what will this mean to Orlando Cabrera's playing time?
-- Fred G., Hanover, Germany
For now, Phelps will get the bulk of the playing time at second base against right-handed pitchers. Veteran Cabrera (.505 OPS vs. RHP/.775 OPS vs. LHP) will start mostly against lefties.
What is the difference between Phelps and Jason Kipnis? It seems to me that everyone overlooks Phelps in favor of Kipnis. Just glancing at their career Minor League numbers, the only difference seems to be that Kipnis hits for a little better power.
-- Ryan J., Cleveland
They're both 24 years old and were both drafted by the Tribe within a year of each other (Phelps in '08 and Kipnis in '09). Numbers-wise, they are very similar, too. As of this writing, Kipnis had a career Minors line of .299 AVG/.377 OBP/.477 SLG and Phelps' looked like .288/.379/.426. Kipnis has a bit more pop, and some room to grow as a defender. Know that the Indians think very highly of Phelps.
The Indians' record against the Red Sox, Rays and Angels is 8-10. If you include the Twins, White Sox and Rangers, that record drops to 10-22. This causes me concern. Should I be concerned? What do you make of this? Conversely, that means the Tribe's record against everyone else is 24-4. That eases my mind.
-- Ryan, Lakewood, Ohio
Shoot, why not include the Royals, A's and Blue Jays in your first grouping, too? Then, in all other games, the Indians have gone undefeated! Let's get something straight -- it's not about who a team beats. It's about how many wins a team has in the end. Worry about records against specific opponents in October.
Who is the Indians' all-time saves leader?
-- Jason, Virginia Beach, Va.
Career: Bob Wickman, 139. Single-season: Jose Mesa, 46 in 1995.
Where is first baseman Nick Johnson? Wasn't he supposed to be back from his right wrist injury by now?
-- Joey, L.A.
Johnson is in Ohio, suiting up for Triple-A Columbus.
Have a question about the Indians?
E-mail your query to MLB.com Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
I read that Johnson has an opt-out clause in his contract in case he isn't on the Indians' 25-man roster by July 1. Does he have any future in Cleveland? I like the idea of Santana, Hafner and Johnson in the lineup on LaPorta's off-days
-- Mike R., Boca Raton, Fla.
The Indians had Johnson in Cleveland earlier this week so they could take a look at him in batting practice and fielding drills. The medical staff had a chance to evaluate him as well. Johnson has been cleared to play games in the Minors for now. Cleveland will monitor his progress and make a decision on him later this month.
How similar is Alex White's right middle finger injury to the injury that has robbed Indians fans of Adam Miller?
-- Dave S., location unknown
Indians head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff said the only similarity is that both injuries deal with the right middle finger. Miller's was far more serious. White is expected to be back on the mound and potentially available for the Tribe later this season.
What do you think the chances are that the Indians will make a run at David Wright at the Trade Deadline?
-- Rob B., Streetsboro, Ohio
First off, Wright is expected to be out until at least mid-July with a back injury. Second, don't expect the Indians to part with any of their top prospects in order to land a rental player for a possible stretch run. Cleveland will not mortgage its future for a shot at a one playoff berth.
The Blue Jays have been struggling with pitching. Is there any chance that Cleveland could send some of its young pitchers to Toronto in order to get Jose Bautista?
-- Brennan C., Columbus, Ohio
Zach McAllister is pitching unbelievably well for Triple-A Columbus. What is the likelihood that he will see action with the Indians any time soon?
-- Jeremiah F., Waxahachie, Texas
Hold on, Jeremiah. I'm still laughing.
OK... I'm better now.
Yes, McAllister has put himself firmly on the organizational radar. If something goes wrong with the Major League rotation -- see: injuries -- the right-hander is definitely an option for the big league club.
Hey Jordan, I hate it when people ask questions that aren't about the Indians, but I was wondering if you knew whether Progressive Field is having another "Bring Your Dog to the Park" night this summer. My Jack Russell has been on me about how we never do anything fun anymore.
-- Patch R., Columbus, Ohio
Wake Jack from his afternoon nap, toss him a treat on me and tell ol' boy that "Puppypalooza" is set for the Indians' Aug. 23 home game against the Mariners.
What's the story with the removal of self-serve onions at Progressive Field?
-- Mike G., Cleveland
I'd blame Ketchup. He's always cheating to get an edge in the Hot Dog race.