CLEVELAND -- Kenny Lofton considers "leadoff man" to be part of his job description. "That's what I do," Lofton said. But Lofton hadn't done it since his return to the Indians on July 27. The leadoff spot (not to mention center field, which was also once Lofton's domain) belonged to Grady Sizemore.
Not anymore. Sizemore was moved down to the No. 3 position of manager Eric Wedge's lineup for the opener of an important two-game set with the Tigers, and Lofton was bumped up to No. 1. The move, Wedge said, was no knock on Sizemore's capabilities as a leadoff man. "It's a team decision," Wedge said. "It's something that will hopefully help us as a ballclub." The Indians' struggling offense could use all the help it can get these days. The club is batting just .234 with 3.4 runs per game since July 23, and only once in the last 25 games has it managed to score a run in the first inning. Sizemore had established himself as one of the more dynamic leadoff hitters in the game the last three seasons. He entered Tuesday in a tie for seventh in the league in runs scored (84), sixth in stolen bases (29) and sixth in walks (66). But he had no extra-base hits and just one run scored the last nine games. He's also the league leader in strikeouts with 123 in 469 at-bats. Given Sizemore's run-producing capabilities -- his 64 RBIs rank first in the Majors among No. 1 hitters and his 19 homers rank second -- it had long been speculated that his future might rest more toward the middle of the order. Wedge said he wrestled with the idea the past week before finally giving it the green light. When Wedge gave Sizemore the news, it wasn't met with disdain. "I told Wedgie many times that I'll hit wherever he wants me to hit," said Sizemore, who had batted leadoff in each of his starts since May 14, 2005. "Whatever he feels is the best lineup, he's going to put it out there." And in an apparent effort to make his manager look like a genius, Sizemore hit a two-run homer in his first at-bat from the No. 3 spot on Tuesday. Lofton, who has hit just .250 with five runs scored and two RBIs since joining the Indians, won't be in the leadoff spot against left-handed starters. And Wedge doesn't want to constantly move Sizemore back and forth. So it's possible that Jason Michaels or Franklin Gutierrez will take over leadoff duties in those scenarios. "I would like to see some consistency," Wedge said. Wedge was asked why he didn't bat Lofton leadoff from the time he was acquired in a trade with the Rangers. "It's a 162-game season," Wedge said. "You've got to give things time to play out. Grady's one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. But this can help us as a ballclub." Here's the question... Who is the last Indians player, other than Sizemore, to start consecutive games in the leadoff spot? The return of Pronk: Just as the Indians had hoped, designated hitter Travis Hafner returned to the lineup in time for Tuesday's game, batting fifth. Hafner jogged around the bases and took early batting practice before he was deemed ready to compete for the first time in nearly a week. Pronk suffered inflammation in his left knee and a mild hamstring strain when he slid awkwardly into second base on a double on Aug. 7 at Chicago. He was pulled the following night after two at-bats and missed the last game against the White Sox and the entire weekend series against the Yankees. Wedge said Hafner will still have to be careful on the leg. "He has to pace himself," Wedge said. Pressure's on: If the Indians and Tigers want to create some distance from each other in the AL Central standings, they have a prime opportunity to do so. Then again, judging by how the two clubs have played since the All-Star break, they are keen on being close. The Indians and Tigers have played on the same day 28 times since the All-Star break, and in 18 of those days they have had the same result in the win-loss column. The biggest lead in the division in that span came when the Tigers had a two-game advantage on July 23 and 24. With five games against each other in the next week and a half, the Indians and Tigers are certain to have differing results, for a change. "It's fantastic," Wedge said. "It's a great opportunity for us, and, obviously, for them, too. This is what it's all about. This is what you work for all winter and what you prepare for all spring." Big fuss: Wedge got a little animated with reporters when talking about Jhonny Peralta getting picked off first base in Sunday's 5-3 loss to the Yankees. Peralta had just walked to load the bases against Andy Pettitte with no outs in the seventh inning and the Indians trailing, 4-0, when Pettitte picked him off. Peralta wandered far off the first-base bag. A reporter asked why Peralta wasn't "punished" for the mistake, to which Wedge basically scoffed. "I'm not happy about it," Wedge said. "But it happened, he made a mistake, and it's over with." When the questions kept coming, Wedge finally decided to take the heat. "Put it on me," he said with a laugh. "It's my fault. I should have yelled louder." Tribe tidbits: Just before the Indians began their pregame stretch routine Tuesday, Lofton grouped them together for a team chat. He wouldn't elaborate on what was discussed. "That's a team thing," he said, "not a media thing." ... The Indians announced the signings of 38th-round pick Jonathan Williams, a right-hander from the University of Tampa, and 46th-round pick Brock Simpson, an outfielder from the University of Kansas, on Tuesday. The club has until 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday to sign its remaining selections from June's First-Year Player Draft, including fourth-round pick T.J. McFarland and seventh-round pick Cole St. Clair. ... Former Yankees player and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto died at the age of 89 on Tuesday. That makes Bob Feller the second-oldest living Hall of Fame player. The oldest is 89-year-old Bobby Doerr, who was born April 7, 1918. Feller, 88, was born Nov. 3, 1918. And the answer is... Ronnie Belliard batted in the leadoff spot in consecutive games in '05, before Sizemore took over. On deck: The two-game set against the Tigers wraps up with Wednesday's 7:05 p.m. ET game at Jacobs Field. Right-hander Fausto Carmona (13-7, 3.26 ERA) will oppose right-hander Jair Jurrjens, who will be making his big-league debut.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.