CLEVELAND -- Kids do the darndest things. Sometimes they make funny faces at strangers. Sometimes they make a mess out of their dinner. And sometimes, as the Indians have learned this season, they make you the favorite to win your division. Where would the Indians be without the contributions of "kids" like Rafael Perez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Aaron Laffey and Jensen Lewis? Well, probably not in first place in the American League Central standings -- a spot the Tribe is on the verge of locking up for the first time in six years.
While seasoned veterans entrusted with complementing a confident core were the order of the offseason, rookie callups from the farm system have sparked the stretch run. "The lesson is," general manager Mark Shapiro said, "no matter how big your payroll is or how you anticipate building your team, young players still end up playing a crucial role in a team's ability to succeed or fail." Young players have had a crucial role with the Indians all season. Fausto Carmona's ace-type numbers have fortified the rotation, Ryan Garko's potent bat has shored up the middle of the order and Franklin Gutierrez's sterling glove has made for a more athletic outfield. All three are using their experiences from 2006, in which they had their first real exposure to life in the big leagues, to their benefit. But the real key to the Indians' late August and early September surge in the standings (the club was a game back of the Tigers as recently as Aug. 14) has been the boost provided by the rookies brought aboard. "A lot of these kids these days come up here with a lot of poise, and they're not intimidated by this level," manager Eric Wedge said. "I think that goes a long way. You come up here, and you do what got you here and trust in it." In the course of outlasting the bruised-and-battered Tigers the last few weeks, the Indians have put their trust in some players who weren't necessarily perceived to be on the Major League radar on Opening Day. The Indians figured they'd count on the left-handed Perez in their bullpen at some point this season, but they never imagined he'd share the primary setup duties with Rafael Betancourt. Surprisingly, his 1.44 ERA is the second-best relief mark in the AL, and his .175 average against ranks third. He has a 0.84 ERA in the second half.
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How does a kid with only 12 1/3 innings of Major League experience before this season put up such stats under the steaming glare of the pennant chase? The 25-year-old Perez credits his experience as a starter in the Dominican Winter League last offseason with helping out. "In the Dominican, the fans get involved in the game, and they really make a difference in what happens," Perez said through interpreter Dennis Malave. "That's allowed me to be more comfortable in the situations I've been in this year. By the time I got here, I had already faced older players, and I had an idea of what it was going to take to have success up here." Cabrera, another winter ball alum, has looked just as comfortable and confident. When the Indians promoted the 21-year-old Cabrera to the big leagues on Aug. 7, he was to be little more than a utility player. Just over a week later, he had seized the everyday second-base duties from a slumping Josh Barfield. On the field, Cabrera has proven to be a slick defender who can seamlessly turn the double play at second, despite only playing a handful games at the position at Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo this season. At the plate, the switch-hitting Cabrera has grabbed the No. 2 spot of the lineup and logged 10 multi-hit games in 28 games with an at-bat. "I was a little surprised I got a chance to play every day," Cabrera said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "I'm just a little surprised at the way I'm playing, but I'm having fun with it." And the Indians are having fun watching. "Asdrubal coming up really gave a breath of fresh air to our club when we needed it the most," third baseman Casey Blake said. When the Indians were hovering within a couple games of the Tigers in late July, what they needed most was more consistency from the two spots of their rotation occupied by Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. Westbrook took care of his own command issues to reclaim his consistent form of years past. But the demoted Lee's spot went to Laffey -- a 22-year-old left-hander who began the year at Akron and wasn't originally considered to be part of the rotation's first line of defense. "Adam Miller and Brian Slocum got hurt," Shapiro said. "That pushed Laffey up the depth chart." Laffey did his part to help the pushing, going 4-1 with a 2.31 ERA in six starts at Akron and 9-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 16 games at Buffalo this season. In six starts in the bigs, he's gone a respectable 3-1 with a 5.29 ERA. "It's awesome," Laffey said, "because not only do I get to make my debut, but I get to make my debut with a team in the playoff race. Some guys don't get to be a part of that at all during their entire careers. It's nice to be in a positive environment, knowing you can win every day and playing with a purpose." When the 23-year-old Lewis -- a hard-throwing right-hander who also began the year at Double-A and wasn't even in big league camp this spring -- was called up July 13, he didn't know what purpose he'd serve in the 'pen. The answer has come in recent weeks, as Lewis has become the long-awaited fourth arm to ease the back-end burden on Perez, Betancourt and closer Joe Borowski. Wedge has taken to using Lewis in more meaningful situations. "I think it's just been a product of consistency," said Lewis, who is 0-1 with a 2.91 ERA in 20 appearances. "That's the biggest thing [Wedge] and [pitching coach] Carl [Willis] are looking for -- somebody who can go out and get meaningful outs." The meaningful contributions of Lewis, Laffey, Perez and Cabrera have eased the pressure on the Tribe's more established players. Shapiro spent the offseason trying to add veteran pieces to his core group of talent, knowing that if he put too much responsibility in the hands of inexperienced players, it would expose him to the dangers that often come with the whims of youth. But as some of those veteran pieces and core players have faltered or fallen to injury, the farm system has come to the rescue. "Our approach is always going to be dependant on our young players," Shapiro said. "In this instance, they came through with better performances than we could have hoped for."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.