CLEVELAND -- Midway through this past season, Manny Acta seemed a clear-cut favorite to take home the American League's Manager of the Year honor at season's end. The Indians -- mostly an afterthought out of the gates -- were unexpectedly contending for a division title.
Youth, inexperience and injuries, however, weighed Cleveland down as the season dragged into the latter stages of baseball's annual marathon. The Tribe slid down the AL Central standings, and were left watching as other teams plowed on into the postseason.
The Indians were unable to complete the improbable journey they began in April, but the ballclub still provided plenty of surprises throughout the 2011 campaign. As a result, Acta earned a fourth-place finish in Wednesday's unveiling of the Baseball Writers' Association of America's AL Manager of the Year Award.
With 26 first-place votes, the honor went to Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who guided the Rays to a playoff berth during the drama-filled final day of the regular season. Detroit's Jim Leyland, who led the Tigers to the AL Central title, and Texas' Ron Washington, who helped the Rangers reach a second straight World Series, placed second and third, respectively.
"Joe clearly deserved it," Acta wrote in an e-mail. "He did an outstanding job with a ballclub that lost the likes of Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Barlett, Matt Garza, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Rafael Soriano."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi placed fifth and Angels skipper Mike Scioscia sixth in AL voting. D-backs manager Kirk Gibson won the award in the National League.
Acta, who is under contract through 2013, was named on 10 of 28 possible ballots in the voting for the Manager of the Year. He received three second-place votes and seven third-place votes for a total of 16 points.
During Cleveland's strong start to the season, it would have been hard to envision a scenario where Acta finished lower than second in the voting. In the end, though, the Indians finished 80-82, marking a third losing season in a row. Still, it was an 11-win improvement over 2010 and the club felt much of the credit for that goes to Acta.
"When we reflect back," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said at the end of the season, "and look at the successes we've had this year, and the progress we've made, I think it began with Manny and his coaching staff and the tone that they set in Spring Training; the expectations about winning and transitioning from a young team that was developing to a contending team.
"That helped with our start to the season, and then I think the leadership and his coaching staff allowed us to persevere through some challenging and some significant obstacles through the course of the season. I feel much better about where we are organizationally today than we were a year ago. I think a lot of that is due to Manny's leadership and the leadership of the staff."
AL Manager of the Year voting
Cleveland's 80-82 finish was good enough for second in the AL Central, marking the team's best finish since winning the division in 2007. The Tribe's 11-win jump over its '10 showing was the second-best improvement in the AL. Overall, the Indians spent 95 days in first place -- largely due to their hot start.
Following two losses in a row to open the year, the Indians won 14 home games in a row, representing the best 16-game start at home in franchise history. On May 23, Cleveland was 30-15, making it the first time since the end of the 2007 season that the team was 15 games over the breakeven mark. The Indians also held a seven-game lead in the Central.
That was before a variety of issues began to take a drastic toll on the club. Cleveland was forced to use the disabled list 22 times, which ranked second to only the Twins (25) in the league. That contributed to the Indians watching 11 players make their big league debuts in 2011. The Tribe ended the year with 11 rookies on the roster.
Consider that the Indians' 2011 core quartet of Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera were only in the lineup at the same time for 17 games.
Acta said keeping his team's collective head held high through it all was hard at times.
"It wasn't easy," Acta said at the end of the season. "But I think most of the credit goes to our scouting department and our player development system for identifying those type of guys, and knowing the type of players that I'm looking for, to put together the type of team that we're envisioning here that matches up with our city.
"We ask just to get blue-collar guys that are going to be tough makeup wise, that are going to be relentless, scrappy, pesky, do-whatever-it-takes type of guys. That's what we're trying to do. ... We feel that if we get people with the right mental makeup, we can continue to put a team on the field like we did this year, which was very exciting for the majority of the season."
Acta often described his club as resilient, but the manager was hardly satisfied with the team's finish.
This offseason, the Indians have already reeled in veteran right-hander Derek Lowe to shore up an already solid rotation. Next on the team's wish list is more thump in the heart of the lineup. Cleveland is currently searching for offensive help in the outfield (either center or left field) or at first base.
Given the strides taken by his young Indians team in 2011, Acta's expectations are high for next season.
"I expect more out of everybody," Acta said. "All around, all I can ask for is the effort, and those guys gave me the effort the whole season."