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Tribe eager to prove '11 fast start not a fluke

Tribe eager to prove '11 fast start not a fluke

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Tribe eager to prove '11 fast start not a fluke
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Indians are not worried about their ballclub and they certainly are not worried about where they might fall in season predictions. With the American League Central spotlight on rival Detroit, Cleveland will happily head into Opening Day lying in the weeds.

Coming off a forgettable Spring Training, it is familiar territory for the Tribe.

"We surprised people last year," Indians closer Chris Perez said.

For the first two months of the season a year ago, Cleveland was the talk of baseball after it roared out of the gates to first place in the division. It is that strong start, combined with a healthy roster for the most part headed into Thursday's Opening Day tilt against Toronto, that has the Indians believing they can again contend for a postseason spot.

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The Indians are not banking that confidence solely on the fact that Major League Baseball will now have two Wild Cards in each league. Cleveland still feels it has the pieces in place to make a run at the AL Central crown. The preseason prognosticators are sticking with the reigning division champion Tigers, but that does not bother the Tribe.

The players know that predictions do not always come true.

"Everyone who's picked to win doesn't always win," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "That's why you play the games. That's why it's settled between the lines."

A year ago, the sexy preseason pick was the White Sox, who ended in third place with 79 victories.

"Well, there you go," Kipnis said. "Point proven right there."

Kipnis is one reason that Indians manager Manny Acta is optimistic about his team's chances in 2012. Kipnis enjoyed a solid rookie stint with the Tribe last year and heads into this season as Cleveland's full-time second baseman. Acta believes Kipnis can provide a spark for the Indians' offense, which has been the main issue for the past few years.

Things did not look better this spring, when Cleveland posted its worst team batting average in more than a decade and was at the bottom of the standings in wins.

Acta is quick to point to the fact that players such as right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, center fielder Michael Brantley and designated hitter Travis Hafner are healthy and coming off decent spring showings. Beyond that, Cleveland has a new first baseman in Casey Kotchman, who signed as a free agent after hitting .306 for the Rays last year.

The Indians also have a budding star in catcher Carlos Santana and an All-Star in shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

"I'm not anticipating these guys taking a step back," Acta said. "We have to be better. We're adding Kipnis for the whole season. We have Michael Brantley with more experience. Every one of these guys has one more year of experience. If they are healthy, I'm anticipating these guys to get out there and battle for us on an everyday basis."

Cleveland cruised to a 30-15 record by May 23 last season and sat seven games in front in the AL Central standings at the time. The Indians held on to first place through late July, and they hung in the playoff picture deep into August, while doing everything they could to overcome the wave of injuries hitting the roster.

The Tribe lost its entire outfield -- Brantley, Choo and Grady Sizemore -- for extended periods of time, and lost Hafner for a couple stretches. The rotation was riddled with health woes as well, taking a toll on Cleveland's depth and giving Detroit a great opportunity to advance en route to a clinching of the division by 15 games.

"That's why we have so many games," Perez said. "This game is grueling, and the best team really does come out on top over 162 games. Last year, Detroit kind of stumbled in the beginning, and we took advantage of that and got a good lead.

"They kind of pulled it all together, got healthy, took off and got on fire."

The Indians head into this season with sinkerballer Justin Masterson leading a rotation that will also include Ubaldo Jimenez, veteran Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez. Perez, who made the AL All-Star team last season, leads a bullpen that returns as one of the better relief units in the league.

Cleveland is counting on its pitching to carry much of the load this season.

"I don't think our club is built around offense," Acta said. "It's been pitching over the last two years."

Much of the team's success might rest in the hands of Jimenez, who was Cleveland's blockbuster acquisition at the July 31 Trade Deadline last season. If the right-hander can come close to the form he displayed in 2010, when he won 19 ganes for the Rockies and was a contender for the National League Cy Young Award, the Tribe could be in good shape.

Jimenez believes the Indians have what it takes to keep pace with Detroit.

"There's no doubt about it," Jimenez said. "You can't worry about what other people say about your team. They're going to have their nine guys against our nine guys. You just worry about going out there and competing and winning. You can't be worrying about the stats, or how much money a guy has.

"The only thing we have to worry about is winning. When we cross the lines, we have nine guys against their nine guys. That's it."

The Indians lost more often than they won during Spring Training, but Kipnis reiterated how little that means once Opening Day arrives.

"Does anyone remember the Spring Training record of 2011?" Kipnis said. "No, they don't. I don't think it really matters in the end. Sure, it's frustrating, and sure, you'd like to see some wins out there in the spring just for the mere thing of reassurance that this team looks good and is ready. In the end, these at-bats don't matter. The wins and loss column doesn't matter. Everything resets at zero.

"You never know. It could be the same thing last year where somewhat of a new team shows up and runs out of the gates and is winning games. Literally, no one would ever mention anything about Spring Training again. This team is excited to show what we've got."

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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