Tough first half has Tribe looking ahead

Tribe beginning to look ahead

CLEVELAND -- Big leaguers are expected to play through pain. It's a prerequisite of their posts.

"Very few players ever feel good for the balance of a 162-game season," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "All players play through some soreness."

Knowing this, the Indians let some of the key members of his 2008 team play through pain they thought they could manage and tolerate.

The end result is, well, an end result. The Indians have all but mathematically eliminated themselves from contention to defend their American League Central Division crown, have dealt away CC Sabathia -- the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner -- and have turned the page toward 2009.

Beneath the surface of a club that left its final Spring Training camp in Winter Haven, Fla., hoping to repeat as division champs, the seeds of a disappointing season had already been planted.

The Indians were counting on a bounceback year from designated hitter Travis Hafner, but Hafner was already experiencing the right shoulder weakness that would make him a non-factor in the middle of the order and land him on the disabled list by the end of May.

The Indians watched starter Jake Westbrook turn in 18 perfect spring innings and figured (accurately so) that he'd be able to take that strong performance into the season proper. But Westbrook's first spring start was delayed because of elbow soreness that had bothered him since the middle of '07, and that might have been a warning signal of the Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery that was looming in the shadows.

The Indians hoped Joe Borowski, as dramatic as his appearances might be, would build off a season that saw him save an AL-leading 45 games. Such hopes were dashed when Borowski strained his right triceps midway through camp and began tossing 81-mph meatballs. He had two dramatic blown saves in the season's first two weeks before the Indians finally pulled the plug and placed him on the DL. Three months later, he was out of a job.

When the season opened on the last day of March, Victor Martinez, who had reported to camp in the best shape of his life, strained his left hamstring while trying to advance from first to second. He missed only a week of action before returning to the lineup, but his power never made an appearance. Then his right elbow began bothering him, eventually leading to surgery.

All these injuries aside, the '08 season began to look bleak all too early for a club that was a win away from the World Series the year before.

3/31, CLE 10, CWS 8 -- Blake's three-run double
Casey Blake's three-run, eighth-inning double helped the Tribe get by the White Sox on a wild Opening Day at Progressive Field.
Highlights: Watch
4/26, CLE 4, NYY 3 -- Martinez's walk-off single
Victor Martinez smacked an opposite-field single in the 10th inning for his first career walk-off hit.
Highlights: Watch
5/6, CLE 5, NYY 3 -- Dellucci's three-run homer
Outfielder David Dellucci's three-run, eighth-inning homer off Joba Chamberlain gave the Indians a dramatic win.
Highlights: Watch
5/12, TOR 3, CLE 0 (10) -- Cabrera's triple-play
Asdrubal Cabrera turned the 13th unassisted triple play in history during the second half of an Indians doubleheader.
Highlights: Watch
5/27, CLE 6, CIN 0 -- Sizemore's amazing catch
Grady Sizemore climbed the left-center-field wall to make a sensational game-saving catch in an Indians victory.
Highlights: Watch

Up and down the lineup, players struggled to reach a performance level of respectability, let alone their career norms. The bullpen went from the stabilizing force it was last season to a discombobulated mess. The club's only redeeming quality was its stalwart starting rotation.

Given the parity and surprising weakness of the American League Central, the Indians might have been able to survive their calamities, stay within sniffing distance of the division lead and make a late push.

But not with a disabled list longer than a homeroom roll call.

"I've been more amazed at how healthy we've been the past few years, up until this point," general manager Mark Shapiro said. "We've always kind of known this was a possibility."

One possibility the Indians don't seem willing to explore is the notion that they compounded their troubles by letting Hafner and Martinez, in particular, play through their pain too long.

Hafner batted just .217 with four homers and 22 RBIs in 46 games before the Indians finally shut him down. The Tribe still has hopes that he'll rejoin the club before the end of the season, but his shoulder has been slow in gaining strength.

Watching Hafner's ill-fated at-bats in the season's first two months, it became obvious he was playing hurt. His bat speed slowed, and he had little-to-no pop.

Martinez also struggled to generate power numbers. The hamstring injury quashed the slow-footed Martinez's already limited ability to turn singles into doubles, and he didn't hit a single home run.

And when the elbow injury presented itself in mid-May, Martinez's overall numbers really began to suffer. Over his last 21 games before landing on the DL, he batted just .208 (16-for-77) with seven RBIs. His season average plummeted from .356 on May 1 to .278.

Yet Wedge kept penciling Martinez, who hopes to return in the second half, into his cleanup spot.

Going forward, Wedge said the experiences of '08 won't lower his saturation point for how long he lets his players play hurt.

"If a guy wants to play and he's well enough to play, he plays," Wedge said. "Otherwise, you'd be putting guys on the DL every day. You have to give him a chance to work through it."

The Indians could not work through their assortment of injuries and remain in contention this season. As was the case in 2007, they dipped into their depth at Triple-A Buffalo. But this time the cupboard was basically bare, and the season could not be salvaged.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.