CLEVELAND -- Manny Acta called it "the road trip from whatever word you want to use there." I don't think he meant "Ashtabula." No, this was the road trip from a much darker place. Acta's Indians went 0-9 in an AL Central swing through Minnesota, Kansas City and Detroit. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst road trip in franchise history, and this would be notable if this were an expansion club, let alone a charter member of the American League.
When the trip began, the Indians were still on the fringes of contention. No matter what you believed about their ultimate staying power, they were a game over .500, 3 1/2 back of the first-place White Sox. Now? Well, suffice to say they're scoreboard-watching in Cleveland no more. A few series losses on the roadie probably would have been enough for the Indians to fall out of contention. But in going 0-9, they summoned their inner Vincent Ludwig from "The Naked Gun" -- falling to the pavement, then getting trampled by a bus, a steamroller and the USC marching band. In the nine-game stretch, Tribe starters went 0-7 with an 11.69 ERA. Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon were both kicked to the curb. The club was outscored 74-28. Not even a three-run, 10th-inning lead on the Tigers was safe in Sunday's finale, as closer Chris Perez, in what he would call the "low point of my professional career," coughed it up in epic fashion -- five runs scored and all with two out. Needless to say, the Indians were pleased to get off the road. That is, until they went out and got blasted again Monday night, with the Twins stringing together 10 second-inning runs en route to a 14-3 romp at Progressive Field. A happy homecoming, it was not. So the question, with the losing streak in double digits and no end in sight, is no longer whether these Indians have what it takes to hang with the Sox and Tigers. The question, rather, is where the Indians are headed in this so-called "window of contention" and are the right pieces in place to lead them there? Remember, the Indians embraced that window a year ago, when they went all-in on Ubaldo Jimenez. But they finished two games below .500 in '11, and it's going to take .566 ball the rest of the way merely to get back to that mediocre 80-win mark in '12. This is not progress. Naturally, stretches such as this lead to pointed fingers from the fan base, and talk radio is not a recommended retreat for Acta and his coaches or any members of the Tribe front office at the moment. "I'm sure we're all exceptionally popular right now," general manager Chris Antonetti joked. Antonetti was asked about Acta's job security, and the question was predictable, given the circumstances. So, too, was the answer. "I certainly think he's part of the solution," Antonetti said, "not part of our issues." Antonetti's right. Managers play the hand they are dealt, and Acta was dealt an unbalanced, undependable hand. It will be the job of the front office, once this bid for third place is completed, to determine how that hand came to be and what to make of it. What's certain is that the Indians have not built a starting staff deep or reliable enough to be counted as a true contender. The Jimenez trade has not brought the intended results, and Justin Masterson has not taken that expected step into ace status this season. Carlos Carrasco's Tommy John surgery last September pulled the Cliff Lee trade import out of the picture until 2013. The Lowe experiment worked for all of two months, then imploded. Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez didn't stick. And Roberto Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona, is counted as a crutch, even though he was anything but steady at the perceived age of 28 and is now known to be 31. The only real bright spot for the Tribe rotation was the surprising Zach McAllister and his improved strikeout and walk rates. But after Monday's loss, he's given up 14 runs (six earned) on 11 hits in his last 7 2/3 innings pitched. All of which is to say that, yeah, the Indians are in need of a rotation upgrade or three, and their budget and lack of movable prospects will make that a difficult area to upgrade. "Pitching," Antonetti said, "is always an area we'll look to improve in the offseason." To get it, the Indians will probably have to part with some assets, and Shin-Soo Choo, approaching free agency at the end of 2013, and Chris Perez, due a big pay boost in arbitration, are the obvious choices. But to move Choo, in particular, could only be perceived as a step back in the contention cycle, and so you see the hole that has been dug here. Small-market clubs simply have smaller margin for error, and the errors made in the First-Year Player Draft and some particularly prominent trades (the CC Sabathia swap of '08 and the Lee deal of '09) caught up to the Indians in a big way in 2012. There were offseason decisions -- primarily, the re-signing of Grady Sizemore, who has yet to play a game, and the ensuing inaction in left field until Damon was brought along in a Hail Mary -- that also played a part, and those problems were compounded by the inability of prominent pieces such as Masterson and Carlos Santana to take a step forward. One has to wonder how much the absence of Tim Belcher, who stepped down as pitching coach after the '11 season in order to spend more time with his family, has impacted the overall preparedness of the arms. The bright side, if you can call it that, of brutal baseball is that it forces a hard examination of all facets of the organizational approach. The Indians are in a stretch of truly brutal baseball, and so the examination is scheduled. "As a team, we have not performed to our expectations," Antonetti said. "We're in the process of reviewing what may have caused that and why we have performed the way we have. That's something we'll assess at the end of the year. Right now, our collective focus is how do we play better, how do we get the guys here to perform to their potential?"
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.