Tribe hopes good Carmona is real one

Tribe hopes good Carmona is real one

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Two images of Fausto Carmona come to mind.

The first is a fed-up Fausto, on the mound at Comerica Park and raising his arms in a mixture of frustration and incredulity after Ivan Rodriguez hit a walk-off home run off him in August 2006. It marked the third blown save for Carmona in a week's span and served as the end of his brief but memorable tenure as the Tribe's closer.

The next image is decisively different. It's a steely eyed Carmona peering into the glove of catcher Victor Martinez with about 30 dead bugs on his face. In fact, that photo of Carmona ignoring an infestation of insects during a dominant performance in Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series against the Yankees now hangs in the hallway outside the Minor League clubhouse at the Tribe's new Player Development Complex. It is meant to serve as an inspiration to the organization's youngsters.

Those are two very different photos of two very different Carmonas.

In '06, feeling the intensity of the ninth inning, he let his excitement get the best of him and overthrew, thereby elevating what was supposed to be a sinking fastball. In '07, he stayed even-tempered and even-keeled, and his command of that sinker and the opposing hitters was impeccable throughout a 19-win season.

What the Indians saw from Carmona last season was not only a snag in health -- in the form of a left hip strain -- but also a return to his overly excitable ways of old. They think that was the key culprit in his disappointing 8-7 campaign, in which he notched a 5.44 ERA and 70 walks against just 58 strikeouts in 120 2/3 innings.

"Last year, he had something to live up to," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "That was difficult for him."

The concern going into '09 is that Carmona has more to live up to than ever. With former staff ace CC Sabathia long gone and the rotation very much a question mark going into the season, the Tribe will be counting on Carmona. As the Indians learned last season, they can't get where they want to get on the shoulders of Cliff Lee alone.

"He's as important as any one player can be," general manager Mark Shapiro said of Carmona.

Is Carmona feeling the pressure?

"I care about the team," he said through an interpreter, "but I don't think about that. I just go out to pitch and make a good performance and try to get better every time."

The 25-year-old Carmona has made two starts thus far in the Cactus League season and has worked four scoreless innings. He showed supreme command of his sinker against the Padres last Friday. Facing the Cubs on Wednesday, he was a bit more erratic, but he nonetheless avoided major damage.

"He had a couple pitches where he was out of control," said manager Eric Wedge, "but he was able to bring it back. He just needs to maintain his composure and stay within himself."

A guy like Carmona, who can rather effortlessly hurl a baseball upwards of 97 mph, needs to learn to trust his stuff. If he forces it, the results can be disastrous, as he learned during that closing stint.

"Sometimes I try too hard, and it makes my mechanics go off a little bit," he said. "I need to focus more, emotionally."

That's not the only area where Carmona, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, needs to remain focused. The big-bodied native of the Dominican came into camp looking noticeably plump in his midsection. The Indians have seen enough abdominal and oblique strains the last few years to see that as a slight red flag.

"He's a big, strong kid," Willis said. "He just has to be careful. He has to watch it, because if it gets away from him, he could get behind the eight ball really quick."

Carmona has been working on his conditioning and said he's in better shape now than he was a month ago.

"I lost a couple pounds," he said. "I don't know how many, but I feel better now."

The Indians will feel a lot better about their rotation if Carmona can return to his 2007 form. Thus far, Martinez, who is expected to be paired with Carmona all season, believes that sinker is in fine form.

"When he throws that two-seamer down in the strike zone, it's almost unhittable," Martinez said. "I could call it on every pitch."

Carmona probably wouldn't shake off that call, but he has begun shaking off his interpreter. He made it clear to reporters after his first spring outing that he wants to start trying to speak for himself. On Wednesday, he tried it out and held his own fairly well. While not the most quotable guy on the team, he did fully comprehend reporters' questions, and that's a start.

That's one of many ways in which Carmona has grown since the Indians signed him for a meager $10,000 bonus in the Dominican when he was just 17 years old. But in 2009, the Indians want him to revert back to the mentality that made him one of the league's best pitchers two years ago.

Carmona is already predicting which version of himself we'll see this year. He said the '07 image will endure.

"That's the real Fausto," he said.

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