CLEVELAND -- Whether the Indians' bullpen is salvageable remains to be seen. But at least the Tribe's starters are starting to give the 'pen a fighting chance. Cleveland starters, entering Anthony Reyes' Thursday afternoon outing against Kansas City, had gone at least five innings in 11 successive games. Over the past seven games, they had gone 3-1 with a 2.91 ERA in 43 1/3 innings -- an average of just more than six innings per start. In that span, the starters' ERA has dropped from 10.13 to 6.25. "It's been much better, much more like what we expected," pitching coach Carl Willis said of the starting pitching. "I think it's going to allow us to get our bullpen situated."
The starters' newfound success began with Aaron Laffey's first spot start in place of an injured Scott Lewis on April 15. Laffey has gone 1-0 with a 2.19 ERA in two starts, allowing just three runs on 10 hits over 12 1/3 innings. Lewis, recovering from a left forearm strain, has begun playing catch and will head out to the Tribe's Goodyear, Ariz., complex this week to begin his return-to-throw program. He's still at least a couple of weeks from consideration to rejoin the rotation, so Laffey will get an extended look. "He's maintaining his stuff," Willis said of Laffey, who induced five double-play groundouts from the Royals on Tuesday night. "When he's good, he knows what type of pitcher he is, and he knows how to put the ball on the ground." Staff ace Cliff Lee has begun looking more like the pitcher he was in his Cy Young Award season of 2008. He tossed eight strong innings Wednesday night, when he limited the Royals to a pair of runs on nine hits, with only one walk and five strikeouts. He's come a long way since his disastrous Opening Day start against the Rangers, when he gave up seven runs in five innings. "He's commanding the opposite arm side much better," Willis said of Lee. "He's working the ball in to right-handers much better. And he's changing speeds right at the beginning [of the game]. Working off what he did last year, hitters are trying to get a [fastball] early, so he's made an adjustment." Carl Pavano also had to make an adjustment after his nine-run calamity in Texas in his Tribe debut. The Indians are very encouraged by what Pavano did in Kansas City (6 IP, 4 ER, 8 H, 0 BB, 8 K) and New York (6 IP, 1 ER, 4 H, 1 BB, 4 K) in his past two starts. "Even at the beginning of Spring Training, he impressed us with his ability to command the baseball," Willis said. "He's very meticulous about his delivery and what he needs to do. It's real fun to watch how he can command his fastball and his ability to throw to both halves of the plate." Fausto Carmona still appears to be a work in progress, and the success of the Indians' rotation this season will very much be dependent on what Carmona can contribute from the No. 2 spot. But Willis insists that while Carmona is still walking more batters (10) than he's striking out (eight) through his first 16 innings of work this season, his stuff has improved from his wayward 2008. "There were times the other day [Saturday] when I got frustrated, because he was up 14-2 or 16-2 or whatever and he was walking people," Willis said. "But I think it was a more difficult game to pitch than people realize, because of how the ball was carrying and you don't want [the Yankees] to get anything started. I still think his stuff and his delivery is getting better and more consistent." As the rotation shows such improvement, the Indians can only hope that limits the burden on the struggling 'pen.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.