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Cleveland’s Hopes Faded in Hurry : Indians Struggling to Hit .250 After a Disastrous Start

United Press International

The measure of respectability the Cleveland Indians achieved in going 84-72 in 1986 was converted into heady expectations during spring training in February and March.

The players were confident they could challenge New York, Toronto and Detroit in the competitive American League East, and two national publications--Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine--picked Cleveland to win the division.

“It made us feel good to read that,” says outfielder-infielder Joe Carter, who led the major leagues with 121 runs-batted in last year. “It pumped up the team. But I don’t think any player on the Indians became complacent.”

Since then, however, the Indians have been a disappointment. The 1987 version of the team has performed more like the losing contingents that characterized Cleveland baseball since the team last won the pennant in 1954.

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The Indians lost 10 of their first 11 games as the pitching faltered. The staff earned-run average has hovered between 5.00 and 6.00 since opening day, and Oakland outscored Cleveland, 28-3, during a three-game series in late June.

The games with the Athletics served to focus public criticism on the Indians and Manager Pat Corrales, and incidents of clubhouse bickering and dissension have occurred.

Pitching coach Jack Aker was dismissed and blamed catcher Rick Dempsey for a lack of cooperation. Pitcher Scott Bailes complained of a weak fielding play by third baseman Brook Jacoby. Centerfielder Brett Butler suggested the front office trade himself or one of three other players--Mel Hall, Pat Tabler or Julio Franco--for a quality pitcher.

“You can’t just blame one aspect for our play,” said Corrales, who lashed out at Franco for failing to run out a groundball. “It’s pitching, it’s hitting and it’s defense. All have to work together, and they haven’t.”

The Indians hit .284 last year to lead the American League, but 1987 has brought holes in a few bats. Carter, who batted .302 last season, fell to the .240’s as only Tabler and Franco batted consistently above .300. Tony Bernazard’s aching wrist dropped him into the .240’s as well after he compiled a .301 campaign in 1987, and the team overall was struggling to hit .250 at the All-Star break.

Catchers Dempsey and Chris Bando combined have hit below .200 and Andre Thornton, the veteran designated hitter who hit 72 homers the past three years, has been benched most of the season.

“I’ve always felt I could contribute, and I’d like to have the opportunity,” says Thornton, who had just 66 at-bats and three RBI through 82 games. “I want to help. But it obviously isn’t my decision to make.”

The pitching staff has suffered through numerous woeful efforts.

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Ernie Camacho, the bullpen stopper the past three seasons, was demoted to Buffalo of the American Assn. after being besieged by control problems. Rich Yett and Mike Armstrong also were optioned out and the bullpen of Ed Vande Berg and Sammy Stewart has been erratic.

The starting rotation has frustrated Corrales. Tom Candiotti, 16-12 last season, won just two games in the first half of the season as elbow problems and a less-responsive knuckleball have hampered him. Greg Swindell, who represented youthful hope with a 5-2 showing last year, also has had arm problems and is on the disabled list after going 3-8.

Ken Schrom, 14-7 last season and an All-Star, hadn’t won a game since May 24. He has matched his 1986 losses but his four victories have been ordeals. Phil Niekro, 48, and Steve Carlton, 42--both 300-game winners and potential Hall of Famers--have combined to go 11-14 and have had few runs to work with.

Scott Bailes was 2-2 through 82 games despite being shuffled from the rotation to the bullpen and back to a starting role when Swindell got hurt.

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New pitching coach Steve Comer, a former Indian himself, admittedly needs to take a crash course in learning about his hurlers.

“At this point, I have to do more observing and listening than talking,” he says.

Aker, who took all his pitching charts and notes with him when he left, also leveled a parting shot at the Cleveland defense.

“We never used charts to show where opposing batters hit the ball,” he said. “For instance, our research showed batters tended to hit our knuckleballers (Niekro and Candiotti) up the middle. But we never paid any attention to that.

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“I’m not surprised this (his reassignment to vaguely defined player personnel and scouting duties) happened. In 1985 we lost 102 games and they got rid of three coaches then.”

Dan O’Brien, Cleveland’s senior vice president of baseball administration, has hinted that Corrales, who is in his fourth full season as manager, is being evaluated periodically. O’Brien, though, believes the Indians can win with their current personnel.

“The season isn’t over yet,” he says. “We feel we can still make noise and win games. We just don’t feel making trades and disturbing the nucleus of the team is the way to do it. We can win from within.”


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