A Look Back at the Decade of Tribe Baseball: 2006-2007Yesterday, I posted the first part of our Decade in Review, 2000 up to 2005.
Today and Tomorrow I will post the final two parts. Today we'll be looking at 2006 and the 2007 season. Tomorrow, 2007's playoff run, 2008 and 2009. Because 2007 was such a monumental year, it became a very long recap and thus I've split it up.
If you missed yesterday's post, check it out here
Again the reasoning for 2006 and 2007 being as long as they are is due to the fact that I remember more vivid details about this. As always, if you remember something that I left out, please add it in the comments.
The biggest deal Cleveland would make would be the Coco Crisp trade. Identifying third base as an area of need, Shapiro went out to acquire himself a player that would be a mainstay at that position to go along with his mainstays in center, at catcher, hitting at DH and playing at short.
Boston needed to rid themselves of Edgar Renteria, but they wanted to add an outfielder. They couldn't find a fit with Atlanta, but they may find their outfielder by acquiring someone Cleveland could want.
They managed to pry highly regarded Andy Marte away from Atlanta and later in the offseason would swing him to Cleveland for the guy they really wanted, Coco Crisp.
With Grady Sizemore in center and Casey Blake in right, for now at least, Cleveland believed they had an excess of outfielders. To replace Crisp temporarily, they traded Arthur Rhodes to Philadelphia for outfielder Jason Michaels. Franklin Gutierrez, acquired in the Bradley trade was viewed upon as a future option.
So Cleveland made the deal. They traded reliever David Riske and backup catcher Josh Bard in addition to Crisp to Boston for the heralded Andy Marte, catcher Kelly Shoppach and reliever Guillermo Mota.
Marte was the centerpiece, he was the future at third. Boone would be the short-term solution at third, but eventually, Marte would ascend to the spot.
Shapiro wasn't done. He identified Ben Broussard's inability to hit left handed pitching as a weakness, so he went out and got himself a right handed hitting Eduardo Perez to platoon at first base against lefties.
It worked to be fairly honest and it also netted Cleveland two of it's current core players, more on that later.
They also made an effort to revamp the bullpen with the loss of Bobby Howry. Mota was supposed to help fill that void but in 30 some innings all he could do was a 6.71 ERA. Cleveland brought back Bob Wickman to close, but not before flirting with San Diego's legendary Trevor Hoffman.
It seemed apparent that Cleveland was going to gain the services of one of the game's best closers until San Diego had a change of heart and made an offer to keep their beloved stopper. Hoffman in the end took less money to stay in San Diego, so Cleveland settled for bringing back Wickman.
With both Elarton and Millwood cashing in on huge 2005 seasons, Cleveland had a few voids in their rotation, so they went to free agency to address their vacancies at the bottom.
They started with Paul Byrd a veteran from the Angels. Byrd signed a two year deal with Cleveland worth $14 million with an option for a third. It wasn't a Millwood low-risk investment, but it was virtually the same amount for a veteran presence in the rotation and unlike Millwood, he didn't have an injury concern.
To shore up the back end, they made a deal with division rival Detroit Tiger Jason Johnson. Inked to a 3.5 million dollar deal, Cleveland found themselves a fifth starter, or so they thought.
No it wasn't an mp3 player or anything like that strapped to the back of his belt. Johnson had diabetes and while some would like to blame that on him sucking as bad as he did, Johnson was just bad. So bad.. so so bad...
14 starts, 14 long starts.. He threw in some decent performances that made the Indians stick with him a little longer, but enough was enough. He went 3-8 with a 5.96 ERA and 1.688 WHIP in 77 innings. His spot was eventually taken over by young Jeremy Sowers, the hottest pitching prospect the Indians had in their system at the time.
Sowers made his debut against Cincinnati on June 25th and while it wasn't remarkable, there was hope that the Indians had something better than Johnson. And they really did. Jeremy Sowers ended up leading the entire AL in ERA in the second half of 2006. He went 7-4 but his biggest accomplishment came in July when he threw two back to back shutout victories against Seattle and Minnesota.
He was the first Indians rookie to throw back to back shutouts since 1972. He finished up with a 22 innings scoreless streak and high hopes were had for Sowers joining a dynamite rotation in 2007 for a full-season.
The 2006 season however was most remembered for disappointment. CC Sabathia was injured at points, but he still put forth the best effort of Indians starters that yer. Cliff Lee had a bit of a regression, still winning 14 games, but with an ERA of 4.40. Jake Westbrook won 15 games but the starting pitching was far from the problem aside from Jason Johnson.
It was the disaster of a bullpen that caused the Indians downfall in 2006. Mota flamed out as we mentioned and the Indians never really found a replacement for Bobby Howry. Fernando Cabrera regressed in a big way, going 3-3 with a 5.19 ERA in 60 innings. Rafael Betancourt couldn't repeat his 2005 success and Jason Davis' move to the pen proved to be a work in progress.
Cleveland shuffled in names like Brian Sikorski, Eddie Mujica, Tom Mastny, Brian Slocum, Danny Graves and Scott Sauerbeck to no effect. Matt Miller was injured and eventually it led to the Indians being out of contention enough to trade their closer, Bob Wickman, to Atlanta.
The idea was that Cleveland didn't have a closer of the future. But they had an abundance of starting pitching. So they made a move to convert one of their hot starting prospects, Fausto Carmona, into their closer of the future. Carmona made his debut for the Tribe in Cleveland for CC Sabathia in a spot start.
He won the game and five days later he'd get another start and get pounded. With CC Sabathia still not ready, Carmona made another start and got shelled yet again in five innings. He wouldn't be seen again till May as a relief pitcher.
Cleveland planned on turning him into their closer of the future and they eased him into the closers role as the season progressed. Rafael Betancourt got opportunities in Wickman's absence as Carmona made his rise. Fausto was stellar in the set up role, gaining nine holds before he eventually took over the closers role.
The first game was against Boston, in Boston. Carmona got hit hard the previous night, giving up four runs and taking the loss in the process. But it made sense in a way to see how he would respond, because if he had the guts to close, he would have to come back from something like that.
Well the problem was this. Eric Wedge basically thew Carmona to the dogs. Carmona had a two run lead and he managed to get one out before he was met with a death scenario. Two on and the game's most clutch hitter was coming to the plate. David Ortiz struck fear into horror movies, killer clowns, extreme sky diving and big gross spiders if runners were on base. The man made a living off being clutch.
So why would this end any different?
It didn't. Ortiz hit a three run homer to win the game. Carmona looked dejected and the damage had been done. This man could not close ball games. He had been exposed to horror too quickly. Hell, he might be ruined as a pitcher period.
Wedge ran Carmona out again a few days later against Boston and the same result. Mark Lorretta doubled to left field, two runs scored and the game was over. Three days later against the Tigers, Wedge decided to make it 3-3 and Carmona blew another save in Detroit. One out away from getting out of it, Carmona surrendered a two-run walk off shot to Pudge Rodriguez. The damage had been done a few nights before, Carmona was toast.
Fausto finished up two more games, but they were 12 and 13 run leads against LA and Kansas City. He would lose another game and get moved back into a semi-set up role before Cleveland moved him back into the rotation on September 9th. Carmona lost two more games in his final four starts to finish up what was a horrific rookie season. One that started with a positive first win in his first ever game.
Anyway as you can imagine just with the fact Fausto Carmona was attempting to close games, Cleveland didn't contend like we all thought they would in 2006. They finished in fourth place, 18 games behind first place as Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota fought for the division crown and a wild card spot. The top of the Central being very good and Cleveland's bullpen problems led the team to a disappointing 2006 overall.
Offensively it wasn't a disappointment. Victor Martinez's home run totals decreased but he started to show veteran presence as both a leader on the field and with the bat as his average and RBI total grew.
The Ben Broussard-Eddie Perez platoon at first base proved to work brilliantly for Mark Shapiro. Broussard killed right-handed pitchers when he played, hitting 18 home runs that season and carrying a .308 batting average. Eddie Perez made his debut on opening night as the Indians and White Sox brought in the 2006 season for the MLB on ESPN.
Perez hit a two run shot off Mark Buehrle. Cleveland ended up losing the game 10-4, but a lot of positive was taken as Cleveland took the series and dethroned the reigning champs in the first series of the year. Perez crushed lefties that year, hitting 9 home runs and batting .275 for the season. The Broussard-Perez platoon was such a success that when Cleveland fell out of contention, they dealt Perez to Seattle for young shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera at the end of June.
A month later, Seattle reunited the platoon by dealing for Ben Broussard. They traded young outfield prospect Shin-Soo Choo and pitcher Shawn Nottingham to Cleveland for Broussard four days before the July 31st deadline.
Cleveland wasn't done dealing though. They finished up their deadline deals on July 30th by trading second baseman Ronnie Belliard to St. Louis for utility man Hector Luna. Belliard gave the Indians two and half good seasons at second coming over from Colorado. He hit at least 2.80 in all three years with Cleveland and played solid defense and provided a strong clubhouse presence. If anything, Belliard was the most missed player dealt that year as Cleveland didn't have an answer for second base anymore and all it netted them was... Hector Luna.
Go back all the way to the beginning of a season for a second to realize why the Indians were in this position.
There was no bigger disappointment than the Brandon Phillips debacle. It goes down as a debacle because it was downright a debacle. Phillips was the main guy the Indians got in the Colon trade. He was the second baseman of the future. He was perennial All-Star according to his talents, but in what is probably the biggest gaff of the Shapiro era, Phillips wasn't handled properly.
Mix in bad attitude on Phillips part and you had a marriage that needed to end. No excuses from anyone, Shapiro even admits the way they handled the situation and Phillips development was flawed. Phillips spent four years up and down from Cleveland and Buffalo since he was acquired. His fullest season with 2003 when he hit six home runs and was just 22 years old. He was rushed, quite like Peralta was. However Phillips took a bad attitude about it.
He was given a shot to win the utility spot in spring training against Ramon Vazquez, but it was clear he and Eric Wedge were no seeing eye to eye whether Phillips put forth an effort that was worthy of winning the spot, so Cleveland traded him.
Traded him days after the season started in fact. On April 7th, Cleveland sent him to Cincinnati for a player to be named later. That player would later turn into reliever Jeff Stevens. Phillips was just one of those guys that needed a change of scenery as when he got to Cincinnati he lit it up. 17 home runs and 75 RBI as Cincinnati's second baseman. He went on to have an even better year in 2007, hitting 30 home runs and knocking in 94 RBI as one of Cincinnati's best hitters. There was no mistake about it, Shapiro had messed up and he would need to find a way to fix the damage that had been done to his club's lineup by giving away an All-Star. This saga is far from over though as every time the Reds and Indians meet in their yearly Ohio-Cup matchup, Phillips makes it clear he is still angry, be it with quotes to the media or taunts to the Indians dugout.
He also plays with his hair on fire. In 23 games against the Tribe, Phillips has hit four home runs, knocked in 18 runs and has carried a .341 average.
Offensively there were disappointments though that Phillips wouldn't have solved. Aaron Boone's power numbers regressed, Casey Blake didn't have the same year he had and Jason Michaels wasn't really a capable fill in at left field for Coco Crisp. Jhonny Peralta had a regression from 2005 and really, the offense wasn't the same it was in 2005.
It was still productive, but it just wasn't the same. Grady Sizemore continued his growth as he played in all 162 games, hit .290 with 28 home runs and 22 stolen bases. He started to look like a legit 30-30 player, perhaps 40-40 one day. Travis Hafner had a magical year himself, hitting 42 home runs and knocking in 117 runs that year.
His biggest achievement was tying Don Mattingly's single season grand slam record. It proved that Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in the entire league with a .439 OBP and 100 walks which led the AL. Hafner did all this with also missing the final month of the season. Hafner stepped in to the box to face CJ Wilson with the bases loaded in attempt to break the Mattingly record. Wilson had none of it as he came inside to Hafner. Unfortunately for Pronk, he came in a little too much and hit Hafner on the hand. His season was over a month short and the record would not be broken.
Hafner tied the record against Kansas City on August 13th. Hafner's season was so magical, he hit one of his grand-slams on June 3rd, his birthday, off Brendan Donnelly as part of a three hit, six RBI performance.
The offense also did another special thing on July 4th that year. Celebrating America, they pounded the Yankees into the ground with a 19-1 performance. Cleveland was a decade of Yankee pounding for Cleveland and this game was no different. Jake Westbrook won the game and Cleveland had a nine run fifth inning. Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta both went deep twice and with that, Shawn Chacon was moved to the bullpen and would start August with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Obviously with all this, Cleveland didn't make the playoffs and followed up a promising 2005 with a disappointing 2006. Defining his club's weaknesses, Shapiro knew what he had to do for 2007 and aimed to improve the team in the offseason for the upcoming season.
Replacing Broussard/Perez at first would be solved quite easily for Cleveland. Young converted catcher Ryan Garko was up to the task. After hitting seven home runs and knocking in 45 runs in the second half for the Tribe, Garko was in the mix to receive many at bats at first. They'd platoon yet again by placing Casey Blake at first on days Garko didn't start and in the outfield days he would.
Shapiro identified the left field position as one that was a problem and he decided to solve it yet again with another platoon. He also essentially was platooning Ryan Garko at first with Blake, so when Blake was at first, they need a right fielder. Also, with Aaron Boone's departure the club was in need of a strong veteran presence.
The solution was to sign two outfielders. The first being David Dellucci from Philadelphia. Shapiro gave him a three year deal to pair him up with Jason Michaels in left field. Dellucci would make a little over 11.5 million over the three years of the deal. The second was Trot Nixon, who would play in right when Blake was at first. Nixon provided a strong veteran presence, coming over from Boston as an energetic leader.
To solve the Indians problem at third base with the departed Aaron Boone, they believed they already had one that they traded for earlier in 2006. Yes it was Andy Marte's time and coming into Spring Training they all but anointed Marte the starter. The job was basically his.
With Marte the man at third, they still needed a second baseman to replace the ghost of Brandon Phillips that haunted the Tribe. So they flipped strong prospect Kevin Kouzmanoff who hit a grand slam in his first major league at-bat against Texas to San Diego for up and coming second baseman Josh Barfield.
Barfield had a fabulous rookie year for the Padres. He hit 13 home runs in pitcher friendly PETCO park and hit .280 for San Diego in 2006. He was a future All-Star for many many years to come and Cleveland was looked at as getting the better end of the deal.
To fix the bullpen, Mark Shapiro went to work. He signed not one, not two, not three, but four relief pitchers to major league contracts. He inked veteran and 42 year old Roberto Hernandez to a one year $3.3 million dollar deal. Hernandez pitched in 28 games for the Tribe that year, carried a 6.23 ERA and was released on June 28th. He signed with the Dodgers to finish the year with an even higher ERA in less games.
The two moves that worked out for Shapiro however was the signing of left-handed specialist Aaron Fultz. Missing Arthur Rhodes big time, Shapiro got Fultz on the cheap for just $1.5 million and an option for 2008.
Aiming to sure up the closers spot, Shapiro made two acquisitions in this area. He signed veteran closer Keith Foulke from Boston to a one year contract with an option for 2008. The plan was to go into the season as Foulke as the closer and Joe Borowski as the set up man.
The Indians wouldn't even go into spring training with that plan.
Keith Foulke signed on January 14th, 2007. He reported to Spring Training a month later on February 15th and on February 16th he retired. If anything, Foulke should be commended for his stand up character as he realized when he reported that something wasn't right with his elbow. Foulke could have come in, went on the DL and collected a paycheck all year, but rather that he retired and saved the Indians some cash. Foulke would later return and sign with Oakland in 2008 and pitch one more year in the majors. He played 2009 in an independent professional league.
So instead of Foulke winning the competition for the closer spot, Joe Borowski was the man. Cleveland had signed Borowski in December of 2006 to a one year deal with an option for 2008. Borowski was the closer, Betancourt, Fultz and Hernandez would set things up.
The rotation was set as well. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee would head it up with Jake Westbrook (signed to a three year extension on April 13th) and veteran Paul Byrd. Jeremy Sowers big second half in 2006 set him up for the final spot.
And of course, as we would soon find out as a recurring theme for 2007, things didn't go according to plan. Where was this was bad news in 2008 and 2009, it wasn't the case in 2007. It turns out that all the things that looked like they went wrong in 2007 turned out to be for the best.
Cliff Lee got injured in spring training, suffering a groin strain would make him start the year on the Disabled List. This would push young Fausto Carmona into starting the year with the club an in the rotation. The same Carmona that was scared for life after David Ortiz ripped his confidence out and sent it over the Fenway Park outfield walls.
So the stage was set for 2007. Expectations sort of dimmed after the disappointing 2006. Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota all expected to be contenders in the division and Cleveland was much of an afterthought.
Cleveland became much of a darling though after they became the team that had their home opener in Milwaukee... Yes you read that right. Due to Cleveland being in Ohio and the chance that snow can tend to make an appearance in this month, Seattle and Cleveland had to deal with an opening day at Jacob's Field that was overcome with snow.
After winning two of three to open up in Chicago, Cleveland returned home to open up 2007 for business. Snow was not complying with their wishes.
In what is now the most official un-official game of this decade, Paul Byrd nearly threw a no-hitter, Victor Martinez injured his hamstring and Mike Hargrove converted from the human rain delay to the human snow delay.
Because of the cold, Martinez unwisely took off running for second base early in the game and immediately pulled up lame short of second. It would keep him out for several weeks.
Byrd was tossing a gem and while some might blame the snow for part of his deception that day, Byrd was on target. With one out away from finishing his part of the fifth, making the game official, Mike Hargrove ran out to the umpire and complained that his hitters couldn't see the ball with all the weather.
He was right, but that still doesn't mean we can't get upset that we were an out away from seeing an abbreviated no-hitter.
That game was called and so was every other game Cleveland was supposed to play with Seattle that week. In fact it got so bad that week that they moved Cleveland's next home series with Los Angeles to Milwaukee. Yes... Milwaukee.
The town they used to film Major League, where a losing Cleveland team turned it around and made a magical run and became the darlings of the baseball world.
Well it sort of had a parallel with this year's team. "Without a home," Cleveland won two of three from LA at Miller Park. John Adams was flown in to bang his drum. Joe Borowski entered the game to the tune of "Wild Thing." Slider went down Bernie Brewer's slide when Cleveland hit home runs and the replacement to Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, not only hit a big home run in what will go down as the Indians official home opener, he threw out Erick Aybar at second base trying to steal to end the game.
From there on, Cleveland seemed to be a team on a mission. A team possessed by something not real.
So Shoppach took over for a few weeks and it laid the ground work for what would become a season long pairing. Shoppach and Byrd took to each other and Shop because Paul Byrd's personal catcher. Every fifth day, Shoppach would get a shot and the defensive stud could hit the long ball as we would find out. As Garko started to take over first base full-time, Martinez's bat still needed to be in the lineup as he was putting up an MVP caliber year. He hit 25 long bombs and 114 RBI to lead the club.
So with the situation with Blake to be explained in a bit, Garko settled in at first and Martinez would play there every fifth day when Shoppach caught Byrd. It was a system that worked to perfection all year as Garko hit 21 home runs and carried a .289 average.
Garko took over first full time because Casey Blake was no longer looking for a position. In fact, Blake had re-settled into his position of old and became a godsend for the Tribe at third. Andy Marte wasn't very good to tart the year. He finished 2007 with just one home run and a .193 average. He played in 20 games and was injured rather quickly in 2007, which sent Blake back to third.
Trot Nixon played the majority of the games in right field but didn't exactly provide the numbers the Indians were looking for. Relief came in the form of Franklin Gutierrez, the key piece in the Milton Bradley deal. Not only did Gutierrez belt 13 home runs in just 100 games as a youngster, he played excellent defense, saving the Indians on more than one occasion. Look no further than in June against Cincinnati. Alex Gonzalez hit a deep fly ball to right field off Tom Mastny in the eighth inning of a tie game. Gutierrez ranged over and made what was an unbelievable catch that looked downright impossible to make to end the inning.
Josh Barfield's season didn't start off well but the club was committed to him. Committed to him until enough was enough. Barfield's struggles carried on through the break and past it to the point that the club couldn't continue to run him out there. The solution came in the form of an un-suspecting source.
Asdrubal Cabrera, acquired a year before for Eddie Perez was learning in the minor leagues. At the age of 21 though and and in desperate need for a utility player that could actually hit (Mike Rouse .119 average in 41 games) Cleveland called up Cabrera and he made his debut on August 8th.
Sooner rather than later, Cabrera not only took over the starting second base job he took over the second spot in the lineup. Cabrera finished the year with a .283 average and a .354 OBP. He single-handedly provided a spark that Cleveland needed to make not only a run at the postseason but the World Series. Cabrera's insertion into the lineup sparked the club's strongest winning period of the season. They lit up August and September and would eventually go on to win the AL Central.
But of course, Cabrera isn't the whole story.
Cleveland found all the right band-aids to the issues that seemed to pop up. Nixon wasn't working in right, Gutierrez was the answer. Andy Marte didn't work, but Casey Blake and Ryan Garko did.
But the whole left field was still an issue. David Delluci pulled up lame on June 19th in an interleague game against his former Philadelphia club. Dellucci was effectively done for the season as he tore his right hamstring to shreds. That isn't to say the Dellucci injured killed the club offensively as his offensive numbers were very poor. He didn't have to hit a ton of home runs or knock in runners, he was there to get on base anyway he could. He simply didn't do that.
Jason Michaels meanwhile was holding up his end of the deal. He had a good 2007 in the platoon role. He did everything right as a role player off the bench and even came up with many clutch hits throughout the season. However as the club learned in 2006, he wasn't the full-time answer to their left field puzzle.
With Shin-Soo Choo battling Tommy John surgery and Ben Francisco not quite ready, Cleveland needed to make a move if they were going to contend deep into the playoffs. They couldn't have a weakness at any spot of the diamond and left field was currently one without a readily available answer.
So Mark Shapiro went to work. There seemed to be one option that made the most sense. Cleveland was still searching for someone to hit in the two-hole at the time, before Cabrera's ascent up the lineup. So they were essentially searching for an outfielder that could hit at the top of the lineup.
Texas wasn't really in contention and they had an old fan-favorite roaming center field and putting up, quite frankly, his most impressive season to date.
Kenny Lofton was 40 years old and still hitting the baseball. At the time he was traded to Cleveland from Texas, he was carrying a .303 average and a .380 on base percentage. The only issue is would he be fine giving way to Grady Sizemore at both center and in the leadoff role?
Obviously Lofton was on board. It could very well have been his last opportunity to win a ring, so he was willing to do anything the Tribe wanted. Left field would be his home and he'd hit second. The deal was done on July 27th and he was in the lineup that day to face the Minnesota Twins.
Jacob's Field went nuts for Lofton and he didn't disappoint. Kenny had three hits in five at bats, including a push bunt for a base hit hat started a rally in a six-run third inning. Lofton would add an RBI-single in the fifth inning and another hit in the seventh.
Lofton eventually had a shot at the leadoff spot as Eric Wedge tried to find a lineup that was productive as the Indians struggled. The combinations were not working until Sizemore returned to the leadoff spot, Lofton slid down the order and Cabrera was moved to second. The team then took off offensively and the playoffs were in sight.
The other side of this story however was the pitching. Cliff Lee's injury provided issues for the Tribe to start the year. Lee had the worst year of his career as he battled that groin issue and the frustration of not producing. Lee eventually was sent down to the minors later in the year and would finish the season in the bullpen and not a part of the club's postseason roster.
A reason for this was the success of the five starters currently in place. Jake Westbrook had also dealt with injuries, but the veteran fought through them to start 25 games and at least become a part of the rotation going into the postseason. Paul Byrd and Kelly Shoppach worked magic to the tune of a 15 win season and a 4.59 ERA in 192 innings.
The fifth spot was an issue all year as Jeremy Sowers needed to be relied upon more than expected. Lee's struggles bumped Sowers up in the rotation and combined with the league having a book on handling the soft-tossing lefty, Sowers struggled. In 13 starts he had a 6.42 ERA and a disappointing sophomore season. Things were not working out for the youngster at all. Eventually Aaron Laffey took over the spot and provided consistent work for the club. He went 4-4 down the stretch at the age of 22 but his biggest asset was his stability in the five hole.
All they needed was stability because at the top of the rotation, Cleveland had a two-headed monster that struck fear into lineups that had to deal with them back to back in one series.
One part of that duo was Cleveland's ace, C.C. Sabathia. This was the year that everything seemed to click for Sabathia. The experience, the trials and tribulations. Everything came together for him and to prove it, he won the AL Cy Young Award after the season ended. CC won 19 games in 2007 had a 3.21 ERA in 241 innings to go along with 209 strikeouts. He was dominating even when he didn't have his best stuff as he managed to keep his team in the game regardless of how well his stuff was working.
Many feel though that while Sabathia deserved the award there were better choices. Josh Beckett had a year that was just as good if not better than Sabathia's up in Boston and after the postseason, many justified that with his performance in the ALCS and World Series.
But there was another player on the Tribe that had just as much claim to the Cy Young award as Sabathia did. It was the story of 2007 and it was brewing into something special.
Fausto Carmona was tortured in 2006. Laughed at, ridiculed, pitied and just downright thrown away for what happened in 2006. In 2oo7, he laughed back and poked fun at the rest of the American League as they flailed at his devastating sinker and continuously broke their bats trying to hit his splitter.
Things didn't start happy though. Carmona was clubbed by Chicago in his first start for six runs. But that didn't stop him. He came back to hold his own against the Yankees to give everyone a glimmer of hope that the kid wasn't destroyed after all. The Yankee start was a memorable one as it was one of the worst blown saves Joe Borowski ever had. Carmona left with a lead, but Borowski allowed an remarkable six run ninth inning as Alex Rodriguez hit a walk-off home run
Carmona's status was in limbo as Lee neared a return, but the Tribe simply couldn't hold him out of the rotation if he was pitching as well as he was as did in late April and early May. Carmona won five straight after the Yankee game, beating Johan Santana head to head twice to start and end the span. Carmona topped it off with a complete game shutout on May 17th.
2007 was also the year in which the club completely baffled Johan Santana. Santana would go onto lose five times to Cleveland that year. He would lose the final three times to CC Sabathia, twice in August and once in September.
The Twins Torii Hunter meanwhile was the most vocal about how good Carmona was. He backed up the quotes of amazing with doing a complete 360 and falling down trying to swing at one of Carmona's pitches. Carmona was good and he was nasty.
Carmona went 5-1 in the month of July to run his record up to 13-5 and at that point you could tell there was something special going on. That moment was probably against Boston on July 25th. I can remember being there in fact as Carmona out-dueled Josh Beckett in a 1-0 performance. Carmona went eight shutout, Borowski picked up the save and Franklin Gutierrez scored the lone run on a solo home run in the third inning.
After a rocky August, Carmona came to play in September, going 5-0 and going at least seven innings each time out. Carmona lost out to John Lackey for the AL ERA title by a mere .05 points but he capped off the best month of his year with his 19th win and he was ready for the postseason.
As we've seen, the offensive positions didn't work out the way the club wanted to and neither did the pitching. But it all came together. The bullpen was no exclusion.
Joe Borowski did turn out a 45 save year after they basically had to hand him the role with Keith Foulke's retirement. You should know though that Borowski was only an Indian because he failed a physical with Philadelphia earlier in the offseason. Smokin' Joe didn't do things normally. In fact he was worse than Bob Wickman in the way he saved games.
Joe famously said that fans would have to smoke a lot of cigarettes and drink a lot of beer when he pitched. Borowski finished the year with an ERA of 5.07, the first closer to ever save 45 games and claim an ERA above 5.
But it worked and it worked because he got the ball enough to do so. He got the ball enough because the bullpen fell in place. Rafael Betancourt was the one plan the Indians had that worked out. Betancourt had a career year with a stellar 1.47 ERA in 79 innings. He was unstoppable most of the year.
He was compliment by his Rafael brother, the young Rafael Perez. Los Rafaels was a deadly combo as Raffy Right and Raffy Left were almost automatic when the seventh and eighth innings rolled around. Perez eventually climbed up the ranks after Aaron Fultz went down with an injury. Fultz was having a good year (finished with a 2.92 ERA) but Perez was much better. In 60 innings, Perez had a 1.78 ERA and the game was on lock down with the bases loaded. Perez entered the game in many situations with runners on base and just about every time, it ended in disappointment and frustration for the other team.
In 30 at-bats against Perez with two outs and runners in scoring position, Perez surrendered just four hits and struck out ten. He allowed just five runs to score that year. In Late and Close situations (7th or later with the team ahead by one) Perez held opponents to a .180 AVG. There was a point in the year when Perez was brought in to routinely face hitters with the bases load. Cold out of the pen, he routinely came in and struck out everyone he needed to get out of the jam.
In 2006 after Carmona combusted, Tom Mastny took over the closers role. He did a good job. It earned him a shot in the 2007 bullpen and he put together a good year. In 57 innings he had a 4.68 ERA, but his biggest accomplishment came in the postseason.
The core of the bullpen was pretty much Borowski, Perez, Betancourt, partially Fultz and Mastny. But they also got some help from young Jensen Lewis, who started the year at Double-A. Lewis was a bulldog that grew up an Indians fan and a Ohio-native.
Lewis made his debut against Chicago on July 16th and you couldn't set it up more perfectly. He faced one of the guys he grew up watching on the Tribe in Jim Thome. He ended up walking him, but he got out of the jam he created and had a successful debut. A few days later he would walk Thome again and eventually give up a run in his two innings.
Lewis eventually elevated into more of a setup role and became a reliable reliever for Eric Wedge. He finished with a 2.14 ERA in 29 innings and a 1-1 record.
So with a bullpen that came together, an offense that found some pieces and a rotation that was operating with a two-headed monster everything was set up for a run to the postseason. The biggest competition came in the form of the Detroit Tigers.
On August 14th Cleveland entered a short two game series with the Tigers separated by a half game. The two teams split creating a tie as the Tribe traveled to Tampa Bay. Cleveland gained control of the Central with a win over Tampa and never looked back. After the series with Tampa they turned around back to Detroit for a three game series that would prove to be pivotal in the chase for the AL Central.
After a loss in game one, Cleveland took the second game setting up an important third game between Nate Robertson and Westbrook. Each pitcher was on from the start. Robertson was an out shy of nine shutout innings and Westbrook pitched eight shutout before giving way to the Raffy Twins in the ninth.
With the game tied 0-0 in the tenth inning, Joel Zumaya continued to pitch after getting the final out in the ninth. Martinez led the inning off with a double and Hafner followed with an intentional walk. Barfield came in to run for Martinez and Garko would hit into a force out putting him at third. After a walk and another strikeout, Cleveland's scoring opportunity was going to evaporate.
That was until Kenny Lofton pinch hit for Jason Michaels and put one up the middle to plate two. Waiver addition Chris Gomez would single in another run and Joe Borowski would pick up the save despite allowing a run.
Cleveland was out of Detroit with a two and a half game lead. Over the next month Cleveland would start building their lead up. They would meet with the Tigers again in September with a 4.5 game lead. It was important for Cleveland to win at least two from the series to make sure Detroit was held at bay and perhaps a sweep would put a dagger into the race and set up a possible clinching scenario later that week against Oakland in the final home series.
Game one was far from the pitching matchup the two put on a month ago in Detroit. Kenny Rogers was on point for the Tigers as he went seven innings and gave up just two runs. Paul Byrd fought through seven innings giving up four runs in the first four innings, but settling in for three scoreless after that.
Byrd and Fultz pitched a scoreless eighth and it set the stage for Zumaya to try and redeem himself from last month's blown game. Zumaya was wild from the start, walking Sizemore to lead off the inning, giving up a single to Cabrera and then letting up a run to Martinez on a ground-out. Jhonny Peralta then tied the game on a two run launch job to right field.
Joe Borowski retired the side in the ninth, Betancourt did the same in the 10th and 11th.
What I remember the most about this game, as I was there (I seemed to be at all the big games that year, boy was I lucky), was the tremendous energy in the stadium. My dad and I were in the bleachers to start the game but as extras started we migrated down around to the first base side. We stood in the concourse watching things unfold.
Every time someone came to bat in the 10th and 11th innings, the crowd chanted their name. "Let's Go Grady" or "Let's Go Kelly". No matter who it was, we cheered their name.
The energy was amazing and it all built up to the point where Casey Blake came to bat. After his ball sailed out and over the wall to win the game I don't remember who I high-fived after my dad, but I must have touched the hand of at least 10 to 15 different strangers.
It was a moment that I didn't think would be ever be matched at a baseball game. I was wrong as we will find out later but the game was a turning point. Blake hit his second walkoff shot of the home stand (he had done it to the Royals over the weekend) and Cleveland was feeling good.
Borowski shut the door on 7-4 and 4-2 wins the following nights and Cleveland was up 7.5 games with the Tigers leaving town. The division was all but won. Cleveland beat Oakland on Friday and lost on Saturday putting them in the same position they entered the series in up 7.5 games.
On September 23rd, the final home game of the year, Rafael Betancourt struck out Mark Ellis to end the game and immediately was embraced by Victor Martinez halfway between home plate and the pitchers mound. A dog-pile ensued and Cleveland celebrated their first AL Central title since 2001. The postseason was coming back to Cleveland!
What was impressive about the second half surge was the 23 games the Tribe played in 23 days because of the snow debacle earlier in the season. Cleveland got hot and did it during a tough stretch of their season where they got very little rest.