The 2011 Cleveland Indians season has ended with silence after a very exciting first half. The Tribe went 20-8 (.714) over the first 28 games, giving hope to a fan base that hasn't had much to cheer for during the last 3 seasons. During that stretch they had two separate win streaks of more than 7 games including sweeps of both Boston and Detroit. Few expected this kind of performance from the Indians this season and the dream was to be shattered very quickly. Over the rest of the season Cleveland went 60-74 (.448). The hot start enabled the Tribe to grab an early lead in the AL Central and keep it every game from April 8th to June 14th. The battle for the Central Division crown then ensued between the Indians and Tigers during the following weeks. While Indians fans wish it could have lasted a little longer, the Tribe did put up a fight, holding at least a share of first until July 22nd when they were unable to keep up with the red hot Tigers. Series losses to White Sox, Angels and Royals placed the Indians in a solid second place and the 10 straight losses to Detroit to end the season cemented their position.
Unsurprisingly, the Indians success and failure corresponded with a rash of injuries that plagued the team all season. While Grady Sizemore started the season on the disabled list, he was the only starting player on the list at the time. The first big player to go down was Mitch Talbot. While it may not seem like a big deal, Talbot had played extremely well the season before and had pitched well in his first two starts. After the injury he was never the same. His first start back was probably his worst in his short career as he went 3 innings and gave up 8 earned runs. Carlos Carrasco was injured about a week after Talbot, extremely taxing the Indians rotational depth. Jeanmar Gomez and Alex White were called up in their stead, but White was injured after only 3 starts and was never to pitch for the Indians again. Around this same time, Travis Hafner strained his oblique and Grady Sizemore returned to the DL with another knee injury. There are very few teams in Major League Baseball who could still compete with two of their star players missing, but the pain was only beginning for the Indians. Within a month and a half Matt LaPorta, Shin-Soo Choo and Fausto Carmona all hit the DL as well. Before Choo came back from the DL, Sizemore, Talbot and Carrasco all made return trips.
During this hard stretch, the Indians decided to go all in to try to win the Central. Trades with Colorado and the Cubs saw the exit of Alex White and Drew Pomeranz in exchange for the services of Kosuke Fukudome and Ubaldo Jimenez. These players possibly could have helped if the rest of the team had maintained, but shortly after their entrance, the rest of the team fell apart. Michael Brantley, who had been the Indians second most productive player to that point of the season broke a bone in his hand and was announced out for the year. Jason Kipnis, a rising rookie star fresh off of home runs in 5 consecutive games tore his oblique and strained his hamstring. He managed a short comeback at the end of the year, but by then it was too late. Josh Tomlin, who was the second best Indians starter this year, missed his last 6 starts due to elbow soreness.
The greatest piece of this Indians team in 2011 was undoubtedly what became known as the "Bullpen Mafia." While the rest of the team struggled with injuries and slumps, the "Bullpen Mafia" powered through the season, playing just about as perfect as a bullpen can. Chris Perez anchored the pen as the closer, but was not necessarily the best pitcher. Joe Smith had the best ERA and was so much more than a right handed specialist. Vinnie Pestano has the composure of a 10 year vet, but the energy level of the rookie he is. Tony Sipp was the perfect set up man and led the team in holds, while Rafael Perez was still available for any extra lefties that needed to be faced. The final year long bullpen member was Chad Durbin, who, while he struggled, still managed to pitch in 68 innings, more than any other reliever. His numbers are not good, but he saved the Indians numerous wins by pitching multiple innings in lost cause games, saving the talented members of the bullpen for more important situations.
Next season looks to be a lot different than this one. Already changes has been made with the bench and pitching coaches deciding to retire. Indians management has also already announced plans to add to the team by spending competitively in the free agent market. On the other hand some things will stay the same. Manny Acta has already been extended for 2012 and every integral member of the team is signed on for next year. Only the 2011 free agent pick ups like Durbin and Jack Hannahan have expiring contracts. One thing that will be completely different is that the Indians won't be able to surprise anyone. After the way they played in the first half, everyone knows this team has what it takes to win the division. All it should take is a little luck and some smart off-season moves and hopefully next year will be even more exciting than this year was.