"I play for the Indians."
"Here in Cleveland? I didn't know they still had a team!"
"Yup, we've got uniforms and everything, it's really great!"
-- From the movie Major League
Outside of Cleveland -- and aside from hardcore fantasy baseball owners -- few if any of the names on the Indians roster will resonate with the average baseball fan. Their leading hitter has a first name that most people have trouble pronouncing. A cursory look at the roster might elicit a response similar to another quote from the movie Major League: "Who are these guys?"
But in 2011, something in Cleveland has changed. The Indians are serious this year.
In the two weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, the Colorado Rockies made Ubaldo Jimenez available to the highest bidder. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Toronto Blue Jays, and Detroit Tigers appeared immediately as aggressive suitors, with the Indians mentioned casually as a "longshot". After all, the Indians were known for selling -- not buying -- ace pitchers at the deadline. A team that trades away the likes of Sabathia and Lee in the midst of a pennant race surely wouldn't be in play for Jimenez -- particularly when they were sinking toward .500.
But the Indians moved swiftly and boldly and came away with arguably the biggest prize of the trading season.
And as if on cue, the Tribe's come-from-behind victory Saturday night was in the same style as their deadline acquisition.
The Royals jumped out to a one-run lead in the initial inning, and held it until the eighth, when the Indians clawed back to tie the game. But the Royals came right back with another run in the top of the ninth, pushing Cleveland back against the wall, staring at closer Joakim Soria on the mound and an almost certain drop to a .500 record. Sure, Soria has had his struggles this season, but he has been back to his lights-out self in July.
However, these weren't the same Indians that started the day. Something large had happened -- the front office made a statement to their organization and their fan base: We are going for it.
And just as the Indians were the longshot to obtain Jimenez, Matt LaPorta was the unlikely hero. The highly touted prospect has been a borderline bust in his first 800 MLB at-bats. His 2011 average was below .240 and he entered the game mired in a 3-for-26 slump. But LaPorta erased all that -- for the time being -- by blasting a three-run, game-winning, walkoff homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give the Indians a 5-2 win. Cleveland picked up a full game on the first-place Detroit Tigers, who lost earlier in the day to the Anaheim Angels.
With the win, the Indians are 1.5 games behind Detroit with 58 games to play -- and now they have Jimenez at the top of their rotation. The Tigers made a move of their own, acquiring arms David Pauley and Doug Fister from Seattle. Solid additions to a staff in need of support, but not necessarily the kind of move that can have the kind of impact of Jimenez to the Indians. Fister and Pauley are pieces, while Jimenez is a centerpiece -- a difference-maker. Making the move to gain a player at the level of Jimenez should be a morale booster. Will it be enough?
While getting Ubaldo Jimenez was a great move, many will argue that the Indians need more hitting if they are to make a serious run at the well-stocked Tigers (and hold off the charging Chicago White Sox). LaPorta and Carlos Santana have been disappointments, and superstar Grady Sizemore is struggling through another injury-marred campaign. Shin-Soo Choo has also been hit with the injury bug, but even when healthy has seen his offensive numbers drop off considerably. The Tribe made a minor move by acquiring Kosuke Fukudome from the Cubs, and might be adding Ryan Ludwick before Sunday's 4 p.m. ET deadline but neither is expected to turn the Indians into an offensive juggernaut.
Cleveland sent utility man and perennial good-luck charm Orlando Cabrera to San Francisco in return for AAA outfielder Thomas Neal. The move might lower the Tribe's chances in the eyes of the baseball gods, but it clears the way for rookie Jason Kipnis to take over second base. Kipnis had a .842 OPS through 91 games in AAA prior to his promotion a week ago.
The assumption is that Jimenez will recapture the magic by pitching in a pennant race -- and in higher humidity. His mere presence makes their rotation one pitcher deeper, and if they can get a little more run support it might be just enough to jump over the Tigers. Asdrubal Cabrera can't do it alone. He needs LaPorta, Santana, Kipnis, and others to spark the offense. They might still be a longshot, but the Indians, for the first time in a long time, are serious about making a run. It's a nice thing to see.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Joe Janish is the founder of Mets Today, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and has thrown BP to Don Mattingly, caught Jim Bouton's knuckleball, and eaten a meal prepared by Rusty Staub. You can follow him on Twitter here.