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Indians aim to keep the pressure on AL Central

CLEVELAND -- As the baseball season rolled to a brief stop for the All-Star break, the Indians were not thrilled with their position in the American League Central standings. There is at least some sense of relief that they are still in the thick of things in terms of playoff contention.

There is still time to find that coveted path to the October stage.

"We're right there," Indians starter Justin Masterson said. "It's nice that no one else is really playing out of their shoes."

Statistics and projections suggest that Cleveland should not be as good as its current win total, but that often is the beauty of the game of baseball. The Tribe has had a knack for winning tight ballgames and that is a large reason the team resides in second place in its unpredictable division.

The American League Central is unpredictable in the sense that the Tigers (the overwhelming favorite at the season's onset) sit in third place and the White Sox (counted out as contenders by most preseason prognosticators) occupy the division's top spot. The Indians, meanwhile, are sandwiched between despite having yet to play to their potential.

"We've definitely underachieved," Indians setup man Vinnie Pestano said. "I think we're a lot better than our record -- we just haven't put it all together yet. But those pieces are starting to fall together. Heading into the break, we're starting to figure some stuff out."

As the second half looms, the Indians are 44-41 and three games behind first-place Chicago in the AL Central standings. Detroit, which captured the division crown with an incredible second-half surge last season, is a half-game behind Cleveland. The Royals are within shouting distance, but this looks to be a three-horse race down the stretch.

Cleveland's formula for success has been doing enough offensively often enough to hand the ball over to setup men Joe Smith and Pestano, who bridge the gap to All-Star closer Chris Perez. More often than not, the Indians find the win column when a game aligns in that manner. Slugfests are not the Tribe's specialty.

"We do win close games," manager Manny Acta said, "because we play good defense and we have a very good back-end of the bullpen. We understand that the offense is not where we want to have it when it comes to runs scoring, but you win different ways."

First-half awards
MVP: Shin-Soo Choo
Right fielder rediscovered swing as Tribe's new leadoff man.
Cy Young: Justin Masterson
Opening Day starter has improved following rough start.
Rookie: Zach McAllister
Right-hander has helped plug a hole in Indians rotation.
Top reliever: Chris Perez
All-Star closer had a run of 24 saves in a row.

Through 85 games, the offense is actually better than it was a year ago at this juncture in the season. Cleveland has hit .258 with a .333 on-base percentage, a .402 slugging percentage and 385 runs scored. Last season, the Indians were hitting .249 with a .319 OBP, a .394 SLG and 369 runs scored through 85 games.

All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been solid and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo has looked rejuvenated as the Tribe's new leadoff man. Center fielder Michael Brantley and second baseman Jason Kipnis have also been catalysts for the lineup, which has been waiting for players like catcher Carlos Santana and first baseman Casey Kotchman to come around.

Where the Tribe has struggled the most is on the mound.

Cleveland currently has a 4.50 team ERA with 414 runs allowed on 751 hits through 85 games (762 innings). Last season, the Indians were 46-39 through 85 games (758 2/3 innings) and had a 3.86 team ERA with 355 runs surrendered on 741 hits through that point.

Masterson and fellow starters Ubaldo Jimenez, Derek Lowe and Josh Tomlin have been strong in spurts, but have each lacked consistency. In the bullpen, the middle-relief options have faltered, leading to a handful of blowout losses.

"The offense has been picking up the pitching staff a lot in the first half," Pestano said. "It's been a pitching-and-defense-first team coming into the year. I think that in the second half, if we can start throwing the ball a little better, then we'll have a much better second half than first half."

Players to watch in second half
Carlos Santana
Cleanup-hitting catcher is looking to find his power stroke at the plate.
Tony Sipp
Lefty will aim for a strong second half after hurting bullpen with rough start
Josh Tomlin
Right-hander has struggled to find the consistency he showed last year.

Acta still likes his team's chances.

"I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied," Acta said. "That's all you want, at the halfway point of the season, to be in it the way we are right now. I think they deserve a lot of credit. I'm pleased and I'm proud of the way they have picked each other up."

The Indians are hoping that this season does not turn into a repeat of last year.

On May 23 last season, Cleveland was 30-15 with a seven-game lead in the AL Central. The club sputtered to a 50-67 mark the rest of the way, finishing 15 games behind the champagne-soaked Tigers. This time around, the Tribe's high-water mark has been a 22-16 record and a four-game division lead on May 17.

Masterson said the Indians do not think too much about last season's three-month slide. Instead, the pitcher said the club remembers what it felt like to be in first place for 95 days. That is the experience Masterson feels Cleveland will lean on in this season's second half.

"What really helps us out from last year to this year is we were in first place for a long time," Masterson said. "We were in first place and we know what that feeling is like. Yeah, we understand losing it, but I think it's the idea of being there and getting the experience.

"We don't have to be in first place now. We have to be in first place at the end."

Cleveland believes that is a realistic goal.

"We're competitive, despite not playing our best baseball," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "I think there's still a lot of potential with this team to play better than it's played over the first couple months of the season."

Cleveland Indians, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Ubaldo Jimenez, Casey Kotchman, Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Carlos Santana, Tony Sipp, Josh Tomlin