Francona working his magic again in Cleveland
Tribe's manager showing talent for pushing right buttons with use of bullpen
The question was probably out of place.
Cleveland had just held off Tampa Bay for a 6-5 win, its seventh in 10 games. I asked manager Terry Francona if he felt the Indians had turned a corner with the spirited victory.
"I didn't know there was a corner to turn," Francona replied. "We just had a bad road trip a while back and have been digging ourselves out of it. We're not hitting on all cylinders yet, but playing better with more confidence."
And with noticeably more energy.
"When you have an 0-6 road trip, like I said, it takes a while to dig out of that. But we're trying to," Francona added. "Yes, there's a lot more energy out there."
When Francona took over the Indians in 2013, they were coming off a 68-94 season. He lifted them to 92-70, good for a second-place finish behind Detroit in the American League Central and a Wild Card berth. It was their first trip to the postseason since '07, when they were division champs.
For that amazing improvement, Francona, an outstanding leader, was the AL's Manager of the Year.
Throughout the offseason, the underlying question facing Francona and the Tribe was if they could repeat 2013, or if it was merely a season when they overachieved thanks to a productive blend of hitting, pitching and defense. It took a 21-6 September to reach the AL Wild Card Game against the Rays, which they lost, 4-0.
Admittedly, the Indians capitalized by beating up on teams with losing records.
Inconsistency showed as the new season opened, but Cleveland was at .500 (11-11) on April 24, before the disastrous trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles to face the Angels as they lost six in a row.
Since then, the Indians have played much better. By taking two of three against the slumping Rays at Tropicana Field, there has been obvious improvement.
The Tribe had Monday off before opening a three-game series against the Blue Jays in Toronto.
The back of the bullpen was the main topic and a major concern during the weekend at Tropicana Field.
After a strong start to the season, John Axford, who'd converted nine of 11 save opportunities but suffered from wildness, was removed as Cleveland's closer. Axford was signed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal during the offseason.
Francona, when pressed, said Axford needed to work on some mechanical and command problems. Axford was repeatedly pitching behind in the count to batters even in some of his save situations, which according to Francona was not a good trend.
Last year while pitching for the Brewers and Cardinals, Axford walked 26 batters in 65 innings. This year, he's already walked 13 in 14 2/3 innings. And even worse, each of Axford's three losses have been decided by game-winning home runs.
"It can be mental, too," said Francona. "Anything you do in life, the mental part of it is so big. I'm not saying he's not strong mentally. But what we do in our game, I have so much respect for the guys who're mentally tough. Baseball beats you down so much. When you're mentally tough, it gets you through some tough times."
For his part, Axford believes he can right the ship.
"I've thrown a lot recently and, obviously, you can only throw 25-30 pitches an inning so many times before it catches up to you," Axford said. "I just need that clean, quick one-two-three inning and get back on it."
Francona is a thinking-man's manager, always able to devise and figure out situations such as this; he's one of the best in baseball. In Sunday's 6-5 victory, his four-person bullpen-by-committee was able to hold off the Rays in the late innings as Axford watched from the sidelines.
Francona insists the demotion is merely temporary, an interlude while Axford sorts out his problems.
"What's important is, when things like that do happen, where do you go from there?" Francona asked rhetorically. "Do you make it good? Do you let it beat you up?
"When we put him back in the closer's role, we want to keep him there. We will want to be convinced we see consistency and things like that."
For a moment, the mind wandered back to the 1990s, when the Indians were winning five consecutive division titles, Jacobs Field was sold out for 455 dates and manager Mike Hargrove was pushing all the right buttons.
It's probably asking a lot of Francona to return Cleveland to that level, but he did it in Boston and won two World Series.
Last year was a beginning, and the key is to make sure it wasn't a fluke.