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Tribe aims to establish winning identity in second half

Revamped roster has Indians within striking distance of first place at All-Star break

CLEVELAND -- Every team strives to find its identity. With a revamped roster and new manager, the Indians knew it might take time for them to find theirs this season. As this campaign rolls into the second half, the Tribe believes it has determined its brand of baseball.

"I think this team is really starting to settle in," Indians veteran Jason Giambi said. "We've found that identity of who we are. We're going to come back. We're going to play hard. We're going to do the little things."

That is who the Indians want to be down the stretch.

Cleveland heads into the season's final 10 weeks situated within striking distance of the American League Central-leading Tigers. Detroit has a Cy Young Award winner, a reigning Triple Crown champion and two straight division titles. The Indians believe they just might have the moxie to pose a realistic challenge down the stretch.

That confidence might stem from a recent wake-up call.

The Tigers roared into Cleveland on July 5 for a four-game series and completely and utterly overpowered the Indians over the first two games. Following the second straight drubbing, Indians players called a closed-door meeting. The message was simple: The Indians had strayed from their identity and were putting the pressure on themselves.

It was time to put the pressure back on the opposition.

"There's a way to compete," Indians manager Terry Francona said, "and a way to fight back."

The Indians responded with a crisp victory over the Tigers in the third game of the series and kept things interesting until the final out in the fourth game, which the Tribe lost in extra innings. That turnaround helped the confidence within Cleveland's clubhouse, where the players are beginning to believe that a rough stretch is simply that and nothing more.

Giambi spoke in the players-only meeting, but quipped that he forgot what he said or why he felt the need to talk to his teammates.

The 42-year-old veteran did say he has seen the team grow over the past few months.

First-half awards
MVP: Jason Kipnis The first-time All-Star emerged as the Tribe's best all-around offensive weapon.
Cy Young: Justin Masterson The All-Star has rebounded and turned into one of the league's top workhorses
Rookie: Cody Allen The right-hander has developed into a reliable option in a variety of innings and situations.
Top reliever: Cody Allen The back end of the bullpen has had its issues, but Allen has helped shore things up.

"You don't want to fall into what young teams can very much fall into," Giambi said. "That's the dwelling, like, 'Oh, God, we lost.' We could've very easily done that when we played Detroit. We could've very easily gone, 'Oh, it's over.'

"Everybody has a vision of how you want to play and, unfortunately, they took it to us those first two games. But we didn't quit. We didn't panic. We answered back."

That was a theme for the Tribe in the first half.

Consider the 20-game stretch that began on May 21 following an 18-4 run to the top of the AL Central standings. The subsequent 4-16 stumble knocked the Indians out of first place, included an eight-game losing streak and had the team's fan base -- more than familiar with in-season collapses -- thinking back to last season.

A year ago, the Indians rolled into the All-Star break just three games out of first. The Tribe went on to suffer through an abysmal August and finished in fourth place with 94 defeats.

This is not that team.

"More than half of the team is new," said Nick Swisher, who was signed a four-year, $56 million contract over the offseason. "In that sense, you can't bank on what happened in the past. We weren't even here for that. We were doing our own thing back then."

Players to watch in second half
Nick Swisher Swisher missed time due to injury in the first half and will aim to pick things up offensively.
Michael Bourn The leadoff man will look to pile up his usual numbers after missing time with a hand injury.
Vinnie Pestano The setup man will be looking to rebound after experiencing some first-half struggles.

This team answered the early June swoon with 15 wins in the next 20 games.

"It felt like 2012 there for that May stretch," Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. "But I don't think last year's team would've been able to turn it around the way we have this year. I don't think last year's team would've been able to show as much potential and consistency. That's been the big thing about this year."

The Indians have reached at least 50 wins before the All-Star break for the first time since 2007, when the team came within one win of reaching the World Series. It has not always been pretty, but this Cleveland club -- Team Streak, if you will -- has shown its ability in prolonged stretches. The rotation has improved, the lineup has been fast and potent and the team has had a knack for two-out rallies and late comebacks.

Through the ups and downs, which have been drastic in both directions, the Indians have battled through their share of adversity. Key cogs such as Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Zach McAllister and Swisher have missed time with injury. Then again, players such as Corey Kluber, Yan Gomes, Cody Allen, Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn have helped shore up the overall depth and production.

Justin Masterson rebounded from a rough 2012, returned to being one of the league's premiere ground-ball specialists and workhorses and earned a spot on the All-Star team. Kipnis also made the All-Star team by emerging as Cleveland's best overall offensive weapon. Lefty Scott Kazmir -- out of the Majors a year ago -- could be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate at season's end.

The contributions from the entire roster, and from some unexpected callups from the Minor Leagues, have pleased Francona.

"Through it all, we've been a team, which I'm very proud of that," Francona said. "I like the idea that we play however many innings we're supposed to, whether it's nine, 10, 11 or whatever. They always play. They seem to care about each other.

"Again, what we've done in the first half makes the second half potentially really exciting."

In the months ahead, the Indians plan on building on the identity they have started to establish.

"We don't want to be known for being hot for a little bit and that was it," Bourn said. "That's not what we're going for. We want to be a team that's known for being a good team."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.
Read More: Cleveland Indians, Michael Bourn, Cody Allen, Justin Masterson, Vinnie Pestano, Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis