Cleveland Indians manager Charlie Manuel can thank the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins for making his job a lot more difficult.
The White Sox won the American League Central Division in Manuel's first season, breaking the Indians' five-year hold on first place. This year the Twins, like the White Sox last year, are leading the division at the All-Star break.
No one, including owner Larry Dolan, wants to hear about the Indians' pitching woes or the reduced payroll that will take effect next season. That excuse doesn't wash, not with the Twins operating with the lowest payroll in the majors.
Last year the Indians trailed the White Sox by 101/2 games at the All-Star break. This year the Indians trail Minnesota by a season-high five games at the break.
Manuel, in his second full season as Cleveland's skipper, knows he has to win now or face heavy criticism later.
That's good, actually. That means people expect the Indians to win. The more criticism Manuel receives, the closer the Indians are to being a contender than a pretender. It means people care and expect the Indians to win. Manuel can accept that kind of criticism.
Some of the fault lies with management - outgoing general manager John Hart and assistant GM Mark Shapiro. But most of the weight should be shouldered by the players themselves.
What's not so good for Manuel - or any other manager, to be perfectly honest - is that, right or wrong, he will absorb the brunt of the criticism.
Reliever Bob Wickman isn't thrilled about relinquishing his closer's job to newcomer John Rocker. Wickman's numbers were comparable to Rocker's, but he's headed toward free agency while Rocker is signed through 2004.
Indians fans who recall Jose Mesa giving away Game 7 in the 1997 World Series thirst for a dependable closer the way Cleveland Browns fans thirst for a franchise running back.
Since Rocker joined the Indians, Cleveland has gone from a 11/2-game lead in the division to five games back. It's not all Rocker's fault, of course, but he blew one save and gave up the go-ahead run in another game within the last week. Manuel suggests Rocker's arm may be tired.
Here's where Manuel opens himself up to some legitimate Monday morning quarterbacking.
Forget about Sunday's 4-3 loss to St. Louis, when Rocker yielded the winning run in the ninth.
I'm more interested in Rocker's previous appearance, against Boston, a team the Indians could meet.
Guarding a 4-3 lead in the ninth, Manuel replaced Wickman, who struck out former Indian Manny Ramirez to end the eighth, with Rocker, despite the fact the Red Sox were sending a host of right-handers to the plate.
Wickman is a righthander, Rocker a lefthander. Instead of playing the percentages, Manuel handed the ball to Rocker, who was rocked for two runs and three hits in a 5-4 loss.
I like the Rocker trade. The Indians needed a closer with talent and attitude, and Rocker has plenty of both.
But Manuel's fear of failure should motivate him to play the percentages more often.
John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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