CLEVELAND - The Cleveland Indians' season has been like a yo-yo - up and down.
What else is new?
The Indians traditionally have been slow starters. This year is no different.
They are 28-28 after 56 games, in third place in the AL Central, and trail the front-running Detroit Tigers by 8 1/2 games. A year ago, the Tribe was 27-29 at the same point, tied for third, and 11 games behind the White Sox.
Cleveland spent most of the final two months of the 2005 season tearing through the AL, going 38-12 from July 31 through Sept. 24. However, the Indians went 1-6 in the final week, including 1-5 at home. Their historic collapse cost them a playoff spot, despite 93 wins.
The 2006 Indians, idle yesterday before opening a three-game series tonight against the Oakland Athletics, aren't ready to fold up their teepees.
They believe they can catch lightning in a bottle again, even though several key pieces are missing from last year, including pitchers Kevin Millwood, the AL ERA leader, and Scott Elarton and setup man Bobby Howry, who established a team record for appearances.
"I think it's no panic," pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. "We feel that we did it last year. It's not going to be easy, but we are a good team, and we're capable of putting together a stretch to get back in this thing.
"I don't think there's any panic in here at all. I don't know if that's good or bad, but we'll see."
The Indians are coming off their most lopsided loss of the season - a 14-2 thumping by the Los Angeles Angels Sunday in which Sabathia got rocked for seven runs in five innings.
Cleveland has the third-best hitting team in the majors (.287 average), but poor pitching and defense have contributed to its woes. A year after finishing in a tie for the third-best ERA (3.61) in the majors, the Indians' staff currently ranks 26th among 30 teams (5.03). And they are 23rd in fielding.
Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson - signed to replace Millwood and Elarton - are a combined 7-9 with a 5.66 ERA. And Guillermo Mota, who took over for Howry, has surrendered a whopping nine home runs in 251/3 innings.
"Right now, we're just inconsistent," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "One day there's confidence, and one day there's not. One day a pitcher feels right on the mound, one day he can't make a big-game adjustment. Players never panic as much as you guys [media] do or the fans do.
"I feel disappointed with the way we've played. If there were one thing I could put my finger on that would fix this club, it would be fixed."
Not all is gloom and doom - a few things have gone right. Throw out Sunday's slaughter, and Sabathia has been baseball's best pitcher since last August with a 14-2 record and 2.04 ERA.
Center fielder Grady Sizemore is hitting .304 and is one of the game's rising stars, and DH Travis Hafner has 15 homers and 50 RBIs.
And, after dropping 14 of 19 to the World Series champion White Sox last season, Cleveland has won six of nine this year.
The Indians' players know better than most just how quickly a season can turn around.
They just hope it happens before it's too late.
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