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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Central focus for Indians: beat Chisox

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - The Chicago White Sox ended Cleveland's five-year run as American League Central Division champion last year, finishing five games ahead of the Indians, who won 90 games.

The two teams will fight for Central Division supremacy once again this season.

That battle begins tomorrow when the Tribe plays the White Sox in their regular-season opener at 1:05 p.m. at Jacobs Field. After a day off, the teams will finish the two-game series Wednesday night.

Chicago won eight of 13 meetings a year ago.

“I like our club and I like the White Sox,” Indians general manager John Hart said. “If you look at our team, we've been there before and the White Sox have to do it again. We've been on a seven or eight-year run. It's hard to win 90 to 95 games a year.”

It will be especially hard for the Tribe, which lost star slugger Manny Ramirez, catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., and first baseman David Segui to free agency in the off-season. Hart signed slugging outfielders Juan Gonzalez - who is coming off a lost season with the Detroit Tigers - and Ellis Burks.

Ramirez, who signed with the Boston Red Sox, drove in 165 runs in 147 games in 1999 and had 122 RBIs in 118 games last year, despite missing six weeks with a hamstring injury.

“Losing Manny really could have been a blow, but we came through the winter strong,” Hart said.

Hart, whose team will begin the season with a payroll of almost $90 million, has been staying ahead of the contract curve for years by locking up his core players with long-term deals.

After this season, though, he might be forced to contend with seven free agents, including pitchers Steve Karsay, Steve Reed, Paul Shuey and Bob Wickman, outfielders Gonzalez and Kenny Lofton and catcher Eddie Taubensee.

Pitcher Dave Burba is in an option year, which likely will be exercised. Burba, 16-6 last year, has won 46 games the past three seasons.

“Burba is a good fit for our club,” said manager Charlie Manuel, who is in the final year of a two-year contract. The Indians hold the option for next season. “He's a battler, a big-time competitor. He gives us six or seven innings every time out. He knows how to take advantage of our defense.”

Burba pitched 1911/3 innings last year while making 32 starts. Two years ago, he posted career bests in innings (220) and starts (34).

“I'd really like to win 20, but what I really want to do is give my team an opportunity to win,” Burba said. “You really can't set goals about wins, because there are a lot of things you can't control.”

Burba and Bartolo Colon, who will be the Opening Day starter, are the only healthy starters returning for the Indians, who used a major league record 32 pitchers last year.

Jaret Wright (right shoulder), Charles Nagy (right elbow) and Chuck Finley (right knee) are coming off surgeries. Wright and Nagy both will start the season on the disabled list.

Rookies C.C. Sabathia and Tim Drew are expected to join Burba, Colon and Finley in the rotation.

Bob Wickman, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers last July, will be the Tribe's closer. He is 85-for-114 in save situations the last three years.

Colon, Cleveland's ace, is 33-13 the last two seasons and 51-29 in four seasons. He and the Indians watched his weight closely in the off-season. The Tribe even sent assistant strength coach Carlos Alvarez to the Dominican Republic twice to check up on Colon, 25.

“Bartolo knows he's our guy,” Hart said. “He doesn't beat his chest and shout it, but he knows where he stands on our club and in the league.”

Once again, the Indians will be solid at every position.

Einar Diaz will handle the catching duties, replacing Sandy Alomar Jr. Power hitter Russell Branyan will open the season at third base in place of five-time All-Star Travis Fryman, who will begin the season on the DL with a torn elbow ligament.

Branyan had a huge spring with his bat, but he has limited playing experience at third in the majors. He is expected to DH and play some outfield after Fryman returns.

First baseman Jim Thome struck out 171 times a year ago - second-most in the American League behind Anaheim's Mo Vaughn (181) - as his average slipped to .269. But Thome did hit 37 home runs and knocked in 106 runs.

Thome joins nine-time Gold Glove second baseman Roberto Alomar, who has a .304 batting average in 13 seasons, and Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel, who got a contract extension worth $15 million-plus on March 1.

At 36, left fielder Burks has two surgically repaired knees, but he still hit .344 with 24 homers and 96 RBIs in 393 at-bats with the San Francisco Giants.

He will join right fielder Gonzalez, a two-time American League MVP, and center fielder Lofton, one-year removed from rotator-cuff surgery on his left shoulder.

Among the Tribe's regulars, Diaz, 28, and DH/outfielder Wil Cordero, 29, are the only ones under 30.

“Talent-wise and ability-wise, we have a lot of players who have been very successful in the game,” Manuel said. “Every manager of a veteran club worries that his players will forget how hungry you have to be to play this game.

“But we played so well the last two months of last season. We want to carry that over into this year. If you look at the five years we won division titles, we got off to a good start and stayed there.

“If we're going to be champions, we've got to go out and start beating people right away. That's the mindset we have.”



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