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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Table set, Tribe feasts

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

CLEVELAND - Mention the names Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel or Roberto Alomar to Cleveland Indians hitting coach Clarence Jones, and he flashes a smile as wide as the Cuyahoga River.

Jones believes Lofton, Vizquel and Alomar are among the best table-setters - 1-2-3 hitters - in the major leagues.

“I don't think any team has three guys at the top of the order who are as dangerous as those guys are,” Jones said recently. “Those guys know how to get on base. They're also strong enough to hit the ball out of the park. They can get you a double, a triple or a homer. And they can bunt guys over, or bunt for a base hit.

“When those three get on base consistently, we're a tough team to beat.”

Lofton, Vizquel and Alomar played key roles in Cleveland's recent 10-game winning streak, which ended Thursday.

During that stretch, the Tribe batted .332 (117 of 352) with 15 home runs. They also scored 86 runs - an average of 8.6 per game.

“Kenny, Omar and Robbie - those guys are awesome,” catcher Einar Diaz said. “They can hit the ball everywhere, and they can get on base. They set everything up for us. It's because of them that the whole team has been on fire.”

Jones agreed.

“When you've got guys like Juan Gonzalez, Ellis Burks, Jim Thome and Marty Cordova hitting behind our top three guys, a pitcher may get one of them or two of them out, but he's not going to get all three,” Jones said.

Entering last night's game against Tampa Bay at Jacobs Field, the Indians were leading the American League in hitting (.296), RBIs (206), runs (212) and on-base percentage (.368).

Lofton was sporting a .282 average. Vizquel was batting .248 after a miserable start. And Alomar still was red-hot. He was batting .344, fourth-best in the AL.

“This lineup reminds me of the one we had when me and Manny Ramirez were hitting sixth and seventh,” Thome said. “From Juan to me to Ellis Burks, I think this is as good a 4-5-6 hitters as we've ever had.

“Our 1-2-3 hitters are pretty darn good, too. They get things going for everybody else.”

Lofton, eligible for free agency after the season, is one year removed from rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder. The surgery cut last season in half for the Tribe center fielder. He hit .259 in the first half, .294 in the second half.

Lofton also set career highs with 15 homers and 73 RBIs, and is the organization's all-time leading base stealer.

“Kenny knows I expect a lot out of him,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “The reason I do is because Kenny is a special player with special ability. If he hits .300 and has an on-base percentage of .400, he'll have a terrific year for us.

“Can he steal 50 bases? No doubt. He could probably steal 60 or 70. This is Kenny's free-agent year. I think he's primed for a big season.”

Lofton, who missed nine games this year with a strained right calf, is one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball.

“When this team hits, anything can happen,” Lofton said. “This is an explosive team offensively. We've got Juan, Ellis and Marty now to help pick up some of the slack and take some of the pressure off.”

Vizquel has struggled to hit left-handers the past two seasons. And he batted just .202 in April. But he had hit safely in 11 of the past 12 games through Friday.

“I'm starting to swing the bat better,” he said. “In the cold weather, I was gripping the bat too tight because I didn't want to get jammed. I wasn't swinging through the ball.”

Vizquel, a shortstop, agreed to a two-year, $14 million extension with the Tribe in late February. He recently won his eighth Gold Glove Award for fielding excellence, while Alomar, a second baseman, captured his ninth.

“After Alex Rodriguez signed his big contract (10 years, $252 million), a lot of players around the league - especially power hitters - compared their numbers to his,” Vizquel said. “My situation is not the same, not even close.

“It's not like I'm going to hit 30 to 40 home runs. I am a contact hitter.”

Alomar batted .291 with one homer and 12 RBIs in April, but he had hit safely in 15 of the past 17 games prior to last night. He is batting .415 (27 of 65) with 19 runs during that span.

“If you look at my career, I've never started the season very strong,” said Alomar, who hit .274 last April. “But I always finish strong.”

Alomar has been more than pleased with the Tribe's start.

“We're playing like a family,” Alomar said. “We're scoring runs. The starting pitching and bullpen have been outstanding.

“I have been hitting the ball very hard. So have Kenny and Omar, but they've been making plays on Omar. You can't do anything about that, except hang in there and wait for the hits to start falling.”

Gonzalez, in particular, has benefited from the 1-2-3 hitters. He smacked eight homers in April and is among the AL leaders in several categories. His numbers through Friday included: slugging percentage (.708), batting average (.377), hits (49) RBIs (39), runs (34), doubles (13) and homers (10).

Seven of Gonzalez's round-trippers have been hit at Jacobs Field.

“He's healthy and he's happy,” Alomar said of Gonzalez, whom he has known since their Little League days in Puerto Rico. “He's going to have a huge year.”

Said Gonzalez: “Robbie told me I'll drive in 170 runs. We'll see.”

Burks, who signed with the Indians this past off-season as a free agent, has come to appreciate Gonzalez's game in their short time together.

“I used to watch Juan and wonder about him,” Burks said. “I was curious about what it would be like to play with him. I'll tell you this, he's legit.”

So is Lofton, who has 19 career leadoff homers. He also ranks fourth in club history in runs.

“The key for us is Kenny Lofton,” Alomar said. “He's one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. When he gets on base, Omar can do his thing and I can do mine.”



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