CLEVELAND - At times this season, like the little girl with the curl in the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, the Cleveland Indians have been either very good or horrid.
In yesterday's 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Jacobs Field, the Tribe was somewhere south of the middle.
A first-inning base-running error hindered a potential rally, but a decent pitching effort from starter Jake Westbrook and the sizzling bat of first baseman Jim Thome gave the Indians a chance to win.
That was until another ninth-inning failure by controversial closer John Rocker - his second in four games - enabled the Cardinals to essentially walk their way to victory as Cleveland's interleague record fell to 4-8.
Cleveland - which rolled to 10 straight wins in early April to gain a first-place tie in the Central Division with the Minnseota Twins - has lost eight of 14 games since Rocker's arrival.
Acquired in a June 22 trade that sent relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed to Atlanta, Rocker entered yesterday's 3-3 game in the ninth.
He promptly walked No. 8 hitter Mike Matheny. After Kerry Robinson's successful sacrifice bunt, he walked leadoff hitter Fernando Vina. The deciding blow was Edgar Renteria's ground single through the third-short hole that scored pinch-runner Eli Marrero.
The Tribe's recent inconsistency compelled frustrated manager Charlie Manuel to ask his players to look at themselves as the team heads to the All Star break and ask if they're doing everything they can to help the team win.
“Right now our club needs some time away,” Manuel said. “This break is good for us. Some guys have played real hard and some guys you question if they've given their all to us. They need to look in the mirror.
“I'm happy with our performance in a way, but in a way I'm not. If we'd have played the way I expected, we'd be right up there (with Minnesota).”
“He touched on a few areas we need to work on,” DH Ellis Burks said of Manuel's talk. “When the manager tells you face to face like that, it's an eye-opener. It touches home a little more.”
Second baseman Roberto Alomar, who leads the American League is hitting at .358, said the effectiveness of a speech like Manuel's depends on how people take it.
“Everybody has to come in prepared to play their game,” said Alomar, an AL All Star reserve. “If you give 100 percent, no matter what happens, everybody's going to respect you for that.”
Three Indian hits in the first inning led to a 1-0 lead, but the chance for more was spoiled by Alomar's (or third base coach Joel Skinner's) base-running miscue.
After Kenny Lofton hit Dustin Hermanson's first pitch for a triple past center fielder Jim Edmonds, Omar Vizquel smacked the next offering for an RBI single.
Hermanson hit Alomar with an 0-1 pitch, but when Jim Thome singled to right and Vizquel got a late stop sign from Skinner, Alomar was already two-thirds of the way toward third and was tagged out in a rundown. Burks struck out and Wil Cordero grounded out to end the threat.
“I saw him send Vizquel and after that he kind of pushed the brakes,” Alomar said of Skinner. “He told me it was his fault. He said he stopped too late.''
St. Louis got a two-run homer from Craig Paquette to go up 2-1 in the second, and Thome singled and scored to tie the game in the fourth after Burks and Einar Diaz followed with singles. Westbrook ran out of steam in the fifth, allowing two-out singles to Vina and Renteria, then unleashing a wild pitch to enable Vina to score.
The red-hot Thome doubled home Alomar, who had singled with two outs for a 3-3 tie in the fifth.
“It's been a good first half,” Thome said. “It could've been better, but you have to give Minnesota credit. They're a good ballclub. We have to go out, not panic, and just worry about what we're doing, not look around.
“The second half is a fun time. That's what it's all about - doing it when the pressure's on.”
NOTES: Outfielder Juan Gonzalez (.348, 81 RBIs) missed yesterday's game after straining his right knee Saturday. He said soreness prevented him from pinch-hitting in the ninth inning, but plans to make his start in tomorrow's All Star game. ... In 12 interleague games this year, Thome leads the majors with nine home runs. He was 3-for-4 with a double, RBI and run scored yesterday, has homered in 18 of his last 43 games (21 homers, 43 RBI total), and has lifted his average to .290. ... Lofton, who was batting .309 (29 for 94) on May 9 with six stolen bases and no defensive errors, is hitting .190 (28 for 147) with two steals and three errors since.
BABY SPARKY: Travis Fryman named his new baby boy, Cole Anderson, as a tribute to Sparky Anderson, who managed Fryman while he was in Detroit. “He had a major influence on my career,” Fryman said “Sparky, along with Alan Trammell, are guys I respected before I got into baseball,” Fryman said. “And once I got here, I respected them even more.”