ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
CLEVELAND -- Once faint and fading, the steady drumbeat, the one that has served as a backbeat for memorable summers and Octobers for generations of Cleveland fans before, is growing louder, stronger, and more convincing with every win.
Boom ... boom ... boom ... boom ...
The Indians are making big noise again.
"Didn't expect this," said iconic fan and longtime drummer John Adams, who has been pounding a weathered bass drum at Indians games since 1973 from his seat perched high atop the outfield bleachers. "This team is surprising me."
Join the club.
After losing 93 games last season, the Indians figured to continue rebuilding in 2011. This wasn't supposed to be their year.
But so far, exceptional starting pitching, sound defense, clutch hitting, aggressive baserunning, and production from their entire roster has given them the AL's best record and put them on top of the Central, a division flipped on its head in April.
The Indians are baseball's biggest surprise.
Just not to everyone.
"Nothing has surprised me," said Manny Acta, Cleveland's second-year manager who oozes confidence and energy. "Probably that we're sitting in first place is surprising a lot of people, but coming out of spring training, and after the way we played the second half of last season, I felt we were going to play well.
"I believe in these guys and they believe in themselves. That's all we care about."
On Wednesday night, the Indians improved to 15-8 with their ninth straight win at home. They're off to their best start since 2007, when they won 96 games and came within one win of the World Series.
The 7-2 victory over Kansas City was typical: The Indians scored early, starter Josh Tomlin pitched six solid innings, every player in the starting lineup got at least one hit, and the Indians' bullpen combined for three shutout innings.
As fireworks exploded over Progressive Field, outfielders Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore exchanged a leaping high-five and the team's slogan for the season flashed across the ballpark's giant left-field scoreboard.
It said, "What If?"
"We're playing really good baseball," second baseman Orlando Cabrera said afterward.
He would know. One of the Indians' key offseason acquisitions, the 36-year-old Cabrera played on Boston's World Series winner in 2004 and has been in the playoffs six of the past seven years. He's sensing this collection of Indians are becoming a contender -- and maybe more.
With Minnesota and Detroit battling early injuries, the Chicago White Sox scuffling, and the Royals plunging after a strong start, the Indians can open up some room.
"It's early," Cabrera said, "but I see a lot of confidence."
So, when is it no longer early?
"I don't know," Cabrera said with a shrug and smile. "Maybe when we're in first place by 20 games. We've got to stay healthy and a lot of things can happen."
They already have.
Last season, the Indians didn't get their 15th win until May 16, which coincidentally was Sizemore's final game before the three-time All-Star had to undergo microfracture knee surgery.
No one was sure if Sizemore would ever be the same. No one's wondering now.
Since rejoining the Indians, he's been the same hyper, hustling player. In his first eight starts since being activated, Sizemore is batting .378 with 14 hits -- 10 for extra bases. On Wednesday, he made another of those headfirst, diving catches that have made him one of the game's top outfielders.
There are other signs the Indians could be legit.
Designated hitter Travis Hafner is pulling the ball with a violence in his swing that's been missing since shoulder surgery. Starter Justin Masterson picked up where he left off in 2010, and is 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA. Closer Chris Perez has six saves in seven tries.
It's been far from perfect. Choo's average has hovered near .200, and switch-hitting catcher Carlos Santana entered Thursday night's game batting .189. But the Indians have been winning anyway with Acta using his bench frequently and without hesitation.
"Everybody knows their role," said utilityman Adam Everett, signed to improve Cleveland's shoddy defense. "Guys are starting to believe that we're for real and we've got a chance to do something special here."
The Royals are convinced.
"Cleveland's a good team," manager Ned Yost said. "Their bullpen is very good. Their starters keep the ball down, throw strikes and do it with good stuff. Sizemore is healthy, Hafner is having a great start, then Choo does everything. They have solid defense and are managed well.
"You have all that, winning is not a surprise."
The fast start has been important for Cleveland's youngsters, but Everett had to remind them during the team's recent road trip to slow down.
"Guys were scoreboard watching," he said. "It's April for crying out loud. Roger Clemens once told me you don't start scoreboard watching until September. If you got something to play for in September, that's when it gets fun."
Fans aren't buying into the fun yet.
The Indians have had four crowds of less than 10,000, and while they were last in the majors in attendance last season, the unseasonably cold weather may have more to do with sparse crowds than any fan backlash against ownership or disinterest.
Cleveland has shown it will support a winner.
Adams hasn't stopped coming.
Lugging the same 10-pound drum he has faithfully maintained for nearly four decades, he attended his 3,000th game on Wednesday. He hammered away as the Indians won again in a season that's starting to feel a little different than the past few.
"The season is still young," he said. "But you just don't know what can happen. Sometimes you get a little momentum as long as it's just not luck. But what I'm seeing here isn't luck, it's genuine, real baseball. That's what I like about it."