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Colon Builds a Good Foundation

Baseball: Indians will rely more on pitching this season, and right-hander sets tone with shutout.

April 01, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new-look Cleveland Indians are relying on pitching for a change, anticipating a significant drop in run production after dropping three of their most productive run-producers this winter.

Cleveland booted outfielders Juan Gonzalez and Kenny Lofton and second baseman Roberto Alomar in cost-cutting moves, opening holes in a batting order that had been one of the American League's best. The starting rotation is now the Indians' foundation, and even one crack might lead to a collapse.

But it could be a solid unit if the rest of the starters follow the lead of Bartolo Colon, who tossed a five-hitter Sunday night in a masterful 6-0 opening-night victory against the Angels before a sellout crowd of 42,697 at Edison Field.

Colon befuddled the Angels in the first game of the major leagues' 2002 season, making a strong opening statement for a retooled club seeking positive reinforcement. The right-hander mixed 97-mph fastballs with sharp changeups and curveballs, setting the tone the Indians envisioned.

"This was the kind of day we were all hoping for," said third baseman Travis Fryman, who had two of Cleveland's 11 hits and the game's only home run. "If you asked guys a month ago, I think they would have scripted it out a lot like today. Bartolo did a great job to get us started, which is exactly what we needed."

The Indians underwent a budgetary-forced remodeling after ownership instructed first-year General Manager Mark Shapiro to dump payroll.

Shapiro tightened the belt by not re-signing heart-of-the-order slugger Gonzalez and Lofton, a catalytic leadoff batter. Alomar, a future hall of famer, was traded to the New York Mets, trimming the payroll from $93 million to $82 million.

But at what cost?

Cleveland ranked second in the AL last season in batting average, runs and home runs. Gonzalez and Alomar combined for 240 runs batted in, and Lofton ignited the engine. First baseman Jim Thome is considered the only sure thing left in the lineup, and the Indians acknowledge that their replacements can't be expected to keep pace with the departed all-stars, so pitching must lead the way.

"We did lose a lot of power and run production, so our pitching staff is going to have to do exactly what Bartolo did," designated hitter Ellis Burks said. "We know that's not going to happen every game, but we need them to keep us close.

"We're not going to hit a lot of home runs but we're going to single and double you to death. If all our pitchers can keep us in games like Bartolo did, it's going to be a fun season."

Getting started was the key, new right fielder Matt Lawton said.

"Setting a good tone is very important because that's what we're going to have to get to win as many games as this club won last year," said Lawton, who arrived from the Mets in the Alomar trade. "It's going to be hard to duplicate what Mr. Colon did tonight, but we've got to get good pitching to get it done."

Colon, 26, set the bar high as the curtain was raised on the regular season in a 98-pitch, 66-strike performance. He believes Cleveland starters C.C. Sabathia, Chuck Finley, Danys Baez and Ryan Drese will follow suit.

"Being [the] No. 1 [starter] today, the way I pitched, I think that's going to boost the other guys in the rotation," Colon said through an interpreter. "They watched the way I pitched, and they'll have an idea on how to attack hitters."

The Indians are counting on it.

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