Cleveland Indians’ Jason Kipnis watches his three-run home run off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher J.J. Hoover in the sixth inning of a spring exhibition baseball game Monday, March 24, 2014, in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Cleveland Indians’ Jason Kipnis watches his three-run home run off Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher J.J. Hoover in the sixth inning of a spring exhibition baseball game Monday, March 24, 2014, in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — Jason Kipnis didn’t want it to end. He had plenty of company.
After the final out ended the club’s magical, turnaround season so jarringly last October, Kipnis, who made his first All-Star team in 2013 and a few of his teammates lingered in the dugout and watched as Tampa Bay’s players celebrated their 4-0 win in the AL wild-card playoff game.
One and done. Hardly the finish Cleveland wanted.
And once again, the city would remain without a major sports championship, a drought approaching its 50-year anniversary.
But despite their brief postseason appearance in manager Terry Francona’s first year, the Indians intend to play in October again — and again.
“We don’t want it to be a fluke,” Kipnis said. “We don’t want to be a one-trick pony. We want to be at the top and we want to stay there.”
Hoping to build off their unexpected 92-win campaign, the Indians enter 2014 confident they can not only contend this season, but go even further.
During spring training in Arizona, first baseman Nick Swisher, who also serves as the club’s high-energy hype man, handed out “Unfinished Business” T-shirts to his teammates.
The Indians aren’t satisfied.
“Last season, hopefully, was a steppingstone that we needed to get us going in the right direction,” Swisher said. “Last year was that amazing year to get us in the right mind frame to say, ‘Hey, we can do this. We are a team. And people need to start recognizing it.’”
Cleveland had to win its final 10 games just to make the playoffs. The late-season kick wouldn’t have been necessary if the Indians had played more consistently, and more evenness has been a focus for Francona, who feels his club has the makings to do something special again.
“I love our team,” said the AL’s manager of the year. “I love coming to the ballpark and watching them play. They are easy to like because they try hard. When you can show up with a group of guys and you respect the way they go about things it makes the challenging times more fulfilling. We know we can do it now. We’ve got to try and go do it better.”
Here are five things to watch as the Indians try to have an extended playoff stay in 2014:
THE AX MAN COMETH: John Axford was terrific in 2011, recording 46 saves for Milwaukee. He hasn’t been the same since.
The right-hander struggled in 2012 and lost his closer’s job in Milwaukee before being traded to St. Louis last season. The Indians are counting on the right-hander to take over for departed closer Chris Perez and take control from the outset. If he can’t, the club can turn to rubber-armed right-hander Cody Allen, who led the club with 77 appearances as a rookie.
MASTER(SON) PLAN: Justin Masterson’s contract situation hovered over the club during spring training, and unless the ace agrees to a deal soon, it could be a distraction all season. The All-Star recently turned down a “very competitive” offer from the Indians and suspended negotiations to focus on the season. Masterson, 25-25 the past two seasons, says he’s willing to sign a shorter deal, but the club may not have enough faith to give elite starter money just yet.
BOURN IDENTITY: Center fielder Michael Bourn had a somewhat disappointing first season with the Indians. His second one has started on a down note. Bourn will open the year on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring, which he had surgery on in October. He’s only expected to miss a few games, but at 30, the two-time NL All-Star could be showing signs of slowing down. He had just 23 steals — his second-lowest total since 2007 — last year.
TAMING THE TIGERS: The Indians finished just one game behind first-place Detroit in the standings, but the gap between the teams was actually much greater.
Cleveland went 4-15 against the AL Central champion, and the Tigers were 9-1 at Progressive Field. Against the rest of the division, the Indians were 40-17.
As troubling, the Indians were a putrid 12-28 versus the three other AL playoff teams.
SHORT STORY: Asdrubal Cabrera begins his final year under contract as the Indians’ everyday shortstop, but there’s no guarantee he’ll end it with Cleveland. Wrapped in trade talks for several seasons, the 27-year-old got off to a brutal start in 2013 and batted a career-low .242. Prospect Francisco Lindor will eventually replace Cabrera, and that day could be pushed up if Cabrera gets off to a slow start or the Indians find a deal they like.