Tribe opener comes with high expectations
Friday, April 04, 2014 12:00 AM
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — The huge crowd will be red-clad, raucous and ravenous, hungry for a championship. The starting pitcher will be the same, and the air will be chilled and energized.
It’s only early April, but Friday’s home opener will feel a lot like last October to the Indians.
Six months since their first postseason appearance since 2007 ended with a disappointing shutout loss to Tampa Bay in the AL wild-card game, the Indians, carrying expectations they’ll contend again, will begin their home schedule at Progressive Field against the Minnesota Twins.
For All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis, the sights and sounds of the home opener are unmatched.
“Having a sea of red come out, seeing nothing but Tribe colors,” Kipnis said, envisioning the downtown scene. “Having all the fans show up to the ballpark, the excitement, the balloons, the fireworks, the music going on. The things going on in the streets around the stadium — there’s just a buzz around the ballpark the whole day.
“It’s a fresh start for everyone. Everyone knows that it’s probably the most fun day of the season.”
After winning two of three in Oakland, the Indians will send Danny Salazar to the mound in the home opener — 20 years to the day of the ballpark’s first game — against Twins right-hander Mike Pelfrey.
Rain is in the forecast, but as every Clevelander knows, that could change in five minutes.
Salazar began last season pitching for Double-A Akron before making a meteoric rise through Cleveland’s system. It ended with him starting the playoff game against the Rays, and he’s excited about the honor of getting things started at home in 2014. This outing won’t be nearly as stomach-turning as the 24-yera-old’s previous one.
“It’s going to be a little bit better, there’s less pressure so I can be a little bit more relaxed,” said Salazar, named as the club’s No. 4 starter this spring.
Still, there’s anxiety in getting off on the right foot at home. The Indians started poorly under manager Terry Francona in 2013, losing 10 of their first 15 and ending April at 11-13. It took them winning their final 10 games to finish 92-70 and sneak in to the playoffs, and the Indians can’t count on being able to make up so much ground again.
Without Francona, none of it would have been possible.
The two-time World Series winner in Boston instilled a belief in the Indians that they could do anything. From the first day of training camp through the final out in the playoffs, the Indians were united, the entire roster pulling together toward a common goal. Egos were put aside for the sake of winning.
They became family, and they’ve begun 2014 as one. This year, the club’s motto is “Unfinished Business.”
The Indians don’t want to come up short again.
“I think what keeps us so strong is the amazing guys we have on this squad,” said ace Justin Masterson. “We’ve come together so well, it’s unlike any other team I’ve ever been a part of. Coming into spring, doing our thing, we had a lot of fun in spring. That was the biggest thing.
“We continued to have a lot of fun in spring, it came back as far as the relationships right where we left off and being able to say, ‘All right, here we go.’ The season began and here we go again, picking each other up, having some fun, just so much love. That’s what I enjoy.”
There may not be a player anywhere who enjoys opening day — or any day at the ballpark, for that matter — more than Indians first baseman Nick Swisher.
He can vividly remember Cleveland’s 163rd game last season, when Progressive Field, known as Jacobs Field when it opened in 1994 with President Clinton throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, rocked the way it used to nearly every October during an Indians annual playoff run.
“It was awesome,” said Swisher, whose signing as a free agent with Cleveland helped trigger the club’s resurgence. “That was the first time other than opening day where we really got to experience what that packed house was all about. For me, being a first time guy in Cleveland, just to be able to feel that and give the city that gift was an honor for us to be there.”
Sadly, last year’s playoffs were over in a little more than three hours for the Indians.
If they get there again, they intend to stay longer.
“It ended very abruptly. We were rolling right into that game and kind of ran into a buzz-saw,” he said. “We gave these young cats a little taste of what the postseason is all about, now it’s time to go out and get the whole thing.”