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Indians' weak links stronger than advertised


Pitching against the Cleveland Indians, it seems, is like trying to endure one of those all-day picnics. If the thunder doesn't get you, the mosquitoes will.

He probably didn't need the reminder, but Kevin Brown found that out the hard way Monday night, when the dreaded thunder (Albert Belle and Eddie Murray) accounted for only one run and the pesky mosquitoes (Omar Vizquel, Tony Pena and Wayne Kirby) produced three.

It isn't supposed to happen that way. If you control the heart of the Indians' lineup, the rest should be routine. So far at least, that hasn't been the case.

In the first four games between the two teams, the Orioles limited baseball's most explosive offense to 11 runs. That's less than half of the Indians' average of six for the first 42 games of the season.

Still, the Indians won three of the four, which is even better than the .738 winning percentage they took into last night's game. The early evidence suggests this is not a one-dimensional team as advertised.

And it definitely isn't a one-dimensional offense. The lineup has only two weak links -- Vizquel and Pena, the hitters every pitcher should get out if he's to have a reasonable chance to beat the Indians.

Collectively, those two were 0-for-6 Monday night. Those half-dozen at-bats, however, paled in comparison to their other visits to the batter's box.

Brown walked four during his seven innings, high for him, but not out of the ordinary against a team like Cleveland.

That two of the walks went to Pena (who once drew only 17 in a season in which he had more than 500 plate appearances) and Vizquel -- in the same inning -- was tantamount to signing a defeat certificate. It was to Brown's credit and good fortune that he was at least able to minimize the damage.

At the moment, and for as long as he holds onto the No. 2 spot in manager Mike Hargrove's batting order, Vizquel is the most envied hitter in baseball. Hitting behind Kenny Lofton (.347, 14 stolen bases) and in front of Carlos Baerga (.328), Belle (.316) and Murray (.335) is a dream setup. It is reminiscent of 1976, when Mark Belanger, a career .228 hitter, batted in front of Reggie Jackson and compiled a .270 average.

When Manny Ramirez (.345, 12 home runs) is in the lineup, which he wasn't Monday night, Pena bats ninth, which puts him in a situation almost as attractive as Vizquel's. But both were hitting just .229 before last night, considerably below their career averages.

That, perhaps, is an indication that pitchers are paying more attention to the weak links than they would normally. It is not a bad strategy.

Despite the highest-scoring offense in the game, the Indians are only eighth in the American League in walks. For good reason.

Every time a hitter takes that unimpeded 90-foot stroll, a pitcher gets one batter closer to another trip through the heart of the lineup. Even when it's one of the big boomers it's not a good idea -- the pitcher is going to see him sooner the next time.

And if it's one of the mosquitoes -- you know it's going to be even more uncomfortable.

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