This time, Indians think they're well-armed for run at Series; Power-packed lineup will be complemented by improved starting pitching; OPENING DAY


Not all that long ago, David Letterman told his "Late Show" audience this: "Well, it's Opening Day for major-league baseball, and we all know what that means -- the Cleveland Indians have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs."

The audience roared with laughter.

With enough banjo hitters in the lineup to field an impressive bluegrass festival, the Indians of years past always had their critics laughing and generations of fans expecting the worst.

Now they have a different, although welcome, problem: Expectations have risen to such levels that nothing less than a World Series championship will satisfy Cleveland.

After five straight American League Central championships -- two of which led them to the World Series -- the Indians enter the 2000 season with their best chance at taking it all since wild-card play was introduced in 1995.

The reason: starting arms.

"Our pitching's just flat-out better than it's been," says Charlie Manuel, who replaced Mike Hargrove as manager after the Indians were knocked out of the playoffs last year by the wild-card Boston Red Sox. "We got people on the mound who can throw."

For the first time in decades, the Indians have three reliable starters. There's ace Bartolo Colon, whose new-and-improved off-speed pitches only make his 100-mph fastballs that much more difficult to hit; there's Charles Nagy, who in 1998 became the first Indians pitcher since Sam McDowell to post five consecutive 10-victory-plus seasons (last year, he went 17-11); and now there's Chuck Finley, obtained from the Anaheim Angels.

If erratic Jaret Wright comes around and Dave Burba comes back strong from a strained forearm, the Indians could find themselves with one of the strongest rotations in the majors.

Besides being a lefty, besides coming off a season in which he was second in the American League in strikeouts to Pedro Martinez with 200, Finley was sought by the Indians for one important reason: He knows how to beat the Yankees. He's 16-9 lifetime against New York, and forget the cliche about taking it one game at a time; general manager John Hart is already looking toward the playoffs.

"We have the same strong team; only all we did was add good players to the roster," says second baseman Roberto Alomar, who had a banner season with the glove and the bat in his first year with Cleveland after leaving Baltimore. "All we've done is become stronger than last year."

The Indians arrived in spring training with their starting lineup all but set. An injury to center fielder Kenny Lofton during last season's playoffs created some uncertainty, but his recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Cleveland was told not to count on him until around the All-Star break. Now, he's projected to start today at Camden Yards.

The bullpen is still a question mark. With closer Mike Jackson now in Atlanta, the Indians will use Steve Karsay and Paul Shuey to protect ninth-inning leads.

Manuel is hoping that, with his offensive machine, those leads will be large. Last year, the Indians became the first team since 1950 to score more than 1,000 runs, and the big guns are back.

Manny Ramirez (44 home runs, 165 RBIs), Jim Thome (33, 108) and Richie Sexson (31, 116) still represent one of the most fearsome threesomes in baseball, and with a promise from Manuel to keep Sexson in the lineup, his numbers should increase.

Add to that the bats of Lofton, outfielder-designated hitter David Justice, (21, 88 in 429 at-bats), shortstop Omar Vizquel and Alomar, and the Indians' offense is potentially even more potent than last year.

"We have some guys who can hit," Justice says. "People can say the window's closing on our chances, but we don't even think like that. That doesn't cross our minds. We have enough talent to win it, and that's what's on our minds."

If the window isn't closing, it certainly will look a lot different after this season -- maybe before. With Ramirez about to become a free agent and the Indians' need for a closer, trade rumors will swirl all year long. Things are already a bit different around the clubhouse with Manuel, the former hitting coach, taking over for Hargrove.

"He's very relaxed, but he wants to win," Alomar says of Manuel. "Mike Hargrove taught me a lot, and I thank him for what he did, but now we're set to win for another manager."

Manuel, who missed part of spring training to have part of his colon removed, is the antithesis of Hargrove. The serious Hargrove kept some distance between himself and his players, but the more laid-back Manuel is a constant presence in the clubhouse.

"Heck, man, I'll wrestle with some of those guys," he says in a heavy drawl. "My approach is, I look at the game as fun, laughter. There's a line you don't cross, and if it goes too far, it's my job to bring it back, because there has to be some discipline. But it also has to be fun. You have to keep everyone wanting to come to the ballpark.

"Look, Mike Hargrove was a winner. But what works for Mike Hargrove doesn't necessarily work for Charlie Manuel, and what works for me might not work for Mike Hargrove."

What might also work for Manuel is something Hargrove never enjoyed when he managed the Indians -- that starting pitching.

"I think with the talent we have on the team, what I have to do is keep our pitching strong, and you do that by keeping it organized," Manuel says. "And we need an atmosphere that we play till the end, that we'll never lose. Last year, we got a big lead and we just kind of slid through. Not this year."

A run on scoring

The Indians last season became the seventh team to score 1,000 runs in a season and the first since 1950:

Runs Team Year

1,067 Yankees 1931

1,065 Yankees 1936

1,062 Yankees 1930

1,027 Red Sox 1950

1,009 Indians 1999

1,004 Cardinals 1930

1,002 Yankees 1937

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