By Mike Lopresti
June 18, 2015 — The good times are rolling for the Indians, and here are three guys to tell us why, and what it might mean.
There’s the man from the front office in Pittsburgh, in town over the weekend to study the hot streak for himself.
The veteran infielder who pulled up his batting average 70 points in 22 games, and can serve as an example of a team that more or less shrugged off early adversity.
The manager, sitting in his office Monday afternoon, weary from the jet lag of a red eye return from his daughter’s wedding in California.
But before they speak, here’s the news, and it has been good lately, from PNC Park to Victory Field.
In Pittsburgh, the Pirates through Tuesday had gone 24-11 since May 9, best in the bigs. They need not bludgeon anyone, so never mind the fact they are 12th in the National League in home runs. Their starting pitchers have the best earned run average in baseball, and their closer almost never blows saves, and the staff just threw five shutouts in six games. Winning is considerably easier when the other team never scores. The Pirates defense has turned the most double plays and their speed keeps the pressure on opponents.
In other words, they find a way. Know who that sounds like? Sure, the Indianapolis Indians.
Ignore the modest 27 home runs in 67 games. The Indians are second in the International League in hitting and on base percentage, first in stolen bases. They might be short on thunder but are long on pluck, putting together a league-best 42-25 record despite trailing or being tied going into the eighth inning in 34 of the 67 games.
So let’s start with manager Dean Treanor, and excuse any yawns.
Flight delays meant he didn’t get to bed until 7:30 a.m. Monday, and he was up by 10:30 for his regular chat with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.
“You guys are playing well,” Hurdle said.
“We’re just trying to keep up with you,” Treanor responded.
“No,” Hurdle came back, “we’re trying to keep up with you.”
Ah, the good humor of winning.
“No. 1, we’ve got some talent here,” Treanor explained of the Indy surge. “We’ve got some of our prospects, and we’re getting more every day.”
To be sure, the primary mission of a minor league team is to prepare players to help the big club. Always has been, always will be. But winning doesn’t hurt, either.
“I think you can’t overstate that,” Treanor said. “I know when you’re in the minor league, at any level, it’s about development. But winning is a part of that. What these guys have shown me here is there’s no quit in this team. We were down 8-0 the other night and they make it 8-7 in a hurry.
“It’s just like any sport. You have to learn how to win; what you have to do at the end of the game, what you have to do early in the game.”
That sort of thing takes the proverbial team chemistry, which is not easy in Class AAA. The players come from hither and yon, and they’d all rather be somewhere else. Pittsburgh, for instance.
“When guys come here from spring training, they’re disappointed they didn’t make the team, for whatever reason. You get caught up in the personal side of that,” Treanor said. “It’s not easy. I get their frustration. I get their disappointment. I get all that, but if you start going selfish here, you’re not going to get where you want to go.”
Treanor said this team has jelled nicely, especially notable with such a heavy influx of Latin players far from home. But even a shiny record needs scrutiny.
“There are selfish at-bats and there are team at-bats, and when the selfish at-bats come in there, we talk about it,” Treanor said. “We’re on a roll, but we had a meeting the other day because guys got a little complacent about that. I saw some selfish at-bats. I saw at-bats taken out to the field, so we don’t make the play. You have to address those issues and can’t let that build and get bigger than what it is. You have to bring them back to why we’re here, and I told them why we’re here. When the phone rings, you’ve got to be ready.”
A particular delight has been the development of middle infielder Alen Hanson in the leadoff spot, getting hits, taking extra bases (sometimes on the risky side), causing trouble for opponents.
“I’ve told him in this room that he has a chance to be a very exciting player in the big leagues,” Treanor said. “You have to like what he brings to the table. He’s got to understand how to maximize what he’s got, and not just take for granted that he can survive on his talent alone. There are things he’s got to do here, but he’s on the radar, that’s for sure.”
Next, let’s hear from the veteran. On May 24, Brent Morel was hitting .175. Now he’s at .245, batting .337 over 22 games. Yeah, that’s a turn-around.
Morel mentioned taking extra practice swings, the key “being able to translate that during the game. Take the work from the cage out to the game and not try to overdo it, but let it happen.
“You’ve got to understand it’s a long year. Whether it’s going good or bad, you can’t let that control you day to day, and what you’ve got to do.”
So here he is, one of the pieces of a confident club. What about the unity, by the way? Morel has been around the block, playing 217 games with the White Sox and Pirates, so he understands.
“We’re all striving for the same thing, so it’s easy to do it together,” he said. “I think ideally, everybody wants to get called up and play at that level. If it doesn’t happen, you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity here and get ready for that time.
“We’re all motivated here to get better and try to establish ourselves as everyday players up there. I think that’s just part of playing at this level; you’re just trying to get better to help this team win, and then hopefully help Pittsburgh win.”
And now to the man sitting in section 112 of Victory Field Sunday, taking notes. The Pirates director of minor league operations enjoyed his visit to Indianapolis, thank you very much. He noted the persistence, the tendency to fight back, the victories. It’s a common theme in the Prates system at the moment. The Double-A Altoona Curve lead their division in the Eastern League.
“When we develop players, they can’t win for the first time in Pittsburgh,” Larry Broadway was saying. “Winning is something you learn how to do, so it’s important.
“When I come to town, obviously you’ve got your eyes on some prospects. But I want to see how the club’s playing collectively. If they’re playing Pittsburgh Pirates baseball, and these guys are.
“Clint always tells us that our guys walk and talk differently than other guys from other organizations who come to us, so that’s a tribute to the process and foundation that has been laid along the way. We couldn’t be more excited about how our guys have done; our cultures and our clubhouses seem to be strong and getting stronger, and it plays out when they get to Pittsburgh.”
His take on the Indians?
“These guys don’t quit. They genuinely think they should win every game, because they prepare hard and they play hard and they believe in themselves.”
The phone hasn’t rung much for call-ups, with the Prates staying relatively healthy. Good for them, good for the Indians’ record, though it means the Indianapolis players must still work and wait.
“When the shuttle bus is running up to Pittsburgh, obviously you’re happy for the guys going up, but it can be disruptive to the team’s culture if there are new bodies here all the time,” Broadway said. “It can also be disruptive if the guys start looking ahead and wonder, am I next? It can detract from taking care of business today, which ultimately is what’s going to get them to Pittsburgh.”
So the victories pile up and the skies get bluer, here and there. But baseball is relentlessly demanding. In Class AAA, the idea is not only to win, but prove yourself every day. The Promised Land is so very, very close. One phone call.
Treanor has worked at this level for a long time, and said he’s never had a closer relationship with his major league manager then he enjoys with Hurdle.
“What these guys don’t understand is that he picks up that box score. He reads the reports, he knows what’s going on,” Treanor said of Hurdle. “He’ll ask me something, and I know he’s looked. I try to impress upon these guys that really, Clint Hurdle is sitting in that dugout. He’s in Pittsburgh, but he’s also in this dugout in Indy.”
Either place, he must like what he’s seeing right now.
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.