First-place on June 16: Commence Panic

"There are few things as liberating as having your worst fears realized."

This is a quote from Conan O'Brien towards the end of what was a pretty funny and oddly moving commencement address given at Dartmouth College last weekend. It serves as a nice starting point for a consideration of where the first-place Cleveland Indians stand today. O'Brien went on, in his address, to say that it is how we respond to our failure to achieve an ideal that defines our trajectory...a cliched commentary, but one well delivered by the comedian.

The origin of the current 2011 season is in many ways born out of the realization of our greatest fears dating back to 2007. Up 3 games to 1 in the ALCS, with dueling Cy Young candidates Sabathia and Carmona lined up to face Boston, what is the worst that can happen? Heading into 2008, with all that optimism from 2007 and the players who provided that optimism in place, what is the worst that can happen? A few seasons later, few would argue that our worst fears had been realized. From that 96 win season in 2007, we won fewer than 70 games in 2009 and 2010. We had traded, in back to back years, Cy Young winning pitchers. Our team captain and starting catcher, as well as our starting shortstop, were also gone. Our best hitter was reduced to a mere shell of himself by lingering and mysterious injury, while our most exciting and dynamic player was out and facing an unprecedented microfacture surgery on the underside of his patella.

That is all old news, though. The exciting part is that on May 23rd of this year, following a 3-2 come from behind victory against the Boston Red Sox, we were a stunning 15 games over .500 and had the largest division lead in baseball by a sizeable margin. Back were the glorious days of the late '90s when the standings were just an afterthought to the boxscore itself. What is the worst that can happen? 

What has happened is a widespread offensive drought, badly timed good and bad pitching performances, suddenly questionable defense, a reminder of the importance of good health and a frightening suspicion that fear of forced military servitude might be a compelling motivational factor. The Indians suddenly look a lot more like the team we feared they would be at the outset of the season than the team they actually were for the season's first 50 games.

And yet here we sit in first place. We are no longer 15 games over .500, but we are still +6. We have a chance today to take the series and reclaim sole bragging rights in the AL Central from Detroit. We probably do not have the talent to be the steamroller of a team we were for the season's first 50 games, but that stretch should give us all confidence that we have more talent than the last 20 games. We are probably somewhere in the middle. But where that puts us right now is in the middle of a pennant race even if it is still only June. A year ago we were 12.5 games out of first place. Two years ago we were 6.5 out of first. Three years ago we were 5.5 out. I don't care what is the worst thing that can happen...I'm enjoying what is happening now.

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