Indians counting on dynamic duo

Indians counting on dynamic duo

CLEVELAND -- Take a look at any of the eight teams currently competing for the 2007 World Series title, and it becomes relatively easy to identify the one or two hitters who need to produce for their respective team to find success.

In Philadelphia, the answer would be Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. In Boston, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are the players to watch, or pitch around, if you are the opposition.

And in Cleveland? Grady Sizemore stands out at the top of the lineup and Travis Hafner holds strong just a couple of spots behind the leadoff man extraordinaire, even if this pair of standouts don't see such individual importance in their own minds.

"The thing about our team and our lineup is, I really believe it's not just about one guy or two guys," Sizemore said. "It's everybody. We work together. It's someone new coming through in our lineup every night."

"Yeah, we have great balance," Hafner added. "One through nine, every hitter in our order is dangerous, and we can score from anywhere in the lineup."

This humility exhibited by Sizemore and Hafner certainly would fall under the admirable header. But the bottom line is that for the Indians to pick up victories in the American League Division Series against the Yankees, and beyond, both of these key components have to produce for Cleveland and produce from the beginning.

During the regular season, Sizemore ranked second amongst Major League leadoff hitters with 74 RBIs, tied for fourth with 22 home runs (24 overall) and finished sixth with a .388 on-base percentage. The left-handed hitter fits into the newer breed of leadoff men, along the lines of Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins or Detroit's Curtis Granderson, by featuring a solid mix of extra-base power and speed.

Sizemore scored 118 runs, ranking him fourth in the AL But a more telling fact was the Indians' 59-26 mark when Sizemore crossed the plate at least once in a game.

"He's really one of baseball's outstanding leadoff hitters," Cleveland third baseman Casey Blake said.

Coming off of 72 home runs and 225 RBIs combined over the past two seasons, not to mention hitting at least .300 in each of his last three full seasons, Hafner's 2007 ride was a bit more uneven. He sandwiched four months of subpar production in between a great April start and stellar September finish.

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That's subpar production, by Hafner's lofty standards. Cleveland's designated hitter still reached 100 RBIs on the final day of the season and saved his best for last, as the Indians made their decisive playoff push, hitting .316, with five home runs, 23 RBIs and a .551 slugging percentage in September.

Since Sept. 22, Hafner has 15 hits in 29 at-bats.

"People will hold him to a higher level than other players, but [Hafner] will always be there producing in our lineup," said Sizemore. "I think he did have a good year, even if he might not have had the year he had previously. But even when he's struggling or not having as much success, he's still a force. His presence in our lineup really helps our team."

"We definitely saw better swings in September, and you saw the results," added Cleveland hitting coach Derek Shelton of Hafner. "Everyone talks about an off year for Travis, but he still had 100 RBIs and [102] walks, and his on-base percentage was [.385]. If that's an off year, it's still a pretty good year."

Shelton also pointed to the patience at the plate shown by Sizemore and Hafner as another benefit that comes along without them even swinging the bat. Even if they don't hit, this duo each drew 100 walks and will be on base to help set up the rest of Cleveland's deep lineup.

Although they both bat from the left side, Hafner and Sizemore won't have their power source taken away by a southpaw on the mound. They get plenty of daily practice in an AL Central featuring talented lefty starters such as Minnesota's Johan Santana, Detroit's Kenny Rogers and Mark Buehrle of the White Sox, not to mention a plethora of talented left-handed relievers.

That workload with lefties could account for Hafner's .274 average against them this year, compared to a .261 mark when facing right-handers. Sizemore's splits featured a .284 average against lefties and a .270 ledger against righties.

Their individual success with left-handed hurlers might have contributed to New York manager Joe Torre's decision to go all right-handed out of his bullpen and leave Ron Villone off the active roster for the ALDS.

Although they don't have one single game of playoff experience between them, the 25-year-old Sizemore and the 30-year-old Hafner drive this Cleveland attack. They will be a focal point for Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and any other New York hurler over the next week, meaning their mere presence in the lineup simply could help the Indians succeed, although the team certainly wouldn't argue with two or three hits apiece on Thursday night.

"They are the center of attention because they get the most attention, but it's a fairly deep lineup when you have six or seven guys who have double-digit home runs," Shelton said. "Casey is hitting ninth and he has 18 home runs, and how many runs has he driven in? Now, we have added Kenny [Lofton] and we have a leadoff hitter hitting in the seventh spot, so we kind of lengthened it out."

"Everyone plays their own part in this lineup," Sizemore added. "I'm trying to get on base and create for those guys, and we will lean on the guys in the middle like Travis and Victor [Martinez]. But we have a lot of weapons. Maybe not big-name weapons, but we have a lot of guys who can do things to help us win games."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.