- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - When the White Sox took two of three games from Cleveland to start the season, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen heard the snickers while he spoke so highly of the Indians and what they had assembled.

“I said that in Cleveland, when we left Cleveland, and people laughed at me,” Guillen said.

Same old Indians, the critics thought. They’ll be fighting the Kansas City Royals for the AL Central basement again the way they’ve always been in recent years.

That still may wind up being the case. But for now, the division has been flipped on its head. The preseason division favorites in Minnesota and Chicago are looking up at the two teams they’ve grown used to kicking around.

The Indians won 12 of their first 17 games to jump out to an early lead in the division, with the Royals (11-6) right behind them after a 5-4 win over the Tribe on Tuesday night. The last time the Indians and Royals, who combined to lose 382 games over the last two years, were at the top of the division at least 15 games into the season was May 31, 1999.

The White Sox (7-10) and Twins (6-11) have struggled with injuries and sluggish offenses, leaving them eating a little dust three weeks into the season.

“We’re on top and the Twins, White Sox and Tigers are on the bottom,” Indians closer Chris Perez said. “I don’t think anyone could have seen that. I think we’re doing it in different ways. Kansas City has come back a couple times and scored late. We seem to get the lead and never let it go.”

After losing those first two games of the season to the White Sox, the Indians have gone 12-3. Grady Sizemore is giving the team a boost with his return to the field after playing in just 139 games over the last two seasons because of microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Travis Hafner has regained his hitting stroke, batting .353 with four homers, and the Indians’ bullpen has been nothing short of spectacular with lefties Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez setting up Chris Perez. The three have combined for a 0.00 ERA in 21 2-3 innings this season.

“I don’t want to say what they’ve done is kind of flash and mirrors,” Chris Perez said of the Royals, “but I like what we’re doing better.”

Not so fast, Chris. The Royals lead the AL with a .270 batting average and are tied with Cleveland for first in runs scored and first in stolen bases.

Alex Gordon is finally starting to look comfortable in the big leagues, hitting .361 with nine doubles and 12 RBIs, and the Royals’ offense has helped them survive a shaky start by normally dominant closer Joakim Soria.

“Those two teams, there’s nothing flukey about those two teams at the top of the division,” said Detroit manager Jim Leyland, whose Tigers are sitting in third place. “They’re darn good. Cleveland is for real and Kansas City is playing really well. It think it’s going to be tooth-and-nail, it really is.”

The Twins are used to getting out of the gates a little slow. The six-time division champs have earned a reputation as strong finishers with the ability to close large deficits in short time frames. But they’re not used to chasing the Indians and Royals.

“It’s early,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “People make way too much of that stuff. We’re playing good. They’re playing good.”

Star catcher Joe Mauer is on the disabled list with leg problems, second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka is out with a broken leg and slugger Justin Morneau is hitting just .208 while working his way back from a concussion that caused him to miss the last three months of last season.

Joe Nathan has struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery and lost his role as closer, and the Twins are hitting a paltry .230 and have scored fewer runs (50) and hit fewer homers (5) than any team in the majors.

“We haven’t played great yet, but we believe we have a chance to be a pretty good team,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “For sure, we’ve got to start hitting and start to score runs. That’ll take some pressure off our pitching.”

The Twins lost to Baltimore 11-0 on Tuesday night, but nobody in that veteran clubhouse is pushing the panic button this early in the season.

“April’s not it, April’s not it at all,” Twins closer Matt Capps said. “It’s tough having teams target you. I don’t know if you look back over the last 15 or 20 years of major league baseball, but how many teams in first place on April 15 finish in first place? It’s tough.

“If we can be in the mix the middle of the year, maybe the next month or month and a half hover around .500, we can start to get to where we’re playing good baseball and it’ll all even out. When you look up in August and September, I think we’ll be where we want to be.”

The White Sox and Twins are downplaying the slow start and leaning on the “it’s a long season” crutch, fully confident that order will be restored as the season drags on. But the Indians and Royals appear to be brimming with confidence because, for once, they’re not out of the race.

“When a team comes together with winning as its overall goal, everybody is going to outperform their normal selves,” Cleveland’s Shelley Duncan said. “It happens everywhere I’ve ever been. Because of that, people push each other. You want to do well for better reasons than just doing well for yourself. You want to play the game the right way. When you do that, good things happen.”


AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Doug Tucker in Kansas City, Mo., and David Ginsburg in Baltimore, and freelance writer Patrick Rose in Chicago contributed to this report.

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