3 to Watch: The 'Is this year different in Cleveland?' edition

'We've got a lot of work left to do, but we think we can do it,' closer Chris Perez (right) says. (US Presswire)
They were excited on Thursday in Cleveland, and they had every right to be.

"The Cleveland Indians are showing this is a different year!" Matt Underwood roared on STO, the Indians cable channel, after the final out of a series sweep of the Detroit Tigers .

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A different year, except that the Indians' 44-game record of 26-18 is actually three games worse than their 44-game record last year. And their six-game lead over the Tigers is actually a game less than the seven-game lead they held at the same point in 2011.

And, as the excitable (and impressive) Indians closer Chris Perez pointed out minutes later, the Indians also swept the Tigers in a three-game Progressive Field series early last year.

"Walkoff grand slam and all that stuff," Perez reminded STO sideline reporter Katie Witham. "And we know how it finished. We've got a lot of work left to do, but we think we can do it."

The Indians may well be able to do it, especially if they can avoid the injuries that helped send their season south a year ago.

Someone has to win the American League Central. If it's not going to be the Tigers -- and they still may be the team to beat -- then the Indians have as good a chance as anyone.

That's why this weekend is important. The Indians will be in Chicago Cubs , facing the second-place Chicago White Sox and trying to establish themselves as the not-Tigers with the best chance of winning.

That's why the next two weeks are important. This week's three games with the Tigers began a stretch of five straight series against AL Central opponents.

Memorial Day is Monday, and this week's results ensured that the Indians will still be in first place by then.

But first place on Memorial Day means little. Over the last six years, 17 of the 36 Memorial Day first-place teams -- nearly half -- didn't go on to win the division.

The 2011 Indians were one of those teams. On Memorial Day last year, the Indians were just into a 4-14 stretch that immediately followed (and basically nullified) their 30-15 start.

Avoid that now, and the Indians really can show that this is a different year.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. As Stephen Strasburg finished the fifth inning last Sunday against the San Diego Padres , I got a text message from a scout in attendance. "I think Strasburg is hurt," he wrote. "[He was] shaking his arm all last inning." The Washington Nationals said later that Strasburg felt tightness in his right biceps. Strasburg told reporters it wasn't a big deal, and said he "felt great" after a bullpen session Wednesday. That may be, but the arm issue is just one more reason to watch Strasburg in Nationals at Atlanta Braves , Saturday afternoon (4:05 ET) at Turner Field. It's a big game, anyway, as the Nats and Braves have been separated by no more than 1 1/2 games atop the National League East standings every day for a month now.

2. The Braves didn't want Derek Lowe . The Indians figured he was worth a chance as a fifth starter. As of Thursday night, he was leading the American League with a 2.15 ERA. Justin Verlander (also 2.15) was second, and Jake Peavy (2.39) was third. Lowe and Peavy meet in Indians at White Sox, Saturday afternoon (4:10 ET) at U.S. Cellular Field. Lowe, who turns 39 next week, last beat the White Sox in 2002. Then again, he's only faced them two times since 2004.

3. Ask scouts which teams have the most impressive farm systems, and two of the first names you hear are the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays . Funny, because when Yu Darvish was being posted by his Japanese team last winter, the two teams you heard were the Rangers and Blue Jays. It turned out that the Rangers bid quite a bit more than the Blue Jays, and from early evidence it's looking like it may have been money well spent. Darvish already owns one win over Toronto (seven innings, one run, four hits on April 30 at the Rogers Centre), and he gets another chance in Blue Jays at Rangers, Sunday afternoon (3:05 ET) at Rangers Ballpark.

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